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A Great Time to Travel
by Jim McGee

AirlinerContrary to the fear that some are feeling in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks now may be the best time in years to take your dream photo trip. Every major airline is running steep discounts on fares.  Rental car companies are running discount programs. Hotel chains are linking up with the airlines to offer packages that include further discounts on both your airfare and on your rooms.  New programs are being announced almost daily as both the industry and the government try to encourage travelers to get back out and return life to normal.

"Well Jim", you're probably thinking, "that sounds great but isn't it dangerous to fly now?"

I just returned from a trip to Florida and I'm flying out again in a few weeks. The odds are still far better that you'll get hit by a meteor on your back patio than that you'll die in a terrorist attack. 

As more people begin to figure out the obvious and the public starts flying again, these steep discounts will go away. So book now and take advantage of them. It's good for you, it's good for the economy, and it will get you away from all the doom and gloom on the TV.  Most importantly, if we change our lives and continue to slow our economy, we give them a victory.  I, for one, can't stomach the idea of giving an inch to the bastards.

So what follows are some tips on turning a bad situation into a good one; namely a dream photo vacation.

Tips on booking your flight
Whenever possible choose a direct flight with no connections.  Connecting flights only stretch out the travel day and mean that you (or your bags) could miss the connection.  The airlines try and get you to take connecting flights whenever possible because its more convenient for them (it fills more planes).  The only time I'll take a connection is if there is a significant savings on the ticket price or if it's the only flight available.

If you're forced to make a connecting flight make sure there is more than a half hour between flights.  Airports are huge and Murphy's law dictates that your arriving and departing flights will be on opposite sides of the airport.  And if you've got a connection through a Midwest hub, opt for a Southern hub such as Dallas, St. Louis, or Houston rather than a Northern hub such as Chicago.  During the winter Northern hubs are subject to severe weather delays from snow and ice storms.  How many times have you seen those pictures of people sleeping on the floor at O'Hare?

None of us likes to get out of bed at 4am or be up past midnight (unless we're out celebrating).  That means the earliest and latest flights of the day often have unbooked seats.  That also means you can often find reduced fares on those flights.  In several cases the fare difference was more than enough to cover my staying at the airport hotel the night before.  Why would I want to do that you ask?  Well if you stay at the hotel before your flight many hotels allow you to leave your car in their parking lot while you travel - saving you the fee for long term parking.  This is especially true if the hotel is just outside the airport property.  On a recent trip I  wound up $400 dollars ahead even when factoring in the hotel and dinner that evening.  And that early flight is no problem when you're 15 minutes from check-in via the hotel shuttle.  The ideal is to catch an early flight out and a late flight back.

If you live in a major metro area, it also pays to check prices at more than one airport.  Living outside of Philadelphia I can easily get to airports in Philadelphia, Newark, and Atlantic City.  If I want to increase my commute I can also use Baltimore and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.  How much difference can it make?  On flights to PMA last year it was $600 cheaper to fly from Newark vs. Philadelphia.  This also applies to your destination as well.  Is it significantly cheaper to fly into Baltimore vs. D.C.?  It's worth checking.

Join the frequent flyer program for every airline you fly - even if you have no chance of logging enough miles for free tickets with that airline.  As a frequent flyer you'll hear about travel deals that often aren't advertised to the general public.

A question I've gotten a few times regards booking via the Internet, phone, or a travel agent.  Travel agents are great because they handle everything.  You tell them where you want to go and they call back with all the details.  But how much they really dig for alternative rates depends on the agent.  Like any industry, some work hard and are great at their jobs, and some are lazy.  The difference can be hundreds to thousands of dollars in cost to you.  Every airline advertises that their best rates are on their Web site.  The fact is that this is a lie.  In the weird distorted world of airline logic, blocks of reserved seats are reserved for phone agents, their Web site, travel packages, and the Mad Hatter.  Further these blocks are broken up by cost.  The first seats sold are at the lowest prices.  Once they sell through that block, the price is higher for the next block and so on.

If the cheap seat block allocated to the Web sells through before the cheap seat block for the phone agents, then you'll get a better price on the phone.  Make sense?  Well, it doesn't but that's the way the airlines do it.  So your best bet is to check the prices online as well as by phone.  This quirky system is why there can be a thousand dollar spread in ticket price between what you paid and what the guy in the seat next to you paid.

What about online services like Priceline.com and Travelocity?  I used to check them as well but I NEVER found a better rate through those services unless I was willing to connect through Alaska to go from Houston to Miami, so I don't even bother.

The final item to check is the vacation packages offered by the airline.  This is where the airline teams up with hotels to offer combined discounts (sometimes including a rental car) that can be significant - sometimes better than you can do booking the hotel separately yourself. 

Hotels
But what if you found a great airfare (that's less than the package airfare) but the package hotel is better than the hotel is quoting you?  Don't despair.  Sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too.  The hotel has "blocked" a number of rooms at the discounted rate for the airline.  Call the hotel directly and ask for the front desk (not the 800 reservation line for large chains).  Explain to the manager on the desk that you're booking through XYZ Air and that their vacation desk has rooms blocked through their hotel.  Explain that their allocated flights don't match your flight plan.  If you book your own flight will the hotel extend you the same preferred rate or give you one of the blocked rooms?  I've only been told no once.

