Americans really need a vacation.
The past few years have been bleak for the U.S. travel industry, but this year, unlike housing and jobs, there are signs that the travel business is picking up.
Despite jitters about the economy, more than 67 percent of Americans say they plan to take a summer vacation this year, up from 62 percent in 2010, according to a June survey of 1,000 adults, conducted by a unit of Choice Hotels International. And Americans are expected to spend more-- $703.6 billion in 2011, according to a May report from the U.S. Travel Association, up 7.3 percent over 2010.
Online bookings for all travel by U.S. consumers (increasingly the most widely used method) are also up; an estimated 94 million U.S. consumers will book travel online this year, compared with 87 million last year.
But frugal travelers may be in for sticker shock. After hitting a low point in 2009, airfares climbed throughout the year, stoked by rising fuel prices and a big spike in ancillary fees for everything from extra luggage to take-off and landing charges at international airports. Those annoying fees can really add up: $22 billion last year, up 38 percent from 2009, with U.S. carriers reaping the biggest rewards.Therewards. The average price of a domestic round-trip ticket this summer ballooned 16 percent to $561, according to Bing Travel. International fares increased 14 percent to $1,250 on average. Meanwhile, hotel prices have also jumped as occupancy rates have climbed: average summer hotel rates will rise 7 percent over last year to $242.
This doesn’t mean savvy travelers can’t find bargains. By considering new destinations, shopping smarter, and doing your homework, you can make travel dollars go further. Here are six smart ways to stretch your budget.
1. Get Out Your Passport
For a classic European experience without the classic European price, try Argentina, says John Clifford, an international travel expert and president of InternationalTravelManagement.com. The country has vineyards, mountains, lakes, cosmopolitan cities and it’s “incredibly affordable,” according to Clifford, who specializes in maximizing travelers’ money. A trip to Argentina will cost a U.S. traveler up to 40 percent less than a trip across the pond.
News accounts of economic upheaval and violent political protests don’t make Greece seem all that appealing right now. This is in the second year of a significant tourism slump, which means good deals for smart travelers. Hotels that once cost several hundred euros a night have plummeted to almost half that, including some on the country’s famed islands. Skip the more popular islands like Mykonos or Santorini; it’s easier to find deals on Hydra or Corfu. Bratsera Hotel, on Hydra, has dropped its typical 400-euros-a-night rate to just 270 euros for the summer.
Despite talk of inflation in China, it’s a great deal for tourists with dollars to spend. Clifford suggests exploring Shanghai, a booming city that was further modernized to accommodate the World Expo it hosted. With its futuristic skyline, Shanghai is a fast train ride from secluded Buddhist temples, offering two distinct experiences from one home base. Discount hotel websites offer rooms in the five-star Park Hyatt for less than $400, down from its standard $700 rate. An explosion in new hotels has meant a surplus of rooms in the wake of the Expo. Even during this peak travel season, rooms at new boutique hotels URBN Shanghai and The Waterhouse at South Bund start around $200 a night.
When many Americans think of Mexico these days, they think of drug violence. But many Mexican destinations still provide a peaceful, relaxing experience, says travel guru Tom Parsons, CEO of BestFares.com. Cancun is Parson’s pick as bargain destination of the summer. With airfare, associated fees and four nights in a five-star beachside hotel bundled together, rates have plunged to $500 from $600 per person, compared with prices starting around $800 a few years ago. Crime rates in resort towns like Cancun have remained significantly lower than near borders and along known trafficking routes, according to a U.S. State Department travel advisory.
2. Shop on Tuesday
Do you usually wait to search for plane tickets over the weekend, when you’re out of the office and have some time to relax? That’s what the airlines are counting on. Most discounted fares are posted on Tuesdays, with sales running through Thursday. If you wait until the weekend hits, the best prices will be long gone. Instead, invest some time in monitoring sales midweek. Parsons suggests waiting until Tuesday afternoon to jump on deals; by about 4 p.m., airlines have had a chance to check out their competitors’ rates and post discounts of their own, giving consumers more affordable options. Track prices during this window each week until you find something you’re willing to settle on.
And between now and mid-September, watch for a fare fight, Parsons says. Virgin America, Southwest, Frontier and Airtran all are offering discounts, driving down each others’ prices and bigger airlines’ fares.
3. Consider a Fall Vacation
Does your summer vacation really need to happen this summer? If you can hold off even a couple of weeks, you can save big, Parsons says. Prices of short domestic flights on discount airlines like Southwest could fall to just $40 each way for September and October trips – up to $150 cheaper than peak summer prices. Hotel rates drop, too. Early fall is among the slowest times of the year for the hospitality business and is generally the least expensive travel window. For international flights in early fall, check prices beginning in July. Parsons singled out Paris as a bargain spot, and predicts discounted flights to European cities will emerge starting next month.
But if you’re set on summertime, shoot for the last two weeks of August. Airfares typically drop considerably during this pre-Labor Day span, when kids in certain parts of the country return to school. Airlines assume family vacation season is over but still need passengers to fill those empty seats.
The idea that booking early will save you money is completely outdated, according to Parsons. “It just does not exist like that anymore,” he says. Instead, the best deals are typically available within 30 days or so before your desired travel date, at least for domestic flights. Any farther out than that, airlines sometimes hold off on posting cheaper fares. International travelers should start hunting for deals a bit earlier and should have travel plans mostly figured out 30 days before departure, Parsons said.
5. Don’t Give Up on Getting a Deal
While fares overall are still high compared to last summer, ticket prices from the U.S. to some European cities have dropped significantly in price since earlier in 2011– by $300 or $400, sometimes up to $700 or $800, Parsons says. The same is true for selected domestic flights; coast-to-coast flights started the year priced around $500 and are now available for at little as $300. Airlines often try to lure early-bird ticket-buyers by posting lower fares only through early June, making it appear as though prices will be higher for the rest of the summer. What consumers don’t always realize is that is that airlines often reduce prices as the summer goes on.
If you were snookered into buying when prices were higher, try to find a less expensive flight on the same airline – particularly if you’re traveling internationally. If you find a price difference larger than your ticket change fee (usually about $250), eat the fee to swap your tickets.
6. Get A Little Help From Your ‘Friends’
Social networking has revolutionized travel along with everything else. Afar Connect is an online bulletin board, where users can post specific questions (such as where to find good deals) about their trips. Other users familiar with the destination, in many cases locals, offer their recommendations. Vacation Relation links travelers whose itineraries overlap, aiming to bolster social experiences, and allow advice swapping. Members of Gogobot can post their reviews and photos for other travelers. The site encourages users to sync their Gogobot login with Facebook and Twitter accounts so that friends’ reviews rise to the top. Vacation Relation and Gogobot are still operating in their beta versions, but work just fine for travelers.
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