Best Trip-Planning Tips
Don’t book that dream trip until you’ve read our can’t-miss tips on planning your getaway.
Any traveler who is familiar with the phrase “blackout date,” paid for a cab fare that’s almost as expensive as an airline ticket, or searched for a hotel deal online knows that making travel plans can be difficult and expensive.
So Travel + Leisure took a look at the current travel landscape to suss out where you’ll find ease and value in the months ahead. We considered everything, from airline fees to loyalty programs to three-star hotels and villa rentals, and came up with 12 essential tips for trip planning all year long.
Not only did we pack these 12 tips with money-saving ideas, field-tested resources, and industry secrets, we also did our research. For airline loyalty programs, for example—a subject typically riddled with dead ends and loopholes, recently aggravated by the disjointed economy—we read through the most recent fine print to find out which plans are the most accessible, flexible, and rewarding for you. On the cost side, hidden hotel and airline fees can end a trip on an unhappy note (who likes unexpected credit card charges?), but—with a few pointers—they can be easily avoided.
While 2009 was a rough year for the travel industry, there is a silver lining: deals, deals, and more deals. Cruises, hotels, and outfitters are not only discounting, they’re also adding extras into packages for singles, couples, and families. Even previous luxuries like business class airline fares are up for grabs: in one field test on farecompare.com, we found that prices for business class flights from New York, Miami, Chicago, and Atlanta had dropped as much as 55 percent from a year ago.
The same is true for hotel rooms. Hotels.com reports that rates in New York and Las Vegas are down an astounding 30 percent, while in European cities they’ve dropped an average of 16 percent. And with fewer people booking hotels for company travel, business hotels have entered the leisure market, offering great incentives for vacationers. Want to rent a villa instead? HomeAway.com, which has a database of more than 185,000 vacation rentals, notes that property owners are including extras like a personal chef or free cleaning services to encourage bookings.
And while it seems like globetrotters have to keep a firm finger on travel industry buzz to get great deals and avoid travel mishaps, it turns out that industry leaders are also keeping track of them. Have a trip-planning problem with Disney, Marriott, JetBlue, or Hyatt? Sign on to Twitter; all those companies have accounts to respond to questions or problems almost immediately.
A trip starts from the moment you block off those vacation days, so get started on the right foot. Read on for relevant and informative trip-planning tips and tricks.
Managing Your Loyalty Programs
After years of letting travelers accrue rewards-program miles while placing restrictions on how to spend them, airlines are finally devising creative new ways to help you use them for tickets. In an industry first, Alaska Airlines began allowing travelers to use miles for one-way rewards in 2007; American followed in 2009, with more airlines expected to join them. Delta now allows its SkyMiles members to use miles to pay for the total ticket price or just part of a fare (10,000 miles = $100). Similarly, Qantas lets travelers chip in with cash if they don’t have quite enough miles to buy an entire flight.
T+L Tip: Cash in for a ticket. You’ll be less likely to be held hostage to blackout dates, award-availability restrictions, or double payments for busy days.
Dealing with Airline Fees
Given that most United States carriers charge for in-flight meals and to check a second (or even first) bag, ancillary fees aren’t a new concept for economy travelers. In fact, there are even more fees to consider, like an additional charge for checking bags at the airport (instead of prepaying online) and a fee for reserving an aisle seat; the five so-called legacy carriers have also introduced a $20 surcharge on flights during busy holiday-travel days. U.S. carriers collected a full $2.4 billion in fees in the first half of 2009 alone. United has even introduced a program that allows travelers to pay $249 annually to cover the cost of checking up to two bags on each flight—a move experts anticipate other airlines will follow.
T+L Tip: One silver lining: ancillary fees could actually drive down base fares, according to Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorks, a Wisconsin-based travel consultancy whose clients include several airlines. In the short term, though, elite and premium-class fliers, who are exempt from most fees, stand to benefit the most. So build up those miles.
