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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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Early Thanksgiving-Christmas airfare sale

Southwest Airlines recently painted a 737 based on the Colorado state flag.

One of the biggest downsides of downsizing in the airline industry is that peak holiday airfares head into the stratosphere. Since 2005, the supply of airline seats flying around out there has declined about 10%. However, during holiday peaks, demand is the same or greater than before, which results in painful spikes in airfare.

Southwest and AirTran announced an interesting TWO DAY systemwide fare sale today, which offers nearly half off the going rate if you are willing to travel on the DAY of the holiday… i.e. Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

This sale fare applies to flights on Thanksgiving Day (Nov 22), Christmas Eve (Monday, Dec 24) and Christmas Day (Tuesday, Dec 25).

Take a look at how much you can save if you are willing to fly on off peak days around Thanksgiving.

SFO>Chicago-Midway.

If you can fly out on Thanksgiving Day and return on the Tuesday after, the lowest fare is just $318.

But if you can only fly on peak days…such as the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after, the lowest fare spikes to $532:

 

The same goes for Southwest or AirTran nonstops between SFO and Atlanta.

Let’s say you get up early and fly to Atlanta on Thanksgiving Day, getting there just in time for an evening feast (and then returning on the Tuesday after). The lowest fare is $366.

But if you travel when everyone else wants to, such as the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after, you’ll pay dearly, with the lowest fare at $619.

 

Keep in mind that this is good today through Thursday only… so if you are mulling heading home for the holidays, it might be a good time to start checking fares and making decisions. While I used Southwest as an example, you will likely find other airlines matching these fares later today.

Another important note- see how I only searched for NONSTOP flights? I always suggest traveling non-stop during the winter holidays- it reduces the likelihood of delays and offers the maximum amount of time with family for the holidays. You will likely see nonstop fares rise significantly as we approach the holidays, while one-stop fares might be lower.

Here’s the fine print regarding this sale (identical for Southwest and AirTran):

  • Purchase from August 28 through August 30, 2012, 11:59 pm Pacific Time.
  • Travel September 7 through February 13, 2013.
  • Blackout Dates Apply: October 5, October 12, October 19, November 16-November 21, November 23-November 26, December 20-December 23, December 26-December 31, 2012, and January 1-January 2, 2013.
  • Sale fares not valid for travel to New Orleans January 31-February 2 or February 6-February 9, 2013, nor from New Orleans February 4-February 5 or February 7-February 13, 2013.
  • Travel valid every day except Sundays.
  • Offer not available to/from Washington D.C. (Dulles); Key West, FL

What about you? Is it time to bite the bullet and commit to holiday travel plans? Given the strength of the summer travel season, I don’t expect to see many fare sales for the holidays this year… 

 

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Late summer fare sales require fast action

Southwest’s California flag-themed B737-one of my favorites- at SFO. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Several airlines have launched a pretty good fare sale for late summer trips- starting as soon as late July and lasting into fall months. However, you must act fast- the good deals are available for the next one to three days only.

For example, Virgin America is offering round trips of $156 (all in) for SFO to LA, San Diego or Las Vegas. Chicago is $378 round trip. Washington, DC and Philly are running at about $400 round trip. The popular SFO-JFK run does not seem to be included in this sale…nearly all fares, even on those awful red-eyes are in the $500 range. The sale fares are only good for travel Monday-Thursday from July 31 through September 12. If you fly on Tuesday or Weds, JetBlue will take you down to Long Beach for $130 round trip. To get these fares, you must book by this Wednesday, July 18 at midnight.

Southwest is offering a pretty good fall fare sale, but the deals don’t kick in until August 20 and are good for travel through December 14 (minus some blackout dates around holidays.) I found SFO-Atlanta for as little as $300 round trip (good on Southwest or AirTran). SFO or OAK to Chicago Midway is about $350. There are plenty of other cities on sale from the Bay Area, so just click on the link above to see them. Sale fares on Southwest or AirTran are available on all days except Sunday, and must be booked by this Friday, July 20.

