Highway

Virgin’s 2-day sale kicks off fall travel season

Virgin America launched a systemwide airfare sale today- but it only lasts 2 days. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Election-year uncertainty and a weak US economy combined with higher gasoline prices, airfare and hotel rates have not deterred American travelers this summer, and healthy demand should carry on into the fall months.

Even though summer does not officially end until September 21, the fall travel season starts this week and extends through mid-November when demand begins to rise in anticipation of a relatively early Thanksgiving (Thursday, November 22).

Business travel “season” also starts this week as executives head back out on the road after summer breaks to visit clients they missed over the summer, or to attend meetings and conventions, which peak during the fall months. While there will likely be fewer visitors from economically embattled Europe, healthy demand in the US and Canada, as well as an influx of visitors from Asia are helping to counterbalance that decline.

Best Western is not a publicly held company, so it’s the only major hotel player (2,000 hotels in US) that releases valuable forward-looking data. Looking ahead, its advance bookings in the US and Canada for September, October and November are up 10% compared to this time last year. Advance bookings at airport hotels in North America, where guests tend to be predominately business travelers, are up 18%. Similarly, advance bookings at hotels located in intown areas are up 13%. (Disclosure: I write for Best Western’s youmustbetrippin.com blog)

Gasoline Prices: The recent spike in gasoline prices is having minimal impact on travel plans in the US. In early June, the average price of a gallon of gasoline was $3.52. It then dipped to a low of about $3.30 in early July. By the end of August, it had increased rather dramatically to $3.72 according to the US Energy Administration. However, the price jump at the pump did little to keep Americans off the road for Labor Day—according to AAA, travel volume over the long holiday weekend was 3% higher than last year—up to the highest level since the recession began in late 2007. As demand for gasoline declines during Autumn, prices will hopefully decline, too.

Airfare: As the price of a barrel of oil approaches $100 again, airlines are feeling the impact of rising fuel costs, and in August they raised fares across the board for the fifth time this year. However, during fall months, travel demand declines compared to peak summer travel season, so travelers can expect some relief from high fares in coming months. However, the days of broad across-the-board fares sales are long gone—so smart bargain-focused travelers need to keep their eyes peeled for sales of very short duration between specific markets instead. For example, Virgin America launched a two-day fare sale this week good for trips up until October 31- fares are quite good, i.e., less than $300 for transcon trips to NYC or DC. But they are not available on Sundays or Mondays.

In the second half of 2012, airlines will offer seven million fewer seats, and nearly 3% fewer departures than in 2011, according to The Boyd Group. These reductions in airline capacity (down some 11% since 2005), combined with steady demand on the part of consumers, means that airfares during peak holiday travel seasons (Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years) should remain painfully high.

Advance bookings for fall are up 10% at Best Western hotels like this one near SFO (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

But as always, heavily discounted shoulder season fares in early November, early December or early January should be available for those with the flexibility to take advantage of them. Tip: If possible, schedule business trips to coincide with these dips in demand.

Hotel Prices: Due to steady demand, hotel prices are rising, but the increases are uneven across the US. For example, travelers can expect to see significantly higher rates in large coastal cities such as New York, Boston, Washington, San Francisco or Seattle—especially during the fall months when meeting and conventions peak. However, rates in smaller, interior cities have remained mostly flat, or even declined in some cases. This variation means that average rates should increase less than 5% this fall. Tip: During fall months, travel suppliers reach out to business travelers with special deals and bonuses tied to their loyalty programs—keep an eye on blogs like The BAT and program websites for the deals.

Rental Car Prices: Rental car prices have remained mostly flat in recent years, but that could begin to change. This is due to consolidation in the industry, with only three major players left—Avis/Budget, Hertz (which purchased Dollar/Thrifty in August for $2.3 billion) and Enterprise (which now owns Alamo and National brands). Additionally, with airlines cutting service to smaller towns, demand for rental cars will increase as business travelers fly to the nearest airport, and then rent cars to drive to their appointments in smaller towns.

What about YOU? Are you planning to travel more, less or about the same amount this fall compared to last fall? Please leave your comments below. 

