For travelers, there's been a bright side to the sagging economy: bargains. But last year's across-the-board discounts are getting harder to find. Here's what to expect in 2003.
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AIRFARES Don't count on cheap tickets this year. Airlines will continue to offer last-minute deals to fill seats, but, says Randy Petersen, publisher of InsideFlyer, "They can't start an airfare war. They need all the revenue they can get." In fact, many carriers have been adding all kinds of fees—for flying standby, for checking more than two pieces of luggage, for kids traveling alone. Keep costs under control by avoiding or minimizing these charges. For example, Petersen suggests that instead of paying to check an extra bag (usually $80), ask for a garment box and put your bag in that—you'll pay just $30. Or check some of your bags curbside and the rest at the counter; the two systems don't communicate, so you won't pay an additional fee. As for fares, the best are on the Web. Smarterliving.com will notify you about last-minute options; Orbitz.com recently added features that tell you if a quoted price is comparable to the average fare within the past month and whether there's a lower fare at an alternate airport or on a different date.
HOTELS Still reeling from business-travel cutbacks and flight reductions that have limited the flow of visitors, hotels worldwide will be offering some of their biggest discounts ever. In the United States and Europe, you'll find the best rates in major cities—including New York, San Francisco, London, and Paris—which depend on corporate travel dollars. Expect prices in the United States to be 30 percent lower than peak rates, says Bjorn Hanson, a hotel-industry consultant at Pricewaterhouse Coopers; they should be 15 percent lower in Europe. The catch: You'll typically get these rates only during less busy times— all summer and on weekends in the spring and fall.
CAR RENTALS For out-of-town drivers, there's good news and bad news. The cost of a rental is likely to be flat this year. But, warns Ed Perkins, founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, companies are now adding new fees and charging more for extras. For instance, the collision damage waiver has jumped from about $8 a day to as high as $20. Although the major travel Web sites are useful for shopping around, they usually show you the base rate for a rental, so you're better off booking by phone; ask your reservationist to add up and explain all possible charges before you decide.
CRUISE LINES There's never been a better time to cruise: the industry, struggling with overcapacity, is cutting prices—with no strings attached. Cruises are going for well under $100 a day per person, or 50 percent off list rates, Perkins says, and you'll find specials even during peak periods (the Caribbean in winter, Alaska in summer) whether you book early or late. To compare prices, check out www.cruisereport.com, which also publishes reviews of ships.