When booking hotel reservations always ask what discounts are offered for groups such as AAA or corporate associations such as SCM that you may belong to.  Are there special rates offered depending on what credit card you use?  Some large chains offer partner discounts for frequent flyers as long as you flew on that airline to get to their hotel.

Another trick for finding lower hotel rates in major metro areas is to get out of the center of town.  Today every city has a Web site.  You can use this site to link to maps of the mass transit system.  A hotel that is fifteen minutes from downtown by train may be half or less as much as a hotel in town.  Getting out of the center of town has another advantage.  Many cities charge exorbitant taxes on hotel stays of 15% or more (by the time you add up all the fees).  If your bill is $150 per night for a week totaling $1050.  Taxes and fees of 15% would be $157.50.  Get outside the city limits and you're looking at sub $100 accommodations (with the same chain) and significantly less tax.  Just watch the location of the hotel.  Nobody wants to be looking out their hotel window at the local crack dealers.

Often the best value out there are Bed and Breakfasts.  Not only do they make you feel like a guest in someone's house rather than a guest in a hotel, but the chances of someone bothering your gear are almost nil.  B&B prices are usually below the major hotel chains and the owners can often put you on to some great photo locations.

Car rentals
Rental cars can be had for some amazingly low rates right now.  The best I found was a deal from Budget on Ranger pick-ups that works out to around $14 per day if you rent for a week or more.  But most rental companies are discounting throughout their lineups right now.  One company has luxury cars for only $30 per day in certain cities.

As to whether you should pick up the extra insurance on the rental, check with your auto insurance agent.  Depending on your policy, the answer is often no.  Additionally, some credit cards provide additional insurance on rental cars.  Just make sure  you check out the whole car before driving off their lot.  Make sure that any scratches or dings are noted in writing on the rental agreement before you go and make sure you know any restrictions on the time the car is to be returned.  Some rental companies start tacking on hourly charges for each hour the car is late. These charges can quickly add up to more than the daily rate for the car.

Confirmations, bumps, and hassles
Re-confirm ALL of your reservations three days prior to your trip - air, hotel, and rental.  If something was screwed up or overbooked, it's better to find out when you're at home with a couple of days to sort it out.

When you make your reservations make sure you get a seat assignment.  This ensures you WILL have a seat when that plane leaves the ground.  If the flight is overbooked, another wonderful airline tradition, you'll see a sign at the gate asking for volunteers willing to be bumped from the flight.  In return the airline will give you perks ranging from free tickets to hotel rooms.  But like most things that sound good, you need to ask exactly what the details are.

First, what exactly are they offering?  If it's a free ticket, is it an unrestricted ticket or a restricted ticket with blackout dates?  What is the status of the next few flights to the same city?  If they're all overbooked as well, forget it.  You won't be getting out that day.  Don't believe the gate agent that tells you "it doesn't matter that they're all overbooked because there are always a few people who don't show up."  They don't care because at the end of the night when all those flights have taken off full, you'll be someone else's problem.

If it doesn't matter if you're held up another day than the bump will look tempting.  Make sure they give you a voucher that says they'll provide lodging if they can't get you on a flight that night.  Then ask EXACTLY where that lodging is.  I once missed a connection because of mechanical difficulties with our plane.  American Airlines idea of accommodations was a hotel FAR from the airport (we had to pay cab fare both ways) that was in a neighborhood so friendly that the hotel had both bars on the first floor windows, and bullet proof glass protecting the front desk.  So know what you're getting into.

New Restrictions

The details are in flux but some common sense rules of thumb will keep you out of trouble.

  • Allow yourself extra time before your flight.
  • You're limited to one carry-on bag and one personal article such as a purse, briefcase, or laptop case per person.
  • Carry photo ID at all times
  • Don't carry anything sharp on your person or in your carry-on bag.  This includes items such as nail clippers, disposable razors, files, hand tools (such as screw drivers), Leatherman style tools, or Swiss Army knives.  Don't rationalize.  If it's metal and sharp it goes in your checked baggage.
  • Now is not the time to carry on baseball bats, ski polls, etc.
  • No aerosol cans.  If you need to travel with hair spray put it in your checked bag or buy it when you get there.
  • Only people with tickets are allowed down to the gate.    There are variations from airline to airline on rules for unescorted minor children.  Confirm, then re-confirm the rules with the airline prior to departure.
  • There MUST be a bag tag on all checked and carry-on bags and two tags wouldn't be a bad idea as untagged bags may be pulled off the plane.  Put a business card inside your bags in case they are lost by baggage handlers.  It increases the chance you'll see your bags again.
  • Do NOT leave your bag unattended.  Unattended bags are are likely to be confiscated.
  • Do NOT leave your car unattended at the curb when dropping off passengers or it won't be there when you get back.  Unattended vehicles are being towed.
  • Don't be surprised if you're asked to remove laptops, cell phones or other electronic devices for hand inspections.
  • You may be "wanded" by a handheld metal detector in addition to the "walk through" detectors that we're used to.  If something in your pockets or on you clothing sets off the wand you may be patted down.

Don't be put off by the tighter security.  Seasoned travelers will observe that the increased security is still not as tight as they've seen in some European countries.

 

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