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Gorgeous optical illusion in Muni tunnel

Thinking about a Rocky Mountain getaway… or an extension of a business trip to Salt Lake City? Then check out this unusual “wrapped” tunnel at SF Muni’s Montgomery Street Station that depicts Utah’s gorgeous Delicate Arch. Or see the video above! Nice job! Does it make you wanna go? During summer, Delta frequently offers lots of very cheap last minute deals between SFO and its hub at SLC. So if this video has got you inspired, keep an eye out for them.

To drive or fly from SF to LA?

(Image: Mapquest.com)The reality of $4 per gallon gas is changing the way Americans travel this summer and there’s plenty of advice and tools out there about how to deal with it. 

One of my favorites is the new Fly or Drive Calculator from BeFrugal.com. This site helps answer the age old question among frequent travelers… Whether it makes more financial since to drive or fly to your destination. What’s clever about this calculator is that it allows users to enter specific data about their trip, which helps it come up with a specific answer.

For example, you enter your origin and destination and number of travelers. For the “drive” calculation, it asks what type of car you drive, how many hours you plan to drive each day, estimated hotel costs along the way. For the “fly” side, it asks for origin and destination airports, number of bags to check, time needed at the airport, and the estimated cost of getting between the airport and the city.

I frequently hear from travelers in San Francisco wondering if it makes more sense to drive or fly to Los Angeles, about 380 miles away. According to the calculator, it makes a lot more financial sense for a single traveler (going next week) to drive ($140) than fly ($332).

But there are some factors to consider. For example, flying there takes a total of about three and a half hours door-to-door (depending of course how far your destination is from the airport). When driving, total time for the trip is about six and a half hours door-to-door.

As a business traveler, where time is money, I’d probably opt to fly instead of drive to LA.

But if I were traveling on a leisure trip to LA with someone else, the money saved by driving is significant.

According to the calculator, two travelers flying from San Francisco to LAX and back next week would cost nearly $500 total — that includes airfare and ground transport to/from both airports. Driving? Just $146.

Next time you ponder the fly-drive question, whether you are traveling to LA or elsewhere (Las Vegas? Portland? Palm Springs? Visalia?), be sure to use this helpful tool to make the best decision.

When you travel to LA, do you fly or drive? Why?

(A post similar to this recently appeared on the YouMustBeTrippin.com blog I write for Best Western.)

(Image: Mapquest.com)

Top 10 predictions for BATs in 2011

(Photo: Garry Knight / Flickr)

It’s that time of year again…when travel pundits and prognosticators do their best to gaze into the future and predict what may or may not happen in the big wide world of travel in the coming year.

Here are my top ten predictions for frequent travelers in 2011:

1-RISING PRICES. Business travel prices will continue to rise, but not enough to dampen renewed demand.

2-AIRFARE. Fares will continue to rise sharply, especially for flights between cities where only one or two legacy carriers operate. From the Bay Area, all you have to do is follow the route maps of Virgin America, Southwest and JetBlue to know where the deals are (or aren’t). Also, prepare for more fuel surcharges if oil hits $100 per barrel- it’s currently about $89 and rising.

3-TRAVEL DEALS. In terms of travel deals, there will be a wider gap between peak season and off-season prices. Those with flexibility to travel outside the peak travel dates will continue to find good deals and more short-term “flash” type sales. Those who must travel during peak periods will face sticker shock.

4-HOTEL RATES. Due to continued overcapacity, hotel rates should remain about the same or slightly up, on average, over the next year. Hotel rates in New York City will rise, but a steady supply of new hotels opening there should keep rate inflation to acceptable levels, especially among mid-tier properties.

5-FREE WI-FI. More upscale hotel chains will join their midscale counterparts to offer free in-room Wi-Fi. We’ll also see hoteliers pay more attention to bandwidth issues on their existing systems. What good is free Wi-Fi if it doesn’t work? In-flight Wi-Fi prices could moderate as Southwest’s $5 flat fee for inflight Wi-Fi expands to more flights.

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6-LONGER STAYS. Hotel chains will offer more loyalty program promotions designed to get travelers to increase the duration of their stays. (Such as “buy two nights, get the third free.”)

