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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 21, 2006

Despite rising costs, having affordable vacation possible

By BRAD FOSS
Associated Press

Travel guide author Pauline Frommer recommends that budget-conscious travelers try to negotiate the price of a hotel room over the phone or select a destination that is less popular during the summer.

MIKE DERER | Associated Press

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The cost of travel has been going up all year, and that is making it difficult but not impossible to find summer bargains.

The U.S. travel industry is enjoying greater pricing power in large part because it has succeeded in minimizing the supply of airline seats, hotel rooms and rental cars at a time when demand for these services is rising. Fliers are also paying more as airlines pass along their soaring jet-fuel expenses.

With Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer, just around the corner, the sweetest deals may already have been snapped up, travel experts said, although it is still possible to save a few bucks by planning ahead and remaining flexible when it comes to itinerary details. For example:

  • Families that can get time off together in June and September will generally find travel to be more affordable, and less crowded, than those taking trips in July and August.

  • When visiting coastal towns, consider staying at a hotel that is, say, a one-mile drive or better yet, walk from the beach, instead of splurging for the ocean view.

  • Begin and end 7-day trips midweek instead of on weekends, when airports are busier and ticket prices often are higher.

    Guidebook author Pauline Frommer said that while travel Web sites are an effortless way to search thousands of rooms and rates at once, it is also worthwhile to try and negotiate an even better deal over the phone, particularly when dealing with smaller family-owned hotels.

    "Sometimes it will work," she said. "Just make sure you're not taking 'No' from somebody who doesn't have the authority to say 'Yes.' "

    But probably the best strategy of all, Frommer said, is to "look at the places that aren't as popular in summer," such as the Caribbean, Mexico and Australia. Putting up with potentially very hot weather, she added, may just be "part of the deal."

    Dick Spencer of Nashville understands this.

    He and his wife have visited St. Croix, a U.S. Virgin Island, many times during the summer and they are planning to return this year.

    However, even to St. Croix, Spencer found that airfares were noticeably higher this year, and that the least-expensive tickets may require flying in a less-roomy 50-seat regional jet.

    Still, lodging is significantly cheaper in summer throughout the Caribbean.

    Spencer, an executive with a biometrics technology provider, said years of frequent business travel have made him a savvy purchaser of airline tickets.

    He books flights through the carriers rather than third-party Web sites because in his experience the service is usually better if there is some kind of mixup or an itinerary needs changing. And Spencer said he prefers to start and end his vacations on Wednesdays "both because of the lower number of travelers and because the fares are generally less."

    When it comes to rental- car rates, consumers have some decent leverage, experts said. Unlike airlines and hotels, many car-rental agencies do not charge cancellation fees, so there is no risk in booking early and then, just before the trip, checking to see if the rates have dropped.

    These tricks of the trade may be more useful than ever before given that travel costs have climbed across the board:

  • Airline ticket prices are on the rise as demand from business and leisure travelers increases at the same time carriers are reducing their domestic carrying capacity to keep costs down a strategy that has also resulted in jam-packed planes. The soaring price of jet fuel has also prompted major carriers to raise fares five times this year. Compared with last year, the average price of the cheapest domestic leisure fares is 4 percent higher than a year ago, according to Harrell Associates. "Airlines are trying to lean more on price than volume," said John Heimlich, chief economist of the Air Transport Association.

  • Hotel rates are climbing for similar reasons. With very few new hotels built in 2005, the existing properties are filling up quickly and from a pricing standpoint "the hotels are back in the driver's seat," said Jan Freitag, a vice president at Smith Travel Research. Room rates are up 6 to 9 percent from a year ago, with the biggest increases occurring in the luxury market.

  • With gas prices expected to average $2.71 a gallon this summer, a 14 percent increase from last year, it might be cheaper to fly. The Hooymans, of Appleton, Wis., discovered this on a recent 10-day road trip through the Southwest. Upon returning, Pamella Hooyman said her husband added up all of the gasoline and hotel receipts (fuel averaged around $2.94 per gallon and hotels about $120 per night) and decided it would have been better to fly to Albuquerque.