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New Year's Eve's Rising Cost

You've made it through New Year's Eve 1998, but have you thought about 1999?Chances are you have no solid plans yet, since most hotels and airlines don't take reservations more than a year in advance. Brace yourself: industry analysts are forecasting steep millennium-related price hikes.

Facing what is expected to be the busiest holiday season in history, anxious consumers are grabbing what they can get — and so are travel vendors. "People are trying to sell at gouge prices," says Ed Perkins, consumer advocate for the American Society of Travel Agents. "Some companies are taking the attitude, 'Well, if travelers are antsy, let's lock 'em in at the highest prices we can get.'"

At the moment, says Perkins, the worst offenders are cruise lines. Until flights can be booked, cruises are among the only available options, and their rates have already skyrocketed — people sailing in December 1999 can expect to pay roughly 1 1/2 times the 1998 price. And that's not even counting increases in airfare.

Naturally, the highest prices are associated with the services in greatest demand. In an April 1998 survey of its 26,500 members, ASTA found that Caribbean cruises were the top-selling New Year's 2000 activity. (International Date Line cruises were also popular, because they allow passengers to celebrate twice.) Las Vegas and Disney World tied for second place, with New York City finishing next. Again, bad news: early evidence suggests that travelers to these places will face increases just as steep as those for cruises.

Will plane tickets and other common travel purchases follow the same wallet-lightening trend?"Given what we've seen in cruises and packages," says ASTA spokesman Steve Loucks, "increases for hotels, airfares, and car rentals will be very significant."

Loucks is convinced of the demand — the ASTA survey found that nearly 80 percent of agents had customers who were interested in making plans for the millennium. But it's still possible that consumers will balk at the price hikes, forcing fares down. Similarly, it's not impossible that New Year's 2000 could turn out to be a letdown. "It's hard to say whether there's a lot of pent-up demand," comments Joe Hopkins, a spokesperson for United Airlines, "or just a lot of hype."

Perkins agrees: "The sensible consumer will say, 'Let's just see if this is going to be an event worthy of all the buildup.' I'd plan maybe six months, or even six weeks, ahead of time, rather than pay these atrocious up-front prices."

Yet the fares for what Perkins calls "the real one-of-a-kind stuff" — globe-girdling Concorde expeditions, religious pilgrimages to Italy or Israel, adventures in Antarctica — will no doubt remain in the stratosphere. "After January first," says Loucks of the time when the first flights become available, "we'll probably see a mass scramble."

Perkins himself wants no part of it. On December 31, 1999, he plans to be home with his wife, watching television. "The real millennium is at the end of the year 2000," he points out. "The idea of spending big bucks to celebrate New Year's Eve 1999 seems ludicrous to me, but the travel industry hopes I'm not representative."

Loucks, on the other hand, is flying from Australia to Hawaii in order to celebrate the millennium twice. By press time, however, he was not able to buy the plane tickets. "That's what I'll be doing on January first," he says. "Making my reservations."

so what exactly will it cost you?
To get a sense of 1999 rates, T+L made a few calls. Are there notable increases over 1998?Absolutely. Is it worth it?That depends on whether there is indeed a desperate rush when flights finally become available this month.

CRUISES
In the Caribbean, expect 50 percent increases over last New Year's prices — the least expensive room on one Royal Caribbean ship, for example, will cost $2,598 more this year — not counting airfare hikes. Nonetheless, many Caribbean cruises have sold out. It's difficult to compare prices for International Date Line cruises, since most are one-time affairs. Throughout 1999, Princess Cruises has a 14-day Sydney-to-Auckland voyage. The millennium version is two days longer and approximately $1,300 more per person.

WALT DISNEY WORLD
At the Disney Swan Resort in Orlando this past New Year's, a double room with a "royal beach view" went for $450 a night; there was a five-night minimum stay. For the millennium, the same room costs $765. And there's a seven-day minimum. And you have to pay by June 30; if you cancel, you forfeit the entire sum.

LAS VEGAS
For New Year's Eve '98, the New York New York Hotel & Casino was asking $309 a night for a double room, with a two-night minimum. This year, the price is $2,000 for the minimum three nights, nonrefundable. That's a 116 percent markup.

NEW YORK CITY
Meanwhile, in the real New York, many of the good hotels are either booked or are holding out for a better offer. The St. Regis is not opening its waiting list until April. The person on the Plaza's reservation line said, "Reservations will be by invitation only." Asked to unpack that, he explained, "Look, we don't know what we're doing yet. A corporation might buy it all, or something." The Millennium Broadway in Times Square has the same idea: it's asking $3 million for the whole hotel on its namesake evening.

YACHTS AND VILLAS
For yacht charters and villa rentals, most prices have not yet been determined. Owners are waiting as long as possible to get the best price. An exception was at the Moorings — proving that there is already high demand, a crewed yacht off St. Lucia for 12 days has already been booked for $18,490 (it cost $16,040 last year).

AROUND-THE-WORLD TRIPS
Intrav's $75,000 millennium voyage on the Concorde takes passengers from Honolulu to Australia, Hong Kong, Kenya, and Egypt, among other places. A similar trip in October costs $59,500. Is witnessing the end of the millennium worth an additional $15,500?"They've jacked up the price a little," admits the reservationist, "so it isn't going as fast as the normal trip." Maybe everyone has decided to visit Epcot instead.

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