7-DRIVING VS. FLYING. Due to recent changes in security screening, the airport hassle factor could return, and more frequent travelers will consider driving instead of flying. The “five hour rule” might change to the “six hour rule.”

8-MOBILE DEVICES. We’ll see more focus on business travelers’ smart phones, which will soon be used to open hotel room doors and will be accepted as payment instead of credit cards. There will be more promotions designed to encourage the use of mobile devices to book and manage travel reservations

Old school Airfone

9-IN-FLIGHT PHONING. In-flight phone calling, now available on several non-U.S. airlines will become more prevalent and might even be considered by a domestic carrier. High per-call rates and peer pressure should keep abuse in check- remember those pricey GTE Airfones that no one ever used because they were too expensive? I expect the same with in-flight cell phone use.

10-MEETINGS & CONVENTIONS. More of us will attend large annual trade shows and conventions this year as pent up demand is released. Many companies banned non-essential travel over the last two years and business travelers are eager to get out of the office and re-establish face-to-face contact with customers and colleagues. However, I think small and medium-sized meetings will face more competition from virtual alternatives.

Traveling home for a feast? Read this first.

(that's my mom's sweet potato casserole.)
(that’s my mom’s sweet potato casserole!)

With Halloween and the election behind us, the next big calendar item is Thanksgiving. If you are hitting the roads or the skies later this month, read up. There’s plenty to know about the upcoming peak season:

FARES UP. In addition to the slew of new airline fees, airfares are higher this year. Farecompare.com reports that holiday airfares are up about 17 percent over last year. According to Travelocity, the average Thanksgiving season fare for domestic trips is running about $378 roundtrip this year. While that may seem high, consider this: Travelocity says that the average Christmas/New Years week fare this year is $457.

FORGET WEDNESDAY. The TUESDAY before Thanksgiving has emerged as one of the busiest travel days for of the peak Thanksgiving week- even busier than Wednesday.

FULL WEEK. In recent years, an increasing number of Americans are taking the full Thanksgiving week off. This means that you should expect the Friday and Saturday before Thanksgiving to be very busy.

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SUNDAY-MONDAY. The Sunday and Monday after Thanksgiving will be the busiest travel days of the season. Sunday’s busy because that’s when everyone wants to get back home. Monday is busy because you’ve got business travelers headed back out for work on Monday morning along with the Thanksgiving laggards headed home. IMPORTANT: Expect big security line back ups on Monday morning; arrive early just in case.

PACKED FLIGHTS AND AIRPORTS. The Air Transport Association expects 24 million travelers during the 12-day Thanksgiving travel season. That’s up from 23 million last year. Despite the increased demand, airlines have been slow to un-park their planes (or buy new ones) so you should expect every flight to be full or even oversold.

DRIVING IT HOME. Despite the focus on air travel, the fact remains that 80 to 90 percent of all trips home for the holiday are by car. Good news: Gasoline is only a dime-per-gallon more expensive than this time last year. As always, traffic-averse drivers should try to avoid high-volume times such at Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving and Sunday afternoon after.

SWEET SPOT. If you want to breeze through the holiday with little or no hassle, try to travel during the Thanksgiving sweet spot: Thursday, Friday and Saturday are the slowest travel days of the week. Smart drivers leave Thanksgiving morning and get back Saturday night. Three days with the family is plenty, right?

AIRLINE FEE FOR ALL. Despite all the media attention, infrequent travelers might be surprised by new airline fees for checked baggage this year. Here’s what you need to know:

>Only JetBlue and Southwest do not charge for the first checked bag. (JetBlue does charge for the second one; Southwest does not.)

>Only one airline, Spirit Air, charges for carry on bags. ($45 for bags that don’t fit under the seat.) Thankfully, Spirit Air does not fly to San Francisco!

>All other airlines charge $50 to $70 round trip per checked bag.

>Bags that are overweight or oversize are subject to crazy-high fees, so beware.

FAT STAT. The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics says that airlines raked in a whopping $1.6 BILLION in checked baggage fees in just the first six months of this year! (This is a big reason airlines are finally, after years in the red, reporting profits this year.)