United has Denver or Austin on sale for about $250 round trip (all in) during August and September. New York JFK and Chicago are in the low $400′s all in. Boston for $360 round trip is not bad for August. You can still buzz over to London (everyone I’ve talked to says that it’s as polished and ready as ever) for just $880 round trip in September or October when the crowds have gone home and the weather is at its best. How about SFO-San Juan, Puerto Rico for just $315 round trip? I’ve rarely seen fares from the Bay to the Caribbean as low as that! Midweek trips from the Bay Area to Honolulu are down as low as $450 which is not bad for mid-August. United has not published an end date for booking, but it’s likely similar to other airlines… which are running for the next 24-48 hours only.

Most other major carriers have matched these fares so shop around if you can’t find what you are looking for. Please keep in mind that I checked these fares on Tuesday morning, July 17, so they are subject to change.

It is interesting to see airlines discounting fares for travel during August- typically one of the busiest and most expensive times of the year for air travel. Clearly, demand for summer trips has not met the airlines’ expectations, which is a signal to me that consumers are becoming increasingly skittish.

What about you? Are you up for a late summer vacation? Or are you making plans for business trips this fall? Are these fares low enough to make you jump? 

 

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Business class SFO-London, July-Aug: just $2008 roundtrip

(Photo: Angelo Angelo / Flickr

If you’ve got a hankering to check out London before, during or after the Olympics, get this: British Airways launched a sale last week with fares of just $2012 ROUND TRIP (all in) on nonstops between SFO (plus all other US gateways) and London Heathrow. Both United and Virgin Atlantic have matched this astoundingly low business class fare.

How astounding, you may ask? Well, get this: Economy class round trips during July and August now range from about $1300 to $1900 round trip. So why not pay the small premium for business class (which normally runs in the $5,000 to $8,000 range)?

Not only do you get the nice business class deal (and a big seat), but you get the bonus miles for flying up front. For example, in business class on United, you earn a whopping 16,104 Mileage Plus miles for the SFO-LHR roundtrip, plus the additional bonus based on your status. When flying coach, you earn 10,736 Mileage Plus miles roundtrip.

When I checked today, United was slightly undercutting BA with a $2008 roundtrip fare. Here’s the evidence:

Screenshot of United fare matrix today

 

Screenshot of United fare matrix today

These are the lowest roundtrip business class fares I may have ever seen from the West Coast to Europe. It makes me wonder if the Olympics are going to be a boom or a bust for the travel industry. What do you think? Is $2000 round trip business class enough to make you jump? 

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Deal ALERT: Late summer/fall fares sales start early

If peak season fares will keep you grounded this summer, here’s some great news: This morning,  Southwest.com and AirTran.com kicked off a decent late summer/early fall fare sale, but you’ve got to act fast. That’s because the sale only lasts 72-hours and only a handful of seats on each plane are selling at the discounted prices. Here are the specifics:

>Travel dates: Travel must take place between Monday, August 13 and Wednesday, November 14.

>Roundtrip fares range from $100 to $280 roundtrip (all in), based on flight length. For travel up to 500 miles, fares are $100 round trip. For travel 501 to 1,300 miles, fares are $200 round trip. For travel 1,301 or more miles, fares are $280 round trip. (Fares are available one-way.)

>This is a 72-hour sale, so tickets must be purchased online at Southwest.com or AirTran.com between today and midnight Thursday, June 14.

>Sale fares are NOT available on Fridays or Sundays.  Blackout dates: Aug. 18, Aug. 30, Sept. 3, and Sept. 4, 2012.

>I expect United, Delta and other carriers to match most of these fares by later today, so shop around if you don’t find the fare you want.

