Last-Minute Travel Deals Still Exist — If You’re Patient

April 12, 2010 at 9:54 am | Posted in air travel, car rental/hire, consumer travel, cruising, travel and technology, value in travel | Leave a comment
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by José Balido

last-minute travel dealsVacationers and business travelers alike are booking travel later in the game than ever these days — often a week or less from departure — with the dicey economy accelerating a trend that’s been building for years. This higher demand for last-minute travel, together with the yield management systems used by many of the big players, means rates that are more than ever in flux up until the 11th hour. It also means that “deals” are no longer a sure thing.

Oh, and did I mention that the currently downsized number of flights and rental cars is also tightening unsold inventory? Sadly, all the above ads up to not a lot of breaks for the last-minute travel shopper.

Best Travel Websites for Last-Minute Deals
The good news: All is not lost. Such breaks do still pop up, because the fact remains that vendors with unsold inventory — whether it’s bundled air-hotel packages or individual components — will always need to unload it. What you’ll need is a spot of patience and perseverance — and willingness to spend a fair bit of time online doing comparisons, because that’s where most of the action is these days. And there are certainly myriad choices, including the likes of LastMinuteTravel.com and last-minute sections of familiar sites like TravelZoo, Travelocity, and Kayak. I’ve found particularly good ones are Lastminute.comHotwire.com, and of course Priceline.com where after checking the going rates on other sites you can try submitting (reasonably!) lower bids.

Apart from trolling these various sites, in the case of airfares especially I’d sign up for alerts, both from individual airlines (United tends to have the largest selection, coming out each Monday, but doesn’t email them anymore, so you have to check United.com) and airfare info sites like AirfareWatchdog.com, which blasts out individual and grouped alerts according to airport or route. For car rentals, some companies list last-minute specials, but check out Breezenet.com as well, a comparison site which also features a “Deal of the Week.” And this summer, excess cruise line capacity will pretty likely mean awesome late deals on certain itineraries — especially in the Caribbean.

Twitter Travel Alerts
Finally, as this blog pointed out last year, Twitter has not only been coming on like gangbusters in general but has increasingly caught with airlines, hotels, tour operators, and other vendors as a dandy way to unload late inventory and for consumers to monitor deals by following them. Just a handful of other airlines that tweet news and fare specials include Air France (@Air_France), American (@AAirwaves), British Airways (@BritishAirways), Cathay Pacific (@cathaypacific), Continental (@Continental), JetBlue (@JetBlueCheeps), Singapore (@SingaporeAir), Southwest (@Southwest), Spirit (@SpiritAirlines), and United (@UnitedAirlines). You can also keep track of fares on sites like AirefareWatchdog.com (@airfarewatchdog), DealsOnAirfareToday.com (@dealsonairfare), and LowestAirfares.com (@LowestAirfares_).

Example: Type “#travel” into the Twitter search box and you’ll come up with hundreds of same-day results. But say you want to go to Orlando. A recent search for “#Orlando #travel” yielded, among many other items:

  • For $289, a three-night stay for four at Silver Lake Resort, plus two adult day tickets to Disney World, Universal Studios, or Sea World (@SLResortOrlando).
  • News of an upcoming crafts and collectibles show in the quaint nearby town of Mount Dora (@roritravel).
  • A list of top free attractions in the Orlando area (@GotSaga).

Crack your knuckles and get surfing!

photo: iStockPhoto
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Wiring Funds to Foreign Travel Vendors: Save, but Safe?

March 31, 2010 at 10:43 am | Posted in consumer travel, travel industry | 1 Comment
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by Max Pesling

wiring money overseasBack in the day, you’d stroll into a travel agency, get face-to-face advice, and leave with an armful of color brochures and a paper ticket. Then the Internet came along, but for a long time consumers were slow to warm up to paying online with a credit card. That’s mostly history now: Most will happily divulge those 16 digits in return for the savings that online competition and the elimination of the travel agent middleman have brought about.

All well and good, for the most part, when it comes to travel vendors in your own country. Increasingly, though, travelers are tempted by overseas companies — now easily found online — which offer more intriguing options or deeper travel discounts. The catch: Many if not most of these vendors charge cardholders around 3 percent for the transaction. As if that weren’t bad enough, cardholders’ banks clobber their customers with another fee of 2 to 3 percent for the foreign currency conversion, pretty much wiping out any savings from booking travel online.