BAG FEE REBATE. Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza and other hotels in the InterContinental Hotels Group will rebate $50 in checked baggage fees to those who spend two weekend nights with them. Kimpton Hotels is doing the same- but only if you are charged for a second bag.

SHIP BAGS. If you can’t fit everything into a carryon, consider shipping your bags. UPS and FEDEX stores are happy to ship your baggage, but you have to ship them 3-5 days ahead of time via ground, in order to beat the cost of airline fees. Also be aware that distance matters when you ship bags. The UPS Store tells me that a 35 lb. bag shipped via ground from San Francisco to Denver costs about $25; if you shipped the same bag all the way to Atlanta, it would cost close to $50.

LUMPY SOFA OR HOTEL?. One bright spot in the overcrowded, overpriced holiday season is that hotel rates can hit yearlong lows during Thanksgiving. This is especially true at hotels located in or near office parks that cater to business travelers. These properties are dead during holidays, so you can scoop up outstanding bargains. To get the most for your money check out the big spacious rooms (many as big as efficiency apartments) at so-called “extended stay” properties such as Staybridge Suites, Candlewood Suites or Homewood Suites.

DEAD WEEKS. If you have the flexibility to postpone Thanksgiving season trips, consider traveling during what are known in the travel industry as “dead weeks.” During the first two weeks of December and the first two weeks of January, crowds vanish and prices plummet. The main exception to this would be New York City- due to the shopping season, the first three weeks of December are the busiest and most expensive of the year.

Your BAT Editor on CNN Talking Holiday Travel

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It’s almost Halloween and that always means one thing to me: Time for smart travelers to get a jump on the holidays! Check out BAT editor Chris McGinnis’ tips for holiday travel on CNN. (See full Q&A script below)


BAT editor Chris McGinnis on CNN with Holiday Travel Outlook

Here’s the full Q&A script for this segment for those of you who don’t want to or can’t watch the video. It includes much more info that what’s included in this one-minute segment.

TOPIC: Holiday Outlook

Q: Give me a general overview of what the holiday travel outlook looks like:

A: Holiday travel will be cheaper this year than last year.

For example, Expedia data show that average airfares around Thanksgiving are down about 17%.

Q: Why will there be lower fares?

A: Two reasons: less demand due to the ailing economy, and lower fuel costs for airlines, which helps keep fares low.

Q: What will be a good price for a domestic flight to a major city?

A: It depends on when and where you are flying.

Flights on the most popular days around Thanksgiving, such as the Tuesday or Wednesday before or the Sunday and Monday after are always more expensive.

If you must travel on those days, you should expect to pay at least 25% more than if you travel on less popular days.

Flights between major cities where there is low fare competition will be much cheaper than flights to smaller towns dominated by one or two airlines.

Q: What’s a price point travelers should keep in mind?

A: It depends on when and where you are flying and varies greatly, so it’s impossible to state.

Keep in mind that holiday travel is peak season travel, so while prices are lower than previous years, they are still going to be higher than any other time of year.

Q: What will be a good price for rental cars?

A: It depends on when and where you are renting a car.

Since business travel demand for rental cars is down during the holidays, rates tend to be lower than at other times of year.

Q: When should travelers book by in order to get deals?

A: The best time to book Christmas holiday trips is in mid-October—no later.

Q: Why will there be fewer delays?

A: Now that the airlines are flying fewer planes, airport congestion is less of a problem overall.

However, big hub airports like Atlanta and New York still have serious congestion issues.

Weather is always the wild card for delays during the holidays. If a snowstorm hits a major airline hub, delays are unavoidable.

Q: What’s the downside of this travel season?

A: Holiday season is peak season, and flights will be much fuller this year.

This means that if you miss your flight or your connection, the likelihood of getting on the next flight out is slim. You may end up having to wait a day or two.

Q: How can travelers avoid getting caught with no back up?

A: Pad your schedule and don’t be late for your flight this year.

If you miss your flight, you could end up waiting a day or two for the next available seat, which could ruin your holiday.

Q: What’s the bottom line for this holiday travel season?

A: Holiday travel will be cheaper than last year if you book your trips well ahead of time.

Airport congestion and flight delays will remain a problem at some big hub airports, but overall, airline on-time performance is improving.

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