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Southwest triggers sales on late-winter faresBy DAVID KOENIG, AP Airlines Writer David Koenig, Ap Airlines Writer Fri Jan 23, 5:14 pm ET

DALLAS – Major airlines moved Friday to match a fare sale started by Southwest Airlines Co., as the carriers worry about weak demand for travel during a recession.

Southwest said that through Monday it would sell seats to almost everywhere it flies starting at $49 to $99 each way. Tickets must be bought at least 14 days before flying, travel must be completed by March 11 and seats are limited, the airline said.

AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, Continental Airlines Inc., US Airways Group Inc., JetBlue Airways Corp. and Delta Air Lines Inc. matched the Southwest prices, officials at those carriers said. UAL Corp.'s United Airlines has its own fare sale that began on Jan. 16, but was still studying Southwest's fare sale, spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said.

A three-day sale by AirTran ended Thursday night.

Dallas-based Southwest launched the sale shortly after announcing Thursday that it lost money in the fourth quarter, its second-straight losing quarter after 69 straight profitable ones.

Chief Executive Gary Kelly said Thursday that there was "notable softness" in February and March bookings. The day before, AMR Chief Financial Officer Thomas Horton said March looked particularly weak.

Airlines often match their rivals' fares rather than risk losing price-sensitive passengers.

Last year, airlines raised prices several times and imposed new fees on checked bags to counter rising fuel prices. Although fuel prices have fallen sharply, most of the fees are still in effect.

Meltdown 101: Travel industry vs. the 'staycation'By RYAN NAKASHIMA, AP Business Writer Ryan Nakashima, Ap Business Writer Thu Jan 22, 10:20 am ET

When the economy goes into the tank, people stay at home. But for those still willing to see what's out there, there are stupendous deals to be had.

Hotels, resorts and cruise lines are offering rock-bottom rates and doing everything they can to fill rooms, including teaming up with airlines to offer jaw-dropping package deals. And savvy consumers can reap the benefits.

A case in point: This reporter recently booked a Waldorf Astoria suite in the Palm Springs, Calif., area through Priceline.com for about $130 after taxes -- in the middle of a holiday weekend, no less. Although we didn't know where we'd end up, the 900-square-foot "Spa Villa" where we ended up staying is listed next weekend for $679 a night.

The Walt Disney Co. is also offering a seven-night stay at its Walt Disney World resorts, including seven days of park tickets, for the price of four nights and four days of tickets. And it's throwing in a $200 gift card that can be spent on food and merchandise.

According to one travel agency Web site's spokeswoman, travel deals haven't been better since the aftermath of 9/11.

Here are some questions and answers about what kind of deals are out there and how to snag them.

Q: Why are companies offering such cut rates now?

A: Around the world, occupancy and room rates are down as business travel has fallen and vacationers are staying at home because of the recession. According to Smith Travel Research, occupancy in North American hotels was down 10.3 percent in November from a year ago, to 52.3 percent. The average daily rate was down 3.3 percent, to $101.84, while the revenue per available room was down 13.3 percent, to $53.28.

In other words, hotels are about half-full these days. And if you are a paying customer, management is willing to cut you a deal.

Q: Why are a hotel's official, posted rates often so much higher than what you can find through a travel agent or travel Web site?

A: Hotels are averse to cutting their posted rates, because some people are willing to pay that price -- and those people help the bottom line.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, hotels slashed rates and suffered for years afterward, according to Smith Travel Research spokesman Jeff Higley. Now they are more likely to throw in freebies to keep customers happy.

"Rather than lowering their rates, they try to put packages together to add value to the rate," Higley said.

So, if you can't score a rate cut, Higley says, look for free valet parking, free Internet access or a free breakfast -- hotels may be willing to throw these freebies in.

Q: Back to the bottom line: How do I snag a cheap rate?

A: Some Web sites are offering extreme discounts on hotel rooms. Priceline.com is now offering hotel rooms in New York at 3-star establishments for $99 and in Washington, D.C., for $59. (This reporter can't remember staying anywhere in New York for less than $100, ever.)

The catch is that users have to submit their price and credit card information before knowing which exact hotel they will be staying at.

"Occupancies are under pressure and prices are generally coming down," Priceline.com Inc. Chief Executive Jeffrey Boyd told The Associated Press.

Because hotels and airlines remain anonymous until after the purchase, they can maintain their posted rates, while selling empty inventory at the last minute for big discounts -- up to 50 percent off for hotel rooms up to 60 percent off airfare.

Spokeswoman Jeanenne Tornatore of Orbitz Worldwide Inc., which owns Cheaptickets.com and Orbitz.com, said even openly posted hotel rates are falling. In Las Vegas, rates are down in some cases more than 50 percent -- and in Hawaii, around 40 percent -- since late last year.

"Some of those 4-star Las Vegas hotels that used to go for $200 to $250 are in the $80 to $120 range," she said.

Vegas.com, owned by the Greenspun Family of Companies, said room rates in January have declined 33 percent from a year ago, to $92 from $138 a night on average.

"There are some unbelievable values right now," said Bryan Allison, Vegas.com's vice president of marketing. "There are food and beverage credits, gambling credits. It is definitely stimulating demand."

Cruise lines are also slashing prices. A five-night Caribbean cruise from Carnival Corp., leaving from Mobile, Ala., is on offer at Orbitz for $249 with a $200 onboard coupon booklet -- 75 percent off the brochure price.

Q: How can companies offer such deals and survive?

A: In many cases, hotels benefit just by your presence, in case you spend money on something else, like room service, a meal at a restaurant or spa treatments.

