Myth: There are great deals at airport duty-free shops.
Reality: Put the liquor down. Ditto with the giant chocolate bar and the carton of cigarettes. Duty-free shops at airports make large profits because travelers assume they're getting bargains. People in transit are probably looking to unload some of their unused foreign currency, too. But The Duty-Free Price Guide, which compares duty-free prices around the world, reveals that the cost of duty-free merchandise varies widely. More of a concern is the fact that those same goods are often cheaper if bought in, say, New York or Hong Kong, rather than a duty-free shop in Zurich or Moscow.
Current Advice: Never assume prices are cheaper because they're in a store marked "duty-free."
Reality: The only way to truly know if a travel package is a deal is by doing the math and figuring out the total if you'd made purchases separately—and don't forget to tally up all the taxes and fees. More important, it's essential to take a close look at what's included in the package. If the hotel is in an undesirable location, or there are golf lessons, a car rental, or spa treatments included that you don't really want, the package seems like less and less of a bargain, even if the retail value of those extras is impressive.
Current Advice: Booking À la carte is often the smarter option.
Myth: Low-price guarantees actually guarantee the lowest price.
Reality: Virtually every major booking engine and hotel chain, airline, and car rental agency guarantees that its Web site has the absolute lowest price available, and typically backs up the claim by matching prices and offering additional discounts or coupons if proved wrong. First, these guarantees come with many caveats—packages, discounts for AAA membership or military personnel, opaque bookings through sites like Priceline, and prices quoted over the phone typically aren't included—so the rates often aren't the absolute lowest possible. Secondly, it's solely up to consumers to keep shopping for a better price after they've booked—which no one wants to do.
Current Advice: Continuing to shop after making a booking is the only way to hold these companies to their word. It's especially important to check on hotel and car rental rates, because they fluctuate quite a bit, and reservations can typically be changed without penalty.
Reality:Hotel ratings offer little more than a rough estimate of quality. Each ratings system is based on a different set of criteria, and amenities factored into the score—things like turndown service and valet parking—may not necessarily matter to you. The two main rating systems in the U.S.—AAA and Mobil—often don't match up diamonds to stars. Guidebooks, booking engines, and newspaper and magazine articles may also offer hotel ratings, and none of these systems necessarily correlate. (Hampton Inns, for example, generally receive one-star ratings from Mobil, but two or three stars at Hotels.com.) Some hotel booking sites even allow hotels to rate themselves.
Current Advice: Before making a reservation, look beyond simple ratings and read all the details of trustworthy, objective reviews. Check out multiple sources, and look for a consensus.
Reality: The pre-boarding courtesy offered by airlines to folks in wheelchairs, elite fliers, and people traveling with young kids sounds like a nice perk. But anyone who has traveled with kids knows it's best to have them confined in a cramped airline seat for as little time as possible.
Current Advice: Let children run around in the airport to burn off some energy, so that there's a chance they will sleep on board. One parent may want to board early, to set up some books in the seatback compartment and store bags in the overhead bin. The other parent can take care of the kids and be among the last people to get on the plane.
Reality: Not long ago, most domestic airlines had virtually identical policies and services. Travelers decided which flight to book based almost entirely on price, departure times, and whether the route was nonstop. But travelers can no longer expect parity in terms of things like amenities, loyalty programs, and unaccompanied-minor policies. Baggage rules are especially all over the map: low-fare carriers Skybus and Spirit Airlines charge for all checked bags, whereas JetBlue and Southwest allow two pieces free of charge. Most legacy carriers still allow two complimentary checked bags, but United and US Airways started charging $25 per second checked bag early in 2008. And ticket-change fees vary from free (Southwest) to $40 (JetBlue and Skybus) to $75 or $100 (most other carriers).
Current Advice: There's a lot more to a flight than its price. Travelers should take careful note of the range of different policies and fees and factor them in before booking a flight.
Myth: The smartest time to book a flight is midweek after midnight.
