Where the Fall Travel Deals Are

Fall travel deals are a bit like those cousins you haven’t seen in a while. They show up without much warning during late summer, hang around your house for a few days, and disappear as quickly as they came, holding a vague promise of returning next year.

One set of couch surfing cousins tends to attract another, but the good news is, the same is true of fall travel deals. If you keep your eyes open you “will likely see limited time deals pop up throughout the remainder of the summer,” says Jeff Pecor, senior communications director at Yapta.com, and “if travelers want to find a good deal on fall flights, they should start by looking at the various airfare deals that are being offered now from nearly every major airline.”

When it comes to airfare, there’s good and bad news for fall travelers, says Travelocity senior editor Genevieve Shaw Brown. “Fares are higher than 2009, but haven’t reached their fall of 2008 levels,” she says. “Average round-trip domestic airfare this fall is $320, compared to $284 in 2009 and $342 in 2008. Average round-trip international airfare is $769, compared to $643 in 2009 and $785 in 2008.”

“The truth is,” Brown adds, “2009 was such an anomaly that it’s more accurate to compare [2010 fall fares] to 2008 prices -- and by that standard, things are looking pretty good for leisure travelers.”

Along those same lines, the very definition of a deal is changing with the times, says George Hobica, founder and president of Airfarewatchdog.com. He points to a recent Cathay Pacific sale where round trip fares to Asia this fall were around a grand. For this kind of flight “we used to think $500 with tax was a deal,” he says.

Hobica adds that one constant for the fall is that the period running from right after Labor Day to mid November is when the “lowest prices traditionally hit.” Once we get to the week before Thanksgiving, he points out, “all hell breaks loose.” Concurs Jeanenne Tornatore, senior editor at Orbitz.com, if your fall plans do incorporate travel over the holiday period, travelers can “hurt themselves in waiting, not just [in terms] of pricing but in terms of getting seats.”

Here are some other things that the experts suggest you bear in mind as you mull over your fall travel plans.

Consider beachy bargains in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Hawaii.

While June through November is hurricane season for Mexico and the Caribbean, for many travelers the “appeal of the prices outweighs the risks of booking [during this period],“ Tornatore says. Cancun is among the hot spots with worthy deals, she says, as are destinations like Aruba, where a preponderance of all-inclusive properties could mean particularly good values for bargain hunters this fall. Hobica would add Bermuda to the list of hurricane-susceptible places that might yield seasonal deals. Also keep your eye on new airline routes, he says, noting that Virgin Atlantic has recently announced new routes to Mexico. “Usually when an airline launches a new route” we see bargain fares,” he says.

In general, Brown says, “if you were priced out of popular beach destinations this summer, September is often far cheaper and the weather is just as nice. The Caribbean is also a good bet this time of year, as prices will be higher when the winter months arrive.” And when it comes to good off-season weather, Pecor likes Hawaii. “While Hawaii's off-season is in the spring and fall, the weather is still terrific during this time of year, making it one of the best getaways for frugal travelers.”

Hotels will yield the deepest fall savings.

If you continue to miss out on fall bargain airfares, take heart that the hotel industry is letting its deals linger a bit longer. “A significant number of properties have promotions where the booking period is [by the] end of October [or the] end of December,” Tornatore says. Overall, says Brown, “more good news for fall travelers [is that] the hotel industry hasn’t recovered as quickly as the airline industry and fall rates are on par with the lows of 2009. Hotels can’t cut capacity the way airlines can and the easiest way to fill rooms is by lowering rates.” Aside from lower hotel rates, fall “freebies like upgrades and resort credits are very common,” Brown adds.

Through analyzing hotel data that translates to what travel industry types call the ADR or average daily rate, Brown says there are definite hotel bargains this fall, to the point where rates are “even lower than at this time last year.” For example, Orlando hotel rates are 4% lower than at this time in 2009, San Francisco 3%. More dramatic examples are San Jose Cabo – whose average daily hotel rates are down 26% from this time last year -- and Tampa/St. Petersburg, whose ADR has dropped 38% from 2009.

Looking at the numbers another way, Tornatore notes that for air, hotel, and package bookings made on Orbitz.com as of mid-August for travel from September 7 to November 24 of this year, Orlando hotels had an average daily rate of $95, on top of which “kids are back in school,” which means “a lot of theme park promotions and [attractive] meal package pricing” for travelers. Another sub-$100 average daily hotel rate was Denver at $92, and more good news for those interested in Colorado this fall is that with the beginning of ski season falling as it always does around mid-November, travelers ought to find “cheap deals in Breckenridge, Vail, Keystone, and Aspen” September through early November, Tornatore says.

Viva Las Vegas, and package deals

Based on the booking data Tornatore quoted me, the top domestic fall destination is Las Vegas, whose ADR, based on bookings for September through November, is $92. You’ll reap even greater savings on your Vegas vacation if you book your room as part of a package, which generally holds true for other destinations with excessive hotel inventory. “Hotels need to get rid of rooms but they don’t want consumers to see how below their rack rate [the rooms] really are,” Tornatore says, and these deeply discounted room rates bring the cost of the air-hotel package down.

Given Hobica’s contention that a definition of a bargain is changing when it comes to airfare, he says package deals can be particularly worthwhile for international fall trips, citing a deal he noticed recently through Singapore Airlines that involved two nights in Singapore and three nights in Bali, with flights departing from several major U.S. cities. “I think [the full cost] was $1299,” Hobica recalls. “The hotels were really good hotels, it included taxes, and [they were] great airlines.” He adds that he learned about the deal through an e-mail alert from the airline, and if you’re fall bargain-minded you ought to sign up for similar alerts from airlines as well as credit card companies.

In terms of where the bargains are not, the fact that kids of all ages are going back to school may be good news for Orlando fans, bad news for travelers in the college-heavy Northeast corridor, which is also entering its high season for fall leaf peeping. Though if you are hoping to leaf peep in New England, ”travel mid-week to get lower rates,” Brown says, and Tornatore suggests that if you want to drive to and stay in a picturesque town, act now, as rental cars as well as rooms in smaller properties book up quickly.

A final tip about airfares comes from Pecor, who notes that “fares are higher for travel on Friday and Sunday, and this trend will continue into the fall. “Even during sales, you can expect fares to be at least $30 more each way on Friday and Sunday. If you want to save, fly home on Saturday and rest before you go back to work on Monday.”