Disney Chief Financial Officer Tom Staggs said last month that the seven-for-four deal was "a good trade-off." Presumably, once at the resorts, guests spend all day in the park buying hot dogs, ice cream, bottled water and souvenirs.

The discount amounts to about 25 percent off, Staggs said, and really was no better than a deal the company offered back in 2003. What's more, he said, advance bookings in the six months to this coming March, which at one point had been down 10 percent from a year earlier, were down just 6 percent by early December, thanks in large part to the deal.

Q: Will prices bounce back -- and the deals evaporate -- much like after 9/11?

A: That's not likely.

Oppenheimer & Co. hotel and casino analyst David Katz points out that the circumstances behind the travel deals are very different this time around.

After Sept. 11, 2001, Katz said, "it was a situation almost solely driven by a fear of flying." This time, consumers have lost trillions of dollars in home equity and stock holdings -- not to mention, in many cases, their jobs.

"This is entirely different," he said. "It's an economic matter rather than a fear matter. Post-9/11, people and companies had the money. Now they just don't."

Famed Louvre museum embraces comics for first timeBy DHEEPTHI NAMASIVAYAM, Associated Press Writer Dheepthi Namasivayam, Associated Press Writer Thu Jan 22, 10:21 am ET

PARIS – Comics, long a staple of the French literary diet, are moving to center stage.

From Asterix and Obelix to Tin Tin to the brooding comic book hero Largo Winch, the French public has long adored their cartoon heroes. Now the visual world of comics is being embraced for the first time by Paris' Louvre museum.

In the hazy lighting and hollow stone walls of the Louvre's Medieval hall, Bernar Yslaire brought the latest character from his comic strip "The Sky above the Louvre" -- a tempestuous young revolutionary -- to life.

The Belgian cartoonist, 52, invited the live audience into his digital world of comics, where images are created not with a sketchpad and crayon, but at the click of a mouse.

"My comic strip is done exclusively on a digital screen, there is no paper at all," Yslaire says. "We are in the 21st century of communication."

Using his "electronic pencil," each carefully poised click slowly revealed his protagonist: first the raging, raven eyes, then a sharp, angular nose, unkempt curly hair and finally the broad shoulders.

The exhibition, "Small Design: The Louvre invites Comics" opened Thursday. Comic strips from five authors will be displayed, with Yslaire, who gave a display Wednesday, performing live again April 3.

Three works have already been completed: "Glacial Period," by Nicolas de Crécy, Marc-Antoine Mathieu's "The Basement of the Louvre" and Eric Liberge's "Odd Hours."

Yslaire's comic book will be completed in May 2009, while Hirohiko Araki's manga, "Rohan at the Louvre," is set for release next year.

In each of the works, the Louvre is the principal location. Yslaire's story takes place in 1793, where the painter David is ordered to create a portrait for Maximiliem Robespierre in the newly inaugurated Louvre.

Yslaire's comic strip, only in sepia or black and white, reflects the somber tones of an incumbent revolution. Occasional splashes of red, he says, "remind readers that there is life, blood, sadness and love."

What place, one might wonder, do animated characters and laconic dialogue have in one of the world's most prestigious museums?

Curator Fabrice Douar says the initiative is not about "modernizing" the Louvre, nor about "validating" comic strips as an art, nor about engaging with the youth.

"We wanted to present this art with the goal of showing its ... aesthetic quality, but also its quality in the sense of the confrontation between the world of the Louvre and this alternate universe, which is that of comics," he says.

Each comic strip was chosen to reflect the diversity of the art.

"Comics are not just something lighthearted ... there are also contemporary comics, which is more about the creation -- there are graphic novels, detective stories and manga," he adds.

The exhibition hopes to break down stereotypes not just about comic books but also about world-famous museums like the Louvre.

"Just like comics are not only fun or for entertainment, the Louvre equally is not dusty and boring," Douar says.

NYC interactive visitor center unveiledWed Jan 21, 1:48 pm ET

NEW YORK – A new Web site and visitor center partnered by Google and Travelocity will help tourists and residents find New York City's best shows and hottest restaurants.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg joined tourism officials Wednesday to introduce the NYC Information Center in midtown Manhattan.

"Our city's travel and tourism industry is as important today as ever, and we've invested in new tools to attract visitors and formed innovative partnerships with brands such as Google and Travelocity to promote the city to people around the world," Bloomberg said.

The officials also introduced a new Web site, http://www.NYCgo.com, that will feature a comprehensive calendar of the city's cultural events.

The new $1.8 million visitor center, a few blocks north of Times Square, replaces one that closed in July. Wall-mounted information kiosks available in nine languages will offer transportation tips and services. The center will also sell MetroCards and tickets to top attractions.

The Web site will allow visitors to create personal profiles and review venues and events. They will be able to use Travelocity to book hotels, flights and car rentals.

Both the visitor center and the Web site will offer Google Maps for trip planning. At the center, interactive tables will allow users to plan a custom tour and then visualize it using Google Earth on the video wall.

"New York City's innovative implementation of Google tools will improve the experience for both visitors and locals," said Google Senior Vice President Tim Armstrong.

Russia: No more space tourists after 2009Wed Jan 21, 11:50 am ET

MOSCOW – Russia's space chief says there won't be any more tourists headed to the international space station after this year.

Anatoly Perminov tells the government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta there will be no room for paying tourists because the space station's crew is expanding from three members to six.

Perminov says in the interview published Wednesday that "there won't be any possibility for making tourist flights to the station after 2009."

Since 2001, six private "spaceflight participants" have paid $20 million and up for trips to the orbiting station aboard Russian-built craft.

U.S. software designer Charles Simonyi is scheduled to be last such space tourist -- and the first to make to two flights -- when he blasts off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in March.

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