Choosing a Cabin
Business-class fliers will remain elusive this year. “Companies are telling their employees all the way up to CEO level that they’ll have to fly coach,” says Rick Seaney, CEO of farecompare.com. The National Business Travel Association expects that most corporate travel managers will continue to restrict their employees from booking premium-class tickets throughout the coming year. That will leave airlines scrambling to fill these seats. Already, business-class fares to foreign cities, in particular, have been slashed by as much as 66 percent from a year ago and will likely reach new lows in 2010.
T+L Tip: There’s never been a better time to pay to sit up front. Unless mitigated by a sudden jump in the price of oil, fares for business-class seats will remain at fire-sale prices.
Picking a Cruise
After a year of watching booking windows shrink, cruise lines are fighting back by offering incentives to travelers who buy early. Oceania is giving its heftiest savings up front: travelers who book winter 2010/2011 cruises before March 31 receive a $3,000 discount on itineraries. Meanwhile, Silversea is slashing fares by 50 percent on six of its ships for those who book a 2010 cruise at least six months in advance. Cruise lines are also lowering the risk on early purchases. Crystal Cruises has announced automatic price guarantees, promising a cash refund of the difference if the cost of a cruise drops after a customer purchases. And Holland America has incorporated a Cancellation Protection Plan clause into its insurance policy that reimburses passengers 80 to 90 percent of their fare even if they cancel 24 hours before the trip.
T+L Tip: When it comes to cruising in 2010, the early bird definitely gets the worm (and a better stateroom, to boot).
Choosing a Hotel
Once known for their modest, middle-of-the-road hotels, three- and four-star brands are launching bold rebranding and renovation efforts aimed at adding style and personality to their properties—while keeping rates within reach. At the new Wit, in Chicago—a Doubletree property that the company plans to replicate in New York and San Francisco—the modern $179-a-night rooms come with bright orange chaise longues and floor-to-ceiling windows. Marriott recently gave sleek updates to a handful of its Renaissance properties, and Sheraton’s 202 North American outposts all received boutique-style upgrades as well. Meanwhile, Accor is sprucing up its budget Motel 6 brand, which launched its new look with a property in Northlake, Texas, that includes pedestal beds, ambient lighting, and black-granite bathrooms.
T+L Tip: For stylish décor without the sticker shock, consider the midprice hotel. Plus, you get all the advantages of a chain property: loyalty programs and perks like free breakfast and Wi-Fi.
Finding a Discount
With business and incentive travel still on the skids, hotels and large resorts that cater to corporate guests are looking elsewhere to fill their beds. “Business-oriented hotels are being extra aggressive in marketing, packaging, and discounting to attract leisure guests,” says Dr. Bjorn Hanson, a hospitality professor at New York University’s Tisch Center. That means lower rates in cities and markets that rely heavily on a mix of business groups, conventions, and meetings, such as Las Vegas, Orlando, and Scottsdale. Even luxury properties that as a rule don’t discount are offering significant savings: St. Regis just joined a growing list of hotels—including Westin, W Hotels, Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, and Rosewood—with limited-time promotions for a free night after three or more consecutive nights.
T+L Tip: Look for lower rates at business-minded hotels and resorts, especially if you can be flexible with your dates.
Staying on Track
Thanks to stimulus packages, rising eco-awareness, and improved technology, rail travel is back on track. China’s taking the lead by pumping a reported $300 billion by 2020 into building bullet trains to connect many of its main cities. In the States, California is working on a high-speed link between San Francisco and Los Angeles that’s expected to break ground in 2012. Urban light rails are also branching out; you’ll find new lines under way in Portland, Phoenix, Chicago, Honolulu, and even car-loving Los Angeles, as well as in Prague and Berlin.
T+L Tip: With light rail making it easier than ever to get from airport to hotel, you may not even need a car if you’re traveling to a city.
