Travel

When the going gets tough, the tough travel

The stock market is swooning. The economy is wobbling. An election is pending. The future is foggy.

Sounds like a great time to take a vacation. What better way to relieve stress?

In fact, tourists who scrape up the cash this fall and winter will find some of the best bargains since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks devastated the travel industry.

This time it's worry over money, not safety, that is keeping would-be travelers at home. But the result is the same: bargains to tempt the reluctant. You think blue chips are cheap? Check out these recent prices:

* A Las Vegas hotel room for $1 per night. Thursdays, with three-night stay. From Excalibur Hotel & Casino.

* An Eastern Caribbean cruise for $336 per person, double occupancy (with taxes and fees). Five nights round trip from Miami. From Carnival Cruise Lines.

* Hong Kong for $1,542 per person, double occupancy (with taxes and fees). Five nights, including hotel and round-trip air from Los Angeles. From Pleasant Holidays.

In the next few months, the travel industry is "going to be in a very difficult time," said John Monahan, president and chief executive of the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau.

It already is, in many quarters.

As fast as U.S. airlines drop flights, demand drops faster. Some travel agents report that cruise bookings have fallen by more than half, says industry newsletter Cruise Week.

Even the wealthy seem to be losing their nerve.

Abercrombie & Kent recently ran a "buy one, get one free" offer for adventure cruises that start at $7,995 per person in New Zealand, Melanesia and other destinations. Über-luxe Crystal Cruises was throwing in free airfare to Miami for Los Angeles guests on Panama Canal itineraries.

Responding to the malaise, tour operator Asia Transpacific Journeys, based in Boulder, Colo., has said it will waive cancellation penalties for bookings through Nov. 14.

"Your investment portfolio may not come with a money-back guarantee, but now your travel dreams do," it said in a news release.

In this environment, uncertainty is your friend. When in doubt, travel companies discount. A look around:

Cruises and tours: Cruises are at the fore of price cratering, especially in the Caribbean, where hurricane season continues through November.

"We are focusing more on deals than we ever have in five years," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of Cruisecritic.com, a consumer information website.

Brown says she's astonished by fares as low as $25 per night for Bahamas cruises, adding, "They're desperate to fill the ship." She has also seen Mediterranean cruises as low as $599, plus airfare, for seven nights. (Newer ships still command top dollar.)

Even the holidays are shaping up to be different this year.

"Usually, Christmas cruises and New Year's cruises are sold out by now," Brown said earlier this month. "But not this year."

Despite the dollar, tours and packages can be reasonable too, even in Europe, because winter is the low season. It's not uncommon to find six-day air-hotel packages in Europe for less than $1,500 per person, double.

Hotels: Room rates are falling, but the other news is inventive deals.

Starwood Hotelssays that through Dec. 30, you can pay a rate equal to your birth year (i.e. $62 if you were born in 1962) for the second or third night of your stay at some Sheratons, Westins and other brands in the Northeast and Canada (with limited availability and other restrictions).

San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels will refund up to $25 to cover your airline's checked-bag fee under its "We Got Your Bag" offer.

Some extras really add up. Millennium Hotels and Resorts has been offering food and beverage credits of $100 per night at some of its locations, including in Boulder, Colo.

Flights: Talk about head winds. Airfares, although dropping for some dates, remain fairly high. That's especially true for the holidays, when seats are much in demand.

Domestic fares were recently up an average 25% over last year for Thanksgiving and Christmas, according to Farecast.com, which tracks airfares.

In an analysis for The Times, Farecast found it was more expensive to fly from LAX to 64 of 67 cities during the holidays this year than last. Only Austin, Texas, Houston and San Juan, Puerto Rico, were cheaper. San Francisco flights were up 56%; New York was up 33% from last year.

Blame high fuel costs and flight cutbacks. "Tens of millions of seats that were flying last year will not be in the air this year," said Hugh Crean, Farecast's general manager.

American Airlines, for instance, has said it expects to fly 8.5% fewer domestic seats in 2009 than it did in 2008 and 14% less than in 2007.

Still, the deals are out there, and flexibility is key. You'll be surprised at how much you can save by moving your travel dates a day or two.

Hawaii: "Hawaii has always been a pricey destination," says Monahan of the visitor bureau. It became even more so after ATA and Aloha Airlines stopped passenger service last spring, sending round-trip fares from the mainland soaring to more than $1,000.

The good news, however, is that fares to the islands have come back down, dropping to as low as $383, along with lodging rates. They're so low, in fact, that many Hawaiian air-hotel packages are cheaper now than last fall and winter, Monahan said.

The latest deals from more than a dozen suppliers are listed on the bureau's website, www.gohawaii.com. Generally, the cheapest time to travel to Hawaii is fall through May, providing you avoid the holidays and spring break.

But even at Christmas and New Year's, you may get a break this year.

Despite higher airfares during the holidays, a Los Angeles couple booking a five-day Honolulu vacation will pay, on average, $98 less over Thanksgiving and only $110 more over Christmas than last year because hotels are cheaper, Farecast found.

A final caution: Don't lose your head over discounts; they may actually be a fire-sale for a shaky business. Several airlines and tour operators have gone out of business this year. So if a deal seems too good to true, be wary, and make sure your travel insurance covers financial default of your travel supplier.

Now get out there.

Engle is a Times staff writer.jane.engle@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Comments
Loading