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For Holiday Travels, the Bargains Are Drying Up

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you were expecting the recent spate of bargain hotel rates and air fares to give your holiday budget a break, you may be disappointed.

The week after the Sept. 11 attacks, hotel occupancy rates, already weakened because of the general slowdown in the economy, plunged, and hoteliers, scrambling to fill those empty rooms, began lowering rates. But by the week ending Sept. 22, hotel occupancy rates began to improve and have strengthened each week since, said Bobby Bowers, a lodging industry analyst with Smith Travel Research in Hendersonville, Tenn.

Occupancy nationwide for the week ending Oct. 13, the most recent week available, was 61.5%, down 10.7% from the same week last year but an improvement from the previous week’s 59.9%. Room rates, which nationwide are on average down 6% from the previous year, are still off by more than 20% in New York and Boston. High-end hotels have been hit harder than others, Bowers said.

The picture for airlines also has improved. “They are seeing traffic come back,” said Bob Harrell of Harrell Associates in New York, which has followed leisure travel fares since 1998. For the first two weeks in October, Continental Airlines was running 71% full on domestic flights and 56% on international flights (although Continental has reduced its flight schedule by nearly a fifth). And despite the notion that Americans are skittish about travel, an online survey, conducted Sept. 26 to Oct. 1, suggests otherwise.

Thanksgiving airline bookings are expected to be about the same as last year, according to research by Travelocity.com, and the number of travelers who will be flying is up slightly. About 43% of the 2,100 survey respondents plan to travel this Thanksgiving. But more Travelocity customers--64% compared with 59% in 2000--say they will fly this year during the Thanksgiving holiday. For bargain hunters who still haven’t booked, here’s the bad news. “As the sales of the first week in October expired, fares rose dramatically and are now approximately at last year’s levels,” Harrell said.

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Leisure air fares, which on Oct. 8 cost 27% less than they did the same week last year, cost, by Oct. 15, the same as they did in 2000. And airlines have cut the number of flights, so there will be fewer seats available than last season.

Furthermore, most fare sales are not valid on the most popular days before and after the holidays.

Still, reduced air fares around the holidays are available, if limited. If you can fly on off-peak days and are traveling to a select, major market, you might still find some deals. Using Travelocity (https://travelocity.com), I found a fare of less than $240 for a flight from San Francisco to New York on National Airlines, traveling the Friday before Thanksgiving and the Friday after. In searching for the least expensive flight to get to coastal Virginia at Thanksgiving (and to partake of Aunt Adrian’s “famous smashed taters”), I found reasonable but not great deals. Using Expedia (https://expedia.com) to search for a flight from Los Angeles to Norfolk, Va., I found a $369 fare on Continental and fares of about $380 on several other major airlines. All of these were for confirmed, regularly scheduled flights with the usual benefits and protections. Most of these fares can also be booked on the individual airlines’ Web sites or by calling their toll-free numbers.

If you’re still hot on the trail of discount fares, another option is discounters, such as Hotwire (https://hotwire.com) and Priceline.com. In April, Expedia introduced Bargain Fare, a discounted air fare with restrictions similar to those offered on Priceline and Hotwire. (The Bargain Fare on Expedia for this itinerary was $287; on Hotwire, $241.) In exchange for saving $100, I would have tickets that were nonrefundable, nontransferable and could not be canceled or changed; flights that did not qualify for upgrades and were ineligible for frequent-flier miles; and uncertain departure times. (Flights are scheduled to leave between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.; arrival time is not specified.) Whether these are worth the risk depends on your price sensitivity and your need for definite arrangements.

This leaves travelers just where they were for much of last spring and summer: There are deals, but they have to be hunted down.

Some hotels are still offering incentives, but many were available before Sept. 11 in response to the general slowing in the economy. I stayed at the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers on 7th Avenue the last week of August at an advertised rate of $179 a night. Sheraton is now offering a rate of $189 per night at the same hotel on select dates during the holidays.

When the hunt is on, here’s a strategy for finding the lowest fares and rates. Many travelers think the best deals are available on the Internet, and that’s still a good place to start. Many Web sites allow you to sign up for e-mail notification of special deals, and some deals are available only by Internet.

But not all Internet searches are created equal, so start with the general sites and move to the specific. In other words, start with Travelocity, Expedia, Orbitz (https://orbitz.com) or Sidestep (https://sidestep.com), or another search engine. If you find a good fare on, say, American and a rate you like at a Westin hotel, move to the Starwood (https://www.starwood.com) and American Airlines (https://www.aa.com) sites to see whether they can do any better, or call their toll-free numbers and talk with reservations agents.

I went to Starwood’s Web site, which handles reservations for Westin, Sheraton, Four Points and W, among others, to try to book a room at the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers for its special $189 rate (having learned of it via e-mail), following the prompts on my screen. (Web sites sometimes allow searches for special offers only when a special code is used.) When my reservation came up, I was quoted a rate of $229 a night. So I backed up to the home page and navigated via the Special Promotions button to the same reservation page. Only then did I receive a quote of $189.

The bottom line: Sometimes it takes some work to get the best deal. You can leave that work to travel agents; they often have access to information about specials, and it’s their job to help. They may charge a fee, but their expertise may be worth it if you don’t have the time or don’t want to do the research yourself.

So search the Web, make calls, check around to make certain you are getting the best possible rates and fares (and be sure to ask for them), have a flexible schedule, and you might still find some deals. Flying the day after Thanksgiving may not be ideal, but it could save you money--and spare you reheated leftovers of Aunt Adrian’s famous smashed taters.

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James Gilden can be reached at jamesgilden@aol.com. Travel Insider welcomes suggestions but cannot respond to letters and telephone calls. Address comments to Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012; e-mail travel@latimes.com.


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