>Based on what we’ve seen fare-wise this summer, these are some great deals. Sample roundtrip Southwest or AirTran fares from SFO/OAK/SJC include:

$100: Burbank, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Ontario, Orange County, Reno,  San Diego

$200: Albuquerque, Denver, Phoenix, Portland, Seattle

$280: Atlanta, Austin, Chicago, Houston

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Virgin to launch new SFO-Portland PDX nonstops

If you are going to be out at SFO’s Terminal 2 around noon on Tuesday, stop by for the festivities and a free cocktail as Virgin America launches its new nonstop service to Portland International Airport (PDX) with a red-carpet sendoff.

Virgin America CEO David Cush will cut the ribbon on the new route along with SFO leadership and first flight guests – including Portland Mayor Sam Adams and star of IFC’s hit show “Portlandia,” Kyle MacLachlan. Virgin teamed up with IFC around its hit show “Portlandia” to help launch the new service via a unique Facebook promotion. The quirky “Arts and Aircrafts” Facebook app invited Portlanders to help bring the style back to flying by allowing them to upload their favorite photos and “put a bird on it” – to score a 20% discount off Virgin America flights.

The top voted photo winners will join the inaugural flight and Portland hangar party – as well as score free PDX flights and a two-night hotel stay.  Upon touchdown at PDX, the airline will host a Portland-themed Hangar celebration for its first guests, teammates and friends – just off the runway.

Current fares on Virgin, United or Alaska (the three carriers offering nonstops on the route) now run as low at $218 round trip.

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Summer fare sale shockers

 

American's fare "sale?"

Have you checked out the latest round of summer fare “sales?”

I’m shocked! Not because fares are so low…but because the so-called fare “sale” rates are so…sky high.

Blame it on the high cost of fuel, declining capacity or increasing demand, but these fares hurt!

If you are planning to fly this summer, you better start saving now. Or start mapping out a summer road trip, which is looking more and more appealing with the price of gasoline declining.

A few examples of roundtrips from a “fare sale” trumpeted by American Airlines today:

  • SFO>St Louis: $538
  • SFO>Houston: $512
  • SFO>Ft Lauderdale: $480
  • SFO>Los Angeles (LAX): $186

Also today Virgin America trotted out a special introductory fare on flights to its newest airport, Washington National: $400 round trip! Ouch! And that’s only if you can fly on Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday after August 14th. Those flying on other days will pay about $550 round trip. United, which just started flying nonstop between SFO and Washington National this month, is currently asking for a whopping $674 round trip for travel in late June. Double ouch!

Thinking about a July trip to Hawaii? Right now, you can’t find a seat on a nonstop for less than about $728 roundtrip between SFO, Oakland or San Jose and Honolulu.

Got some business to take care of in NYC? Get ready to pay up! Even in this hypercompetitive market, the lowest fares for nonstops from SFO in mid July are now in the $400-$500 range.

Thinking about Europe but you have not bought your ticket yet? Air France will fly you round trip between SFO and Paris nonstop for a mere $1,679 in July or August. Nonstops on United or Lufthansa to Frankfurt are now about $1500 round trip. How about SFO-London for a little pre-Olympics action in July? British Airways, United and Virgin Atlantic will get you there for about $1,400 round trip.  If you would like to fly in for the Games, fares are $2,000+ for economy class round trips.

My best advice for those on a budget is to try and schedule your trips before about June 15, or after about August 24—a cheaper period outside the peak of the peak summer travel season. If your schedule can handle it, choose one-stop flights or red-eyes, which tend to be cheaper. Most times, you’ll find cheaper fares on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Saturdays.

Have you searched summer fares yet? Please provide any highs or lows (or onerous restrictions) you’ve found in the comments boxes 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.

Spring-Summer fare sales creep out

Virgin America's new San Francisco Giants bearded livery. Thoughts?

Some good news for travelers… but not such great news for the economy today…

Typically summer fare sales don’t start until AFTER Easter. But this week, and in the weeks leading up to it, we’ve seen airlines kicking off the summer fare sale season a little bit early.

That’s good news for travelers worried that high oil prices that could translate into higher ticket prices, which could put a crimp in their summer vacation plans.

But when airlines put fares on sale early, it’s a signal to me that advance bookings for the summer might be a little weak. To me, this means that consumer confidence is still waning as travelers take a “wait and see” approach to summer vacation.