My friend John Lamb, a New York City lawyer, recently faced this very dilemma while planning his upcoming honeymoon, a two-week luxury safari in Tanzania. The itinerary John liked best was sold by a tour operator in South Africa, but the combined 5.7 percent credit card and conversion fees amounted to several hundred dollars, money he’d rather spend elsewhere. The tour operator suggested he wire the funds directly instead (total cost: $35 at John’s bank).

John was tempted, but understandably concerned: Would it be safe to wire what’s essentially cash to an unknown vendor halfway around the world? If something went wrong (e.g., the company went under), would he have any recourse? Racked by doubt, John dashed off an email seeking advice from a trusted travel writer and friend, a.k.a. yours truly.

YT, however, had no surefire answer, never having been in a comparable situation. I could’ve offered general tips to help my pal protect himself, but in the age of the Internet I was able to consult my online brain trust. I posted the question in the Tour Operators group here on Tripatini.com, and within 72 hours had amassed a considerable body of travel advice from experts as far afield as India, Tanzania, and Nebraska. Three top tips to wire funds safely to overseas travel vendors emerged:

  • Check their reputation. John Tavera of North Carolina-based Marnella Tours says, “Do your homework. Check that the company you are sending funds to is legitimate and in good standing with the local or national tourism association.” Nayaz Noor of Safir Tours in India also suggests that you can vet the company with the destination’s tourism office in your country of residence.
  • Ask fellow travelers. Fatema Zavery of Zed Safaris in Tanzania suggests you “check reviews from other travelers who have used [the company’s] services.” Indeed, in the age of user-generated content, it should not be difficult to find enough reviews of just about any travel provider to help answer your doubts.
  • Buy insurance. If doubts are still nagging, buy travel insurance, says Peter Walter of CzechTours.cz. It costs a fraction of the money you’ll save by wiring the funds, and will give you peace of mind, whether the vendor takes flight with your money or goes out of business before your trip — or, more likely perhaps, you get sick and have to cancel.

With the proper precautions, wiring funds directly to an overseas travel vendor can be a safe and effective way to save money – which is exactly why my friend John decided to do it after reading the experts’ advice here on Tripatini. As a final note, I was pleased to see that not a single one of the tour operators who offered advice tried to sell John anything. Several, in fact, outright confirmed that his vendor is a reputable company in great standing. It’s reassuring to see that, at least in some cases, you can find unbiased advice on transparent online travel forums.

And John, by the way, is now happily looking forward to his honeymoon.

photo: iStockphoto

3 Tips For Better Car Rental Deals in a Recession

March 19, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Posted in car rental/hire, consumer travel | Leave a comment
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by José Balido

car rentalsThe current economic crisis has, of course, been changing travel patterns for many of us. Reduced spending by both leisure and business travelers, as well as tighter business credit, has especially affected the car-rental industry (aka car hire, to our cousins in the Commonwealth). So whether you’re a renter or in the rent-a-car business, you’re taking a hit.

For starters, a drop in orders for new cars to refresh rental fleets (Enterprise, for example, cut its orders almost in half in 2009) means said fleets have grown both smaller and older. That of course, results in more wear and tear, and more reliability and maintenance problems. Midsize and compact availability has been further worsened by the recall of Toyotas because of those infamous braking, acceleration, and “it-is-not-a-computer-problem” problems; it’s expected to affect at least eight million vehicles worldwide.

As a result, auto-rental agency locations may be less likely to have your first choice of size and/or model available. Some companies have also cut their locations’  business hours or shuttered some locations entirely.

What with the decrease in rental vehicles and the increase in maintenance costs, the base cost of renting has gone up in many parts of the world. Moreover, additional fees are being tacked on and/or jacked up like mad, including refueling fees and surcharges for returning cars to a different location from the one you rented at. In more than 40 U.S. states, increasingly strapped local and state governments have piled on new taxes. And rates at quite a few airports have especially shot up.

