smart spending

Want a vacation? Deals are everywhere

Highlights
  • Hotels and airlines have cut prices dramatically in a bid to survive.
  • The stronger dollar has made Europe, Australia and New Zealand affordable again.
  • Advertised room rates and airfares are just the start of the bargaining.

If the travel industry during the boom years was a high-priced boutique hotel with big profit margins and a sense of entitlement to go with it, in the recession, it's an interstate motel with a neon sign reading, "Cheap rooms! HBO!"

6 ways to land a great deal
  1. Think big, luxurious, exotic.
  2. Take advantage of the strong dollar.
  3. Be flexible: Go where and when the deals are.
  4. Use the Web, social networking.
  5. Drive a hard bargain and negotiate.
  6. Cash in frequent-flier miles.
The recession has not been kind to the travel industry, to put it mildly. With few Americans feeling secure enough financially to blow a pile of money on a trip overseas and the term "staycation" firmly en vogue, vacancy rates on airplanes and in hotels are alarming.

In mid-May, hotel occupancy fell to 51.6 percent, down 10.2 percent from a year earlier, according to Smith Travel Research, or STR. The airlines didn't fare much better, with American Airlines reporting an 11.7 percent year-over-year drop in traffic in May.

Hotels and airlines have responded by dramatically cutting prices in a bid to survive. The price of a plane ticket has declined from an average of $358 for domestic flights last summer to about $299, says Jennifer Gaines, contributing editor for Travelocity.com. And the average domestic hotel rate has declined 14 percent since last year, she says.

What does this mean for the average traveler?

"There's a staggering buyer's market that I haven't seen in at least 33 years," says Peter Greenberg, publisher of PeterGreenberg.com and author of "Tough Times, Great Travels." "It's almost totally global. With the exception perhaps of Russia and parts of Japan, I haven't seen anywhere that's not on sale."

Clearly, the outlet mall of world travel is open for business. Here are six steps you can take to make sure you reap the benefits.

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Think big. For those who have the money to do it, this is the year to take that international vacation you've always dreamed about. Higher-end vacations that would have been out of reach for all but the wealthiest travelers are now looking downright reasonable.

Vince Orza, dean of the business school at Oklahoma City University and a cruise enthusiast, found that out firsthand. He and his wife were planning a 10-day river cruise in Eastern Europe when he found an e-mail from a luxury cruise line he'd always wanted to try. The company was offering 65 percent off Mediterranean cruises. Initially, Orza didn't believe his eyes.

"You almost have to look and see, well, what are the details? What don't I understand? And the details made it even better," says Orza. "Everything is included. And you know, for those of us who really are avid 'cruisers,' that's an offer that's really worth paying attention to."

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