Last year was the year of the travel bargain, but this year may not offer such steals.
“The industry is turning around; it is not completely recovered,” says Steve Brock, owner of Sunnyland Tours Inc., in Springfield. “There is not as much aggressive discounting as there has been.”
According to a survey by Cruise Lines International Association, North America’s largest cruise industry organization, travel agents are optimistic about the coming year, with 75.7 percent anticipating an increase in sales.
But don’t fret, there are deals to be had. If this snowy weather has you dreaming of a sunny destination and you hope to snag a bargain, then now is time to start planning. Here are 20 travel tips for 2010, everything from useful Web sites to general travel advice.
1. Book early, says Brock.
The perception is it pays, particularly with cruises, to book at the last minute but that’s not true. Airfares go up so even if people get a better deal on the cruise, they will likely pay more for airfare and may not get the room or cruise they want, he says.
2. In terms of airfare, traveling in the middle of the week may get you a better deal than traveling on a Friday or Monday, says Kent Boyd, spokesman with Springfield-Branson National Airport.
But the most important thing to realize is you must purchase a ticket at least three weeks in advance.
“If you purchase within 21 days of flight date, ticket prices start going up really fast. Every day you get closer to departure the price really starts to go up. I tell people plan ahead, six, eight weeks, the prices tend to be a lot lower,” Boyd says.
3. If you’re still worried about buying early, “many programs offer price protection — if the price goes down you can still get the lower rate. Generally that comes with trip protection insurance you might buy,” says Brock.
4. If you’re willing to drive to a surrounding airport, you can compare airfares at area airports if you go to ITASoftware.com. This site allows users to compare airports that range from 25 to 300 miles away at both their departure and arrival destination. Log in as a guest. Be sure to calculate gas, time off work and parking when deciding which airport to fly out of.
5. Some of the best international deals right now are in Mexico. Jamaica and the Dominican Republic are good values, too, Brock says.
6. In the Dominican Republic, try the Samaná Peninsula over the popular Punta Cana resorts, suggests Sara Morrow, assistant editor at Budget Travel magazine.
“It’s right on the edge of being developed, so now is the time to go before the price goes up. It’s a great time to see it,” she says.
In Punta Cana, the average resort costs $271 a night, compared to $168 a night in the Samaná Peninsula, Morrow says.
Vietnam is another international bargain destination this year, she says.
7. Domestically, Portland, Ore., and Las Vegas, Nev., are economical destinations, she says.
Vegas has long been a bargain, but it’s even better now.
“The average nightly hotel rate dropped 24 percent in the last year,” she says. “In December, ’09, we had 43 casino hotels offer rooms for less than $40 a night.”
While the economy plunged, Las Vegas’ room capacity increased by 14,000 in 2009.
Portland added 900 hotel rooms to the downtown area in the past couple years, Morrow says.
8. Pack light. Airlines are imposing hefty checked bag fees: most charge $15-$25 for the first and $25-$35 for the second. If you have to check a bag, share with your spouse. If you tend to load up on souvenirs, one option is to take old clothes with you that you can leave behind after your vacation and fill your suitcase with souvenirs. Or take a folded up bag in your carry-on and then check your carry-on on the way back so you only pay to check a bag once. You may want to mail souvenirs home (depending on where you travel).
9. Pack your lunch. Eating in the airport or on a plane is expensive; leave drinks behind because you can’t take them through security.
10. Check out Bing.com, which has some unique features. This search engine has a “Flexible Search” and if you select a 30-day range, it will give you a graph showing when airfares are high or low during that month. It predicts if airfares will drop and lets customers know how confident it is in its prediction. For example, a recent search from St. Louis to L.A., showed it was 60 percent confident fares would drop. A search from Springfield to Portland, Ore., recommended buying now because fares were rising.
11. Consider an all-inclusive resort, says Deana Crouch, assistant vice president of leisure sales at Great Southern Travel. You know the costs up front and don’t risk going over budget. Everything from food to entertainment, tips and alcoholic beverages are included, she says.
12. When traveling internationally, see what packages are offered by various airlines. Some airlines, such as Cathay Pacific or Singapore Airlines, offer good vacation packages on their Web sites. Right now for $999, Singapore Airlines is offering roundtrip airfare from L.A., airport transfers, daily breakfast, four nights accommodations, complimentary “Hop-on Bus” pass in Singapore and 50 percent off certain tours.Prices do not include tax of approximately $110. Add $50 for U.S. departures Friday through Sunday. By contrast, a search on Travelocity found the flight alone on Singapore airlines was $1,230.
13. Consider a cruise.
“One of the best ways to travel is on a cruise and not just your Caribbean cruise, but in Europe, South America, Hawaii and Australia. You unpack one time and get to see several different cities and ports. Your food and entertainment is included,” Brock says.
Cruises are a good deal this year, says Crouch, particularly to Alaska, Mexico and the Caribbean.
14. When booking a cruise, be sure to tell your travel agent if you have taken this cruise line before as some offer discounts for repeat cruisers. If you’re active or retired military, tell your travel agent, too, since some offer discounts for military personnel.
15. Skip the Passport Card and get a real passport, says Brock. The Passport Card is a travel document that allows Americans to enter the country from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda at land border crossings or sea ports-of-entry. It is less expensive than a passport, but if a passenger gets sick on a cruise and has to fly back to the United States, they’re in trouble. A passport lasts 10 years so it’s worth the investment, he says.
16. Bring your own pillow. Beginning May 1, American Airlines will charge $8 for a pillow and blanket in coach class on most flights. JetBlue and US Airways charge $7 for a blanket-and-pillow set. It may not sound like much, but it’s easily the cost of breakfast.
17. To save yourself time searching for a ticket, use a search engine that compares various flights. There are many, but here are a few: www.momondo.com; www.skyscanner.com; www.sidestep.com; www.kayak.com.
18. If you’re a student or have a student-age child, consider buying an International Student Identity Card, which provides a slew of discounts to hostels, museums, buses, trains and tours. These cards provide many discounts in Europe and elsewhere, but even in America, such as 20 percent off certain tours in New York City. Any full-time student aged 12 years and over, at high school, college or university is eligible. Anyone under 26 can get an International Youth Travel Card, for similar deals. A full-time teacher or professor can get the International Teacher Identity Card, for similar services. Learn more at: www.isic.org
19. Hotels eat a big part of your budget, so spend time researching them. You’re likely to get a good deal from sites like Hotwire.com, but you don’t know what hotel you’re booking until you’ve reserved it, so if you don’t like uncertainty, this may not be for you.
A hotel price comparison site is at www.hotelscombined.com, which searches numerous listings and allows you to book directly through the hotel. If you find a rate you like, before you book, call the hotel and see if you can get a better discount.
20. Don’t care where or when you go, just want to get out of town? Go to http://www.airfarewatchdog.com and type in SGF for Springfield or BKG for Branson. The site will pull up a list of deals available (usually within the next two weeks). A recent search showed roundtrip airfare from Springfield to Baltimore for $180 or $146 to Asheville, N.C. Branson to Orlando was $138.