By Carol Pucci
“Everything’s up for grabs. Nobody knows where the bottom is,” says Joe Brancatelli, the publisher of Joesentme.com, an online newsletter for business travelers.
We hear a lot about people postponing vacations, but the truth is “leisure travelers,” those of us traveling for reasons other than business, are foot soldiers in an industry dominated by corporate road warriors.
A steep decline in business travel is emptying airline seats faster than the airlines can cut flights. Hotel vacancies are rising. All of which is good news for those who can afford to travel.
Even better news: The bargains will likely last through summer, traditionally a time when prices soar. “In general, we’re seeing some pretty fantastic deals for travel,” says Hugh Crean, general manager of Live Search Farecast, a Seattle company that predicts airfare trends.
Crean says average domestic fares for summer so far are down 10% from last year; average international fares are down 20%. Take advantage of all this while you can because things will change. Fuel prices will rise. More airlines will merge or go bankrupt.
Those in the know predict fundamental shifts, especially in air travel. Translate that to mean fewer airlines, fewer flights, more route cuts, higher prices and more fees … eventually.
“All the good news we’re seeing today, we’re going to pay for later,” says Brancatelli. “Eventually supply will catch up with demand. We just don’t know when.”
The hotel discounts? They’ll be around for a while. No worries about finding a discount on a last-minute room almost anywhere this summer. But deciding whether to buy an airline ticket now or wait, always a hard call, is tricky.
The temptation is to lock in early, but that could be a costly decision if your trip is several months or more away. Just ask someone who bought a ticket for a flight between Seattle and London in early February for spring or summer travel. Hit particularly hard by the downturn in the British economy and an oversupply of seats, airlines recently dropped fares for travel in late spring to the $500 range, including taxes, down from the $900 quoted in February. Summer fares dipped into the $800 range, compared with $1,200 earlier.
“It’s sort of like predicting the stock market. You just don’t know because the airlines don’t know,” says Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com. “They’re reacting to demand.”
Airlines have been dropping routes and parking planes, but they create schedules months in advance and haven’t been able to change them fast enough to cope with falling demand.
So what should you do if you’re planning to travel later this summer, fall or thinking ahead to the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays?
Brancatelli advises settling for what he calls a “fair fare,” a price you feel comfortable with, based on experience, a knowledge of what fares have been in the past, or just a gut sense.
Take advantage of some tools to cut down on the guesswork:
-Comparison shop by searching the aggregator sites such as kayak.com, tripadvisor.com or farecompare.com. These sites show the range of fares available for various flights, then provide links to book directly on airline websites or on online sites such as Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, etc. And I find it’s smart to always double-check to see if you can’t find the best price on an airline’s website, even if one of the aggregators steers you elsewhere.
-Know where the competition is. Southwest is an aggressive discounter. Major airlines often follow its fare sales.
-Consult Farecast.live.com, a website that tracks fares and makes predictions on whether they will go up or down within the next seven days.
This is a good time to keep in mind that if your fare drops between the time you buy a nonrefundable ticket and the time you fly, you may be eligible for a credit for future travel (not a cash refund), depending on the airline. Policies vary. Most of the bigger airlines charge $100 to $250 rebooking fees that negate or dilute any savings, but there are exceptions.
© 2009, The Seattle Times.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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