The airlines evidently didn’t get the memo about the recession not quite being over.
To be fair, they’re caught in a vicious circle. Fewer of us are flying these days, so airlines are cutting capacity, meaning they’re putting fewer planes in the air. When capacity drops, fares rise, as do the peak travel surcharges levied around spring break time in March and April. Add in checked baggage fees, and even fewer people will want to fly.
Speaking of baggage fees, guests at Kimpton Hotels will get a $25 room credit if they show a receipt proving they got jacked for checking a second bag with their airline. And every airline charges around $25 for the privilege, except for Southwest, who still lets you check your first two bags for free.
The point is, Kimpton’s gesture is sort of a metaphor for the travel landscape this spring. As airlines are raising their fares and fees, hotels are bringing their rates down. Why? Because unlike the airlines, “hotels can't cut capacity to account for low travel volumes. Instead they're forced to lower rates,” observes Jeff Pecor, senior communications director for flight price tracking site Yapta.com. The market for hotel deals is so flooded, Pecor says, that online travel agencies like Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz “are packaging hotels and airfare very attractively just to sell the hotel inventory."
Depending on where you fly, the news isn’t all bad for airfares, either. In some destinations, low-cost carriers have entered the fray and provoked existing airlines in those markets to lower their fares, notes Chris McGinnis, director of the Travel Skills Group. In other places, spring is not peak travel season, which may also yield savings. Game it right and a bargain hotel, cheap airfare, seasonal special, or some combination may add up to a deal. Here are a few places to find one.
Airfare pricing is looking good in Denver this spring because “Southwest is making a big push, competing with entrenched local carrier Frontier,” McGinnis says. Airfares are down 20% in the city compared to last year, he says, noting that spring as well as summer are less expensive times to vacation in Colorado. Condos and resorts drop their rates and hiking, biking, and river rafting fill the void left by the departing ski season. Pecor concurs that “affordable, off-peak fares to many ski destinations” ought to crop up this spring and likes Denver as well as Utah for their potential travel deals.
The Aloha State is off-season in the spring and fall, Pecor says, yet the weather remains awesome even as airfares drop during those times, he says. Looking specifically at Maui, however, airfares likely will hover at the same levels as 2009, says Jon Douglas, managing editor at Bing Travel, yet “the average cost of a weeklong stay at premium hotels is down 21% from last year,” he says. Maui’s phenomenal beaches and begging-to-be-driven road to Hana are other reasons to go, Douglas suggests.
The average price of a week-long trip to Vegas is down 14% from a year ago, Douglas says, largely due to discounted hotel rates geared toward trying to fill a ton of rooms on and off the Strip. One potential catalyst for room discounts and other travel incentives this spring might be the Las Vegas CityCenter, which opened on the Strip in December. Just as CityCenter may launch specials to bring guests in, existing Strip hotels will probably follow suit to lure guests away from the 67-acre complex, worth checking out even if you don’t stay in one of its hotels. Its amusements range from a fine art collection, including works by Claes Oldenburg and Frank Stella, to a Ciirque du Soleil show celebrating Elvis Presley, who of course put the viva in Las Vegas.
While not often regarded as a spring destination, Milwaukee is the beneficiary of an ongoing price war between Air Tran and Southwest, McGinnis says, bringing fares down and making travel to this already inexpensive vacation spot more attractive. Among the reasons to go is Wisconsin Dells, “a great under-the-radar family destination with more water parks than anywhere else in the country,” he says. Since many of them are indoors, even brisk spring weather shouldn’t pose a problem.
Mexico continues to be a good value in 2010, McGinnis says, as the country “still has a hangover because of swine flu and violence, making it very inexpensive, and the dollar is still relatively strong there.” He adds that even historically expensive resort areas like Cabo San Lucas are dropping prices and that “Cancun has always been a pretty good deal and perhaps even more so now.”
Airfares to Orlando are up 12% from this time last year, says Douglas, but hotel rates are down 14% in a city that has more hotels and vacation rentals than it could ever hope to fill in one season, meaning lodging bargains ought to be plentiful. Package deals that couple hotel stays with admission tickets to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter should start hitting in earnest, soon, as the breathlessly anticipated theme park opens at Universal Orlando this spring.
When low-cost airline Virgin America opened its hub three years ago at San Francisco International Airport, it set fare wars in motion that haven’t completely subsided. And because many companies have cut back on business travel to meetings and conventions, McGinnis says, leisure travelers will find bargain rates at many of the city’s big downtown hotels, particularly Friday through Sunday, when most business travelers have already flown home.
Speaking of when to go, Douglas says if you can get away during the first week of March, you’ll save an average of $65 per person on airfare versus flying during the week of March 22, a particularly popular time for spring breakers and vacationing families on their school breaks. Likewise, McGinnis suggests trying to avoid March altogether and traveling instead in May, a less costly shoulder month separating the last gasps of spring break from the busy summer travel season beginning after Memorial Day.