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Home Systems: Great Deals from
Traveling - The Way it's 
Supposed to Be
by Jim McGee

Last week I did something astounding. Two days before a meeting in Boston I went online and booked a flight for less than the cost of a train ticket. It was also less than the cost of driving from Philadelphia to Boston. While that in itself is astounding since most airlines see fit to charge shocking prices for late bookings what followed was even more astounding to this grizzled frequent traveler.

The morning of my flight I returned to the same Web site where I checked in and printed my boarding pass. At the airport I parked in short term parking (I was flying back the same day). With no luggage other than a briefcase I breezed through security, walked directly to the gate fifteen minutes before the boarding call and was in the air a few minutes later with no fuss, no bother and no waiting in any line. An hour later I was sitting in a restaurant in Logan airport in my first meeting of the day.

After another meeting in town that afternoon I returned to the airport with enough time for a leisurely cup of chowder before boarding the flight home where I walked back to my car and was home in time for a late dinner. The ONLY line I stood in all day was a security line at Logan on the way home. Did I mention all this took place at a time when the country was in an orange alert?

Now if you don't travel much this may not seem like a big deal. If you're a frequent flyer it's nothing short of astounding and it bodes very well for photographers. On the drive home I started fantasizing about throwing my gear and two days change of clothes in a photo backpack and hopping on a plane. Can you say low cost, no hassle photo getaway? Read on.

The Way it Shouldn't Be U.S. Airways has a hub in Philadelphia, which means they control a large number of gates here. That in turn dictates that I use them for many of my flights and that I at least check their rates when booking any sort of trip. There are four outlets I check for U.S. Airways tickets: an 800 number, their Web site, U.S. Airways Vacations, and I've seen price differentials of over $800 for the same seat between these four - particularly if it's close to my travel day.

Now I'm picking on U.S. Airways because their hub is here. But pick any major carrier. They all use similar pricing structures. Depending on when, where, and how you buy your ticket there can be price swings that approach four digits. Unlike every other market in the world where you can pick up cheaper prices on goods that are about to spoil, airline tickets go UP dramatically in price the closer you get to the day of the flight. Worse, airlines allocate tickets in blocks to various outlets. If their Web site has sold through it's low priced and mid priced block you'll pay a fortune to book online. Call one of the other outlets and they may still have tickets available in the lower priced blocks. So despite the fact that they're all dispensing tickets through the same network the prices are all over the board.* Is your head starting to hurt yet? Want to fly first class or business class? Now it's you wallet that will do the hurting.

Big carriers also seem to be more prone to hassles and delays. Several carriers are touting kiosk check-ins as a way to avoid lines, but in Philadelphia I've experienced kiosk problems when booking through the Web. It's happened enough that I've given up on the kiosks.

Triumph of the Little Guys My hop to Boston happened to be on AirTran Airways. They're one of the new low cost airlines that are doing so well at a time when the big boys are hemorrhaging cash. But I've had similar positive experiences with other small carriers.

Why are these small carriers doing so well?

Travel can be a royal pain and they make it easier. I can go to their Web site and check prices and flight availability easily. Want to compare flights on different times or days. It's a simple mouse click or two. Want to do the same on U.S. Airways site? You'll have to cancel your itinerary and restart a long multi-screen process from the beginning for each schedule variation you want to check.

Best of all these small carriers have standard pricing on flights. It doesn't matter whether you book the flight two weeks before or the day before. If the seat is available you pay the same rate. Thinking about upgrading your seat? Depending on the low cost carrier you can upgrade your seat for as little as $25 on some flights. One carrier offers discounted upgrades at the gate on any unsold business class seats for under $50. And it's not uncommon for these guys to have sales on destinations they're trying to promote or on new destinations they've added.

Triumph of the Traveling Photographer 

Late night jazz in 
New Orleans.

That's where you and I come in. The big carriers are feeling pressure from a down travel market and from the little guys who are stepping in and taking over routes. Do a little shopping and you can go darned near anywhere for under $300 and to a surprising number of places for under $100. A little Web browsing of round trip flights leaving from Philadelphia found: The Bahamas for $79, Montreal $150, Caribbean Destinations under $250, London and Paris for under $300, and three day hotel and flight packages to Florida for under $300.

Even the rental car companies are jumping in with some amazing deals. I received an offer from Budget just this morning offering a weekly rate on a either a mid-size or SUV. That works out to just $19.80 per day. Plenty of room to pack your gear for a trip into a national park or up into the mountains.**

So where is the special place that you've always wanted to photograph? Do you lust after Yellowstone or Arches? Do you crave Denali? Always wanted to shoot the sunset off Kona? How about street shooting in Rome? Now is the time folks.

Sunset in the Caribbean

Nothing gets the photographic juices flowing like a road trip to a great location - even if it's a just a two or three-day getaway. With the rates so low, and low cost carriers making it cheaper and easier to travel what are you waiting for? 

Would you rather spend this weekend cutting the grass?

What About Anti-American Sentiments in Europe?

An jaunting cart clatters through the countryside in southwest Ireland.

There have been reports floating around about anti-American sentiments in Europe, particularly in Paris, yet I've heard from a number of readers recently who've had just the opposite experience.

How you handle yourself goes a long way. Learn common phrases such as "hello", "thank you", "please", "pardon me" and "do you speak English" in the local language. This small effort goes a long way.

That doesn't mean you won't encounter the occasional jerk. But you can find those easily enough at home too. My experience has been that if you're friendly and open you'll get a good reception almost anywhere you travel.


* This is an assumption on my part but it seems logical. Every ticket outlet has to have access to a database that indicates what seats are available on any given flight. That means it should be trivial to share pricing information as well.


** Just remember to read the fine print. With most rental car insurance policies, and many personal auto policies, your insurance coverage stops the moment you take that SUV off the pavement.

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