Reality: This oft-quoted theory is based on a practice that's faded rapidly with the massive growth in online booking. A while back, on a Tuesday or Wednesday evening many airlines released reservations that hadn't been paid for—so a flurry of discounted fares suddenly appeared. But the theory is outdated. Nowadays, airlines rarely hold reservations at all, and if they do it's generally only a guarantee that a seat—but not the price—will be held. Typically the only way to hold a seat and secure a particular fare is to purchase on the spot. Farecast.com uses historical data to track prices and make educated guesses as to whether a fare will dip or rise, but there's no predicting exactly when flight prices will change.
Current Advice: The best approach is to keep tabs on fare sales—registering for airline e-mail newsletters is one way—and then pounce on a good price when you see it.
Myth: To get the best airfare, booking far in advance is essential.
Reality: Often, the opposite is true. For most of the year, one or two months in advance is typically when airlines offer promotions to fill seats that aren't selling. There are times, however, when it's prudent to book well in advance—namely, if you have absolutely no flexibility with your dates; if you're traveling during a peak time (holidays, popular travel weekends); if you're traveling with a large group (more than five or so); or if you're headed to a destination that doesn't have all that many flights to choose from.
Current Advice: Unless you fit into one of the categories above, it's generally okay to wait a while to book. If you've bought a ticket and are worried that prices will drop, register your flight at Yapta.com; the site tracks flight prices and will alert you if the fare dips and you're entitled to a refund or flight credit.
Myth: Honeymooners get free upgrades and other special treatment.
Reality: Actually, hotels, packagers, and travel agents may charge honeymooners higher prices than they'd charge regular travelers. The "honeymoon" package at a hotel might consist of little more than a bottle of champagne in the room—and cost $150 more than the same room sans bubbly. In the same way banquet halls and florists charge more for weddings, the travel world often charges more for couples on their honeymoon.
Current Advice: While booking, keep it quiet that you're getting married. Feel free to announce your nuptial status, however, when checking in at the airport, the car rental counter, and the hotel. By then, reservations are set, and there's an outside chance a friendly counter agent might give you an upgrade at no extra charge.
Myth: Airline loyalty program members are likely to be upgraded.
Reality: In the old days, a frequent-flier member wearing a nice suit had a fair chance of being bumped up to business or first class if the flight was overbooked, or simply if a seat up front wasn't filled. These days, in an era when so many travelers belong to airline loyalty programs—and when airlines are considerably stingier with rewards—membership has lost its prestige and its value. Carriers tend to give upgrades on the spot only when forced to, due to overbooking. If that's the case, upgrades go to the most elite loyalty members—typically die-hard business travelers with thousands of miles they will never have the chance to use.
Current Advice: Regular travelers have almost no chance of scoring a free upgrade. If your heart is set on sitting up front, accumulate points however you can (airline credit cards are the easiest way), and book a first- or business-class seat. Or, check out airlines offering less expensive business-class seats.
Reality: Crossing the Atlantic in the plush confines of business class used to cost $5,000, at a minimum. Several all-business-class carriers have entered the market in recent years, however, offering top-notch service and fares at a fraction of the old going rate. Silverjet, for example, flies twice per day from Newark to London, with special fares starting at $919 round-trip (taxes extra). Low-fare carriers in the U.S. have also gotten in on the upper-class market. AirTran regularly offers business-class tickets at fares within reach, such as $354 one way between New York LaGuardia and Orlando. Spirit Airlines charges as little as $164 each way on some routes (e.g., NYC-Myrtle Beach) for its "Big Front Seat."
Current Advice: Sign up to receive airline e-newsletters, which often list special promotions discounting upper-class seats. Also, note that certain domestic carriers—notably, Spirit and AirTran—sometimes allow passengers to upgrade at airport check-in kiosks for as little as $30 or $35.
Reality: Somewhere between 1 and 2 percent of checked luggage doesn't arrive on the same plane with its accompanying owner. Of those bags, the majority are delayed, not lost, and they wind up with the owner in a matter of hours. A very small fraction of checked bags disappear for good.
Current Advice: A delayed bag could make a traveler's life difficult, so it's prudent to avoid checking in late, which increases the chances that your bag won't make it onto the plane. Also, put your contact info inside the bag, so that if it is delayed—or mistakenly grabbed by another passenger—there's no confusion about who the owner is. Never put valuables or fragile items in a checked suitcase. It's just asking for trouble.