Traveling was tough enough before the last three months of 2008 when we were slammed by wave after wave of shocks and scandals. Now its anyones guess.
Airlines, with lower fuel prices and fewer planes in the air, can pump up fares and still fill their planes unless their bread and butter -- the road warriors -- belt-tighten and fly less. Then prices will drop selectively. Hotels will cut deals because they cant shut down when bookings are soft. Car rental companies are trimming their fleets and seem to be hiking their rates.
It is hard to say if travel websites that sell excess inventory at fire-sale prices will get more airline seats and hotel beds to peddle at a discount.
But travelers can change behaviors in 2009 and engineer their own savings. Here are some New Years resolutions that can make a difference in your life away from home.
Dial Zero for a Human: The siren song of the time-and-moneysaving, book-your-own-flight airline websites is a sour tune today. Increasingly, carriers want you to be a member just to use their websites. Membership is free except that you must sign up and fill out an online form, which takes time and yet more divulging of personal information. However, you can circumvent that by signing on as a guest. But that icon is usually in an obscure spot on the hype-cluttered home page. I was booking a flight on United Airlines, went through all the tedious steps, answered all questions and was stopped cold from completing it because I wasnt a member or guest. That was 20 minutes down the drain.
Frustrated, I dialed United reservations, bypassed prompts and those annoying, syrupy automated voice interrogations of your travel plans by hitting zero. A friendly agent immediately came on the line, was sympathetic with my plight, sold me the ticket, reserved my seats on all four legs of the connecting flight at the same website fare and without charging me a dime extra for her help. Virgin America was just as helpful when its website was overloaded with requests and sort of froze in mid booking. Moral of this story: If youre not an ultra-elite member of the airlines frequent flyer program with your own direct line, dial zero for a human, even if the airline charges you an extra $10 for assistance.
Save on a SUV: Travelers today are renting economy and midsized cars because they naturally figure prices are lower than bigger, roomier models. Not true. When gas prices were over $4 a gallon, the big car rental companies couldn't rent big Sports Utility Vehicles. In the time honored tradition of supply and demand, SUV prices were as low as $20 a day in major cities. Now that gas prices have dropped 50 percent, for some reason SUVs are still bargains. Tip: ask for a midsized SUV like the Toyota R-4. Chances are you'll get one heckuva deal and you wont have to refill a 30-gallon tank. At Enterprise Rent a Cars San Diego office, I lucked out with a SUV for $12.95 a day.
Do You Really Need Wheels? A surefire savings in tough times if you're doing business or visiting a city with a compact downtown -- Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Chicago, Washington, D,C, -- is not renting a car at all. Downtown hotels and parking lots are charging a kings ransom for all-day, overnight and even short-term parking. In 2009, ask a co-worker to pick you up, take a door-to-door shuttle, or buy a ticket in any city with a rapid transit link to the airport. Otherwise, unless you can expense all transportation costs without your boss batting an eye, why spend more cash out of your own pocket?
Smart, Not Cheap: A worldly traveler and wine expert I know, who constantly entertains current and potential clients, will often bring great wines to the restaurant and pay the corkage fee that averages $15 to $20 a bottle. Because its risky to travel with wines from his personal collection, hell find a respected purveyor and pay retail. Even with the corkage, hell save at least 50 percent or more off the wine list prices. More importantly, his personal touch and selections impress his guests. Tip: make sure the restaurant doesnt limit corkage-fee courtesy to two bottles.
Thanks For The Memories: Hotel general managers are human, too. A thank-you note for superb service is remembered, particularly by his or her personal assistant, and especially if you are a regular guest. The simple note is an investment in the bank and pays dividends in the form of upgrades, a special amenity or other nice gestures.
However, don't go overboard. Give what you think is a thoughtful gift to the manager and it can wind up on a table in the employee cafeteria.