Given all the above, it’s hardly a shocker that renter satisfaction has plummeted along with demand; some 21 percent of those surveyed by J.D. Powers in 2009 were pretty darned ticked off.  But is there anything that can be done about any of this? Not a heck of a lot, but while we all ride out these tough times, there are three ways you can keep car rental costs down:

1. When booking flights, package tours, and, above all, cruises, it often pays to put on your best poker face and wait for a fire sale before showing your plastic. That used to work with rental cars, too, but now companies are offering discounts for people who pay in advance. For example, some Hertz locations offer 20 percent off if you book in March for a May rental. Another tactic that used to work was to land somewhere without reservations, walk from booth to booth, and bargain ’em down. But thanks to today’s decreased capacity, that could leave you stranded.

2. Don’t just go to one rental company site to book. Shop around on aggregator and auction sites including Breezenet, Kayak, Priceline, and Hotwire. You’ll find that car rental rates, much like airfares, are all over the map.

3. Because of the above-mentioned airport fees, renting at non-airport locations has long been the cheaper option–but today, it’s the much cheaper option. These fees are so exorbitant that roundtrip taxi, train, or bus fares to a suburban or downtown rental office may cost dramatically less than the difference in car rental rates. For example, the base price of a Chevy Cobalt at Hertz’s Oakland Airport office was US$75 at press time. Paying upfront brought that down to $60, but then Hertz added on the $20 “airport concession” fee and a $10 facility fee (huh?), so when all was said and done, the price was $238 three days. However, if you’d booked that same Chevy Cobalt from one of Hertz’s downtown locations, the tab was $134.

For Value and Local Flavor, Vacation Rentals Beat the Competition Flat

September 7, 2009 at 4:42 pm | Posted in consumer travel, lodging, vacation rentals, value in travel | 3 Comments
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by José Balido

Now, I truly do love good hotels. I love beautiful bed-and-breakfasts, intimate inns, ravishing resorts, and hip hostels. I love having a range of services (including housekeeping to clean up after me, God bless ’em), stylish décor, and amenities like really cool bars to hang out in.

But let’s face it: it’s not like there aren’t drawbacks. There’s usually not enough storage space (and when was the last time you saw an actual closeable drawer or cabinet in a hotel bathroom?). On the budget end, there’s never a kitchen and rarely even a mini-bar. When there is a minibar, it’s inevitably overpriced and often doesn’t let you store your own potables easily or sometimes even at all. And unless you’re seriously shelling out, in-room kitchenettes can often turn out to be exercises in frustration. All the above goes pretty much double, of course, if you’re traveling en famille.

Who wants to cook on vacation? Not every day, maybe, but it's a great way to save money.

Who wants to cook on vacation? Not every day, maybe, but it's a great way to save money.

I’ve found that if you’re not too hung up on the daily maid service, renting an apartment or house or villa can deliver a good deal more lodging for your money, and for families it can be an absolute godsend, with more room to spread out and to prepare meals or even just snacks. And even apart from the added value, I’ve usually found that these rentals put you right into the community in a way that more conventional by-the-night digs rarely do. It can provide real insight into how locals live — whether you’re talking about Paris, Sausalito, or Buenos Aires.

I remember, to cite but one colorful example, renting a flat in downtown Prague, on the fairytale-beautiful street known as Havelská (no relation to ex-prez Václav Havel). By day, the arcades and the street in front of our 600-year-old building hosted an outdoor green market as popular with locals as with tourists, and we’d meet neighbors coming up and down the stairs with their shopping all the time. Late at night, when the area cleared out, the street and adjacent Coal Market Square turned into, er, another kind of market — never dangerous, but it was certainly a trip and a half to note the wide (in some cases literally) variety of ladies of the evening that strutted their stuff. Bittersweet, too, how coming back from clubbing in the wee hours, the only ladies left standing were Gypsy grannies (seriously!) who’d not yet discovered the wonders of upper-lip depilation.

OK, maybe that wasn’t exactly the best example for families. But it still shows the kind of insight you can gain into local societies — an advantage that most hotels, offering a very tourist-oriented experience, rarely offer. And as short-term rentals and rental agencies become more and more common in more and more destinations, it’s easier than ever to live more like a local when you travel. A Google search will produce any number of outfits renting apartments all around the world, such as the Apartment Rental Service Worldwide. Give it a try on your next trip!

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