With the economy in distress, there may be no cheaper time to travel than this winter as a sharp drop in demand forces airlines, hotels and cruise companies to slash fares, cut rates and lower fees.
In what may be a silver lining during a season of economic angst, travelers are finding some of the best deals in recent memory, from half-priced resorts to rock-bottom airfares.
"These are glorious times for travelers who have a job and the money," said Chris McGinnis, a travel consultant.
An off-peak, round-trip ticket from Los Angeles International Airport to Honolulu on Delta Air Lines was selling for $244 last week, the lowest it had been in recent memory. No one could recall average fares to Hawaii falling below $300.
These fares hovered at $800 to $1,000 in the summer.
So few seem to be traveling this winter that Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., has been offering three free hotel nights and three days of theme park admission for booking a four-day stay. Some resorts in Mexico have slashed hotel rates by half or thrown in free meals.
It's not unusual for holiday fares to be on sale at this time of the year, and travel is still expensive during peak times, such as the day before Thanksgiving and Christmas.
But with job losses escalating and job security increasingly uncertain, more people are holding back their travel spending, leaving airlines, hotels and resorts with even fewer customers and facing the prospect of another financial crisis. Many families -- if they are traveling -- are taking either Thanksgiving or Christmas vacations, but not both.
For airlines, the drop in oil prices is bringing down fuel expenses, but that might not be enough if the economy continues to slide. Skyrocketing oil prices in the first half of this year pushed several smaller airlines to file for bankruptcy protection or go out of business altogether.
This time, it could be a sharp drop in passengers that grounds some airlines. "It's very bad," said Joe Brancatelli, a business travel consultant who runs the website Joesentme.com.
"I don't see anyone saying that the economy is going to be good next year, and if the economy isn't good, airlines aren't going to have profitable passengers," he said.
American Airlines, the world's largest carrier and the busiest at LAX, said last week that 745,000 fewer passengers boarded its planes in October compared with the same month last year.
It's not just airfares. Many cruises, hotels and vacation packages are cheaper than they've been in years.
"It looks like for January and February, we're seeing the lowest cruise fares since post-Sept. 11," said Mike Driscoll, editor of the industry newsletter Cruise Week.
Since August, he said, prices for cruises in the Caribbean, Mexico and other winter destinations have fallen 8% to 10% on average. On some ships, travelers have been able to sail for less than $50 per person per day.
Norwegian Cruise Line on Friday was offering a 12-day eastern Mediterranean cruise in January starting at $579 per person before taxes. Some Caribbean cruises cost less than $100 for three days, with $200 in onboard credit thrown in, Driscoll said.
Many cruise lines have waived or reduced deposits or relaxed cancellation deadlines.
Luxury Crystal Cruises, which typically charges $250 or more per person per day, has been throwing in free airfare from Los Angeles for some Panama Canal sailings.
Vacationing in Hawaii, always a pricey destination, has become cheaper. You can buy multiday trips for less than $1,000, including airfare.
Travelers enjoying lower airfares
Airlines and hotels are cutting prices and offering bargains to lure strapped consumers in a sluggish economy.
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