For the most part, spring and summer fare sales so far have been fairly restrictive- for example, many require travel on slow days like Tuesdays or Wednesdays in order to get the lowest fares. Most sales only last for a few days. Plus, I’ve not seen too many sale fares that go deep into peak summer travel season- most up to this point have been good for trips into mid-June only. A quick scan of peak (July-August) fares still shows a few eye-poppers- with no sales so far during the summer peak.

Here are the details on the current crop of early summer fare sales- they are led by low fare carriers, but majors are matching these deals, too. (All sample fares below are for roundtrips and include all taxes and fees. These fares were available when I checked on the morning of April 3, but are subject to selling out.)


VIRGIN AMERICA: In honor of its partnership with the San Francisco Giants and the newest member of its fleet taking to the skies this week (see the Giants-inspired “Fly Bye Baby” bearded aircraft above), Virgin America launched a “#flythebeard” fare sale. Sample roundtrip fares for travel through June 13 are: $160 to Las Vegas, Los Angeles or San Diego or $280 round trip to New York. A special introductory fare of $218 to Portland is good for flights from June 5 through Oct 17. Sale expires April 5. Details.

JETBLUE has a great one-day sale that expires tonight at midnight tonight, but you can fly all the way through June 20. Not available on Fridays or Sundays. Sample sale fares from SFO: Long Beach $100. Austin $200; New York JFK $240 or to Boston or Ft Lauderdale for $280. Details

UNITED is offering round flights to Seattle for just $200; Austin for $249; Denver $278; Dallas Ft Worth or Newark for $320. Details.

SOUTHWEST is offering a 24-hour sale for flights to/from Chicago Midway. From SFO, you can fly for $287.50 round trip on Tuesdays or Wednesdays or Saturdays through May 23. Details

Are these fares low enough to spur you into action, or are you going to wait and see what else might come along? Please leave your comments below!

 

SFO gets new nonstops to Washington DC Reagan National Airport

Reagan Washington National Airport is so close to DC that you can see the city's monuments from runways. (Photo: MWAA)

Starting May 14, United Airlines will (finally) offer nonstop Boeing 737-700 flights between San Francisco (SFO) and the close-in, convenient Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA).

Since Washington National is slot controlled, United is only able offer a single daily flight departing SFO at 12:30 pm and arriving Washington at 8:45 pm. On the return, the flight will depart DC at 8:00 am and arrive at SFO at 11:10am.

Because the service is still subject to government approval, a United Airlines spokesperson declined to offer more details until the flights are loaded in its reservation system and for sale.

For those with business in downtown DC, the new flight will eliminate the lengthy, frustrating 45-60 minute ride from Dulles International into the city. Currently, United and Virgin America fly nonstop between SFO and Dulles.

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is located across the Potomac from the Capitol, and the drive into the city takes about 15 minutes—by cab or by the convenient METRO rail system with a stop inside the airport.

SFO is finally getting these flights as a result of new FAA legislation signed into law by President Obama on February 14. The legislation grants a total of 16 exemptions to old “perimeter rules” that forbid nonstops into Reagan National from airports located more than 1,250 miles away.

Eight of those slots will be awarded to legacy carriers such as United, Delta, US Airways or American—and another eight will be awarded to new entrant carriers such as SF-based Virgin America. However, Virgin America has confirmed that the low-fare carrier must apply for the right to offer nonstops between SFO and DCA - as there is a different process for legacy airlines versus smaller carriers.

“As the only airline headquartered in San Francisco, it is absolutely our hope to serve SFO-DCA since the Bay Area has essentially been shut out of nonstop DCA service until now. Any move to increase service is a good thing for consumers and we hope that we will be able to bring low-fare competition to the route—when more airlines compete, consumers win,” said Virgin America spokesperson Abby Lunardini.

Will you fly into Reagan National instead of Washington-Dulles? What are your thoughts on this new option? Please leave your comments below.

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