There Is Room at the Inn, Even So Close to Christmas

Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

December is here, and that means you are suddenly being confronted with the painful panic of holiday travel decisions.

Myriad possibilities assault you. You could go skiing in Colorado or St. Moritz. You could sun-worship on the beaches of Hawaii or the Caribbean.

You make a few calls, all to no avail. You can get a flight to Aspen, but it's an expensive ticket. And even with the air fare, you can't book a hotel room; Aspen is full. Your travel agent says you might be able to get that room in Hawaii, but also says that you can't get even a single seat on an airplane.

The travel clock is ticking and you have nowhere to go, right?

Wrong.

There are plenty of great places to go for the holidays, and you can still get some great deals. You just need to know where to look.

Here are some last-minute holiday travel suggestions for this year:

First, there are organizations and travel clubs that specialize in last-minute, deeply discounted travel. At this time of the year, you're not the only one who might be panicking.

Hotels, airlines and some cruise lines share your desperation. An empty room, seat or cruise berth is their worst nightmare. When a room, seat or berth goes unsold, that's income those companies will never realize, a loss of revenue they can never recoup.

At some times of the year supply clearly outdistances demand, explaining why so many discount fares and rates are offered by airlines and hotels during soft travel periods in January and February each year.

But at many destinations and on popular airline routes, anticipated demand doesn't always materialize, and more often than not, this happens at the last minute.

How do you find out about that room that just opened in Aspen or that two airline seats suddenly became available to Maui?

You can start by being your own best travel agent. As peak seasons approach, check with hotels directly.

Do not call those toll-free 800 numbers of the larger chains. There are two good reasons for this. First, most of the time the toll-free numbers simply connect you to a sort of central clearinghouse for a hotel chain.

More often than not, their information on available rooms is not up to date because each hotel only allows 800-number services to sell a certain number of rooms--but not all of the rooms that are, or could be, available for sale.

Another good reason for not using the toll-free numbers is price. There's a good chance--in fact, there's an excellent chance--that if a room is indeed available, you will be quoted a high, or perhaps the highest, published rate for that room.

This is the one time you should avoid using the toll-free number. Instead, spend a few dollars and contact the hotel you had in mind directly. It's been my experience that you can almost always negotiate a better rate with hotels directly than you can by using a travel agent or going through a toll-free reservation system.

Especially at this time of year, hotels will charge what they think the market will bear, but if a hotel or resort suddenly finds itself confronted with a dozen unsold rooms right before the holidays, it will be eager to drop its rates significantly to fill them.

If the thought of holiday travel, or schlepping through crowded airports and suffering untold delays, turns you off (and why shouldn't it?), consider a great mini-vacation idea.

Think of the best, most exclusive hotel or resort in your own community. With few exceptions, those hotels will all have empty rooms during the holidays. And almost all of them have created interesting Christmas vacation packages (extensions of their already discounted weekend rates), with lots of extra goodies thrown in, ranging from Christmas parties and midnight caroling to special programs for children.

Hotel Christmas packages can make great gifts. I've also found that during holiday periods, because fewer people are staying at the hotels, the service tends to be better.

Again, it's better to check with the hotels directly about packages, and to negotiate your own deal. At this time of year the hotels know that to receive, they have to give.

While this process works well with hotels for last-minute travel, it usually accomplishes nothing with airlines and cruise ships.

Normally, finding a discount air fare at this time of the year is virtually impossible. Maxsaver and other discounted fares were sold months ago, and even if seats have opened, every airline will sell those seats at full price.

So how do you beat the system? By buying a last-minute travel or tour package that already includes air fare.

This is where the travel clubs come in. There are dozens of them, membership groups that specialize in last-minute, discounted travel.

You can usually find them advertised in newspapers and travel magazines. Membership costs range from $19 to $100 a year and usually include a newsletter, travel hot line and substantial discounts.

And the destinations? We're not talking about a hotel near an industrial waste site in some Third World backwater. They are, for the most part, good and great destinations (or cruises to same) that haven't been filled.

They go by such names as "Stand-buys," "Preferred Traveler Club," "Vacations to Go" and "Quest."

Some specialize in airline and hotel deals while others concentrate solely on cruises. Join the club that offers you the type of travel you like.

A club run by an airline is called the Getaway Club, and it's owned by TWA. It's a clever idea (begun a few years ago by Eastern Airlines with a similar program called the Weekender club) that allows the airline to market deeply discounted air and hotel deals at the last minute on flights that aren't fully sold.

But this club is really intended for TWA to unload its unsold inventory of weekend seats, and trips offered by the airline usually don't last more than five days.

Then there are travel agencies that specialize in nothing but last-minute travel. One is called World Wide Cruises and, as its name implies, this Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., agency focuses on nothing but discount deals on cruise ships.

"We've got lots of deals on the Caribbean this year," said spokesman Don Nagel.

You can thank Hurricane Hugo for all of the discounts. It seems that when the storm struck the Caribbean in mid-September, many folks simply canceled their cruise reservations.

As a result, many cruise lines have ships sailing that are half full, and the deals are very attractive.

For example, a seven-day Commodore Cruise to the Caribbean (leaving on Saturday) normally costs $1,245 per person. But World Wide is selling the same cruise for as little as $849 per person, including air fare.

And if you can handle your own air arrangements to Miami, the same seven-day cruise (to San Juan, St. John, St. Thomas and the Dominican Republic) leaving a week later (Dec. 23) will only cost you $699 per person.

And a two-week, Christmas/New Year's Caribbean cruise on Sun Lines (Dec. 20 through Jan. 3) is selling for as little as $2,499 per person, including air fare (regular price is $3,240 per person).

For those who don't just want discounts in December, some travel clubs work great deals all year. One is called Quest. Membership is $99 a year and entitles you to a 50% discount on available rooms at Holiday Inns, Hiltons and other chains.

One word of caution: When quoted a discount, always ask upon what rate the discount is based. If you're getting a 50% discount but that discount is based on the highest published fare, you don't have to be a math whiz to realize that it's not much of a deal.

A second word of caution: In joining any travel club or in buying any travel deal offered by that club, never pay with cash or check. Protect yourself--use your credit card. That way, if the deal isn't delivered as advertised, you can dispute the charge with your credit card company.

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