Planning a Family Vacation
Despite last year’s travel slump, bookings for family getaways have remained remarkably robust. According to Will Jones, founder of the U.K.-based adventure outfitter Journeys by Design, multigenerational safaris are expected to grow 47 percent in 2010. “Travelers now want vacation experiences that include grandparents, cousins, and even pets,” reports Brian Richardson, vice president of brand marketing for Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. In response, tour operators, cruise lines, and hotels are doing all they can to woo families. Veteran operator Abercrombie & Kent is offering a 25 percent discount for children 18 years and younger on all its Galápagos itineraries when booked by March 31—that’s a savings of up to $1,700 per person. And Crystal Cruises, which already has an extensive family program, is now giving extra perks to groups of six or more, including prepaid gratuities, a $100 onboard credit per person, and a $500 credit for a private shore excursion.
T+L Tip: With never-before-seen deals and savings for your brood, now’s the time to plan your family reunion.
Finding a Villa
Homeowners looking to profit from their second houses and apartments are putting them up on rental websites for the first time or, according to a recent study done by HomeAway (whose websites include vrbo.com, homeaway.com, and vacationrentals.com), discounting them to lure renters. According to CEO Brian Sharples, 55 percent of rental-property owners plan to offer some kind of discount in the next year, including price breaks, free cleaning services, added free nights, or no minimum stays. Even the most luxurious villas are a better deal, according to Rebecca Widness, spokesperson for the rental agency Wimco, which has rentals in the Caribbean, French Riviera, Italy, Greece, and Morocco. Most property owners are participating in Wimco programs like “Stay 10, Pay 8,” which gives travelers a 20 percent price break on a 10-day stay.
T+L Tip: You’ll find better deals than ever on rental properties this year—even for last-minute bookings, which were once impossible for high-season stays.
Renting a Car
In an effort to save money, rental agencies have slashed their vehicle inventories. Hertz downsized by 15,000 cars last year, while Avis and Budget trimmed 77,000 cars—or 19 percent of their combined fleet. Fewer cars means less availability—and higher prices. Indeed, even as hotel rates and airfares drop, rental-car prices have increased by an average of 7 percent over the past 12 months, according to Geoff Sundstrom, spokesperson for AAA.
T+L Tip: Prices are expected to continue their rise, so consider becoming a member of a loyalty program, especially if you rent more than five times a year. Aside from some great perks—such as privileged discounts and upgrades, and bypassing the check-in counter—many companies allow you to redeem points for air travel and hotels.
Choosing a Smart Phone
This year will see a barrage of Google Android smart phones, thanks to the search giant’s recent partnership with Verizon and new products from T-Mobile, Sprint, and Sony Ericsson—all with excellent messaging and multimedia capabilities. Android is also better than the iPhone at running several applications at once, which is perfect for multitaskers. Because any app developer can use and modify the Android operating system, Google has been encouraging people to create a surge of new mobile programs.
T+L Tip: Travelers can expect a future rife with multidisciplinary apps that will likely render organizing trips, obtaining information, and communicating with people easier than ever. Plus, Android will spur along more competitive prices on Google phones—and impact iPhone, BlackBerry, and Palm prices.
Using Social Media
More and more travel companies are using Twitter not only to announce deals and updates, but also to respond to travelers’ concerns. “Twitter allows companies to take action in near real time,” says Morgan Johnston, public relations manager and tweeter for @JetBlue. JetBlue passengers, for example, have spoken out about flight delays, the need for a wheelchair when arriving at the airport, a $50 surcharge for checking a bike—gripes and requests that have all been acknowledged, and resolved, by the carrier. Hyatt just launched a Twitter concierge service (@Hyatt Concierge), which fields property-specific questions, handles dining reservations, and redirects grievances to management. Virgin America (@VirginAmerica), which recently rolled out in-flight Wi-Fi, even replies to in-flight demands. “One customer had a hard time flagging down a flight attendant to order a meal,” says Abby Lunardini, a spokesperson for the airline. “After she tweeted about it, our team sent a message to the crew and she was served immediately.”
T+L Tip: Though travel companies don’t officially encourage the use of Twitter as a customer-service line, it’s become an increasingly effective way of getting their attention. So go ahead and open your, er, beak.