The New Travel Landscape Still reeling from the Sept. 11 attacks, the travel industry desperately wants us back. And the deals it's using to woo us open a previously unimaginable range of possibilities.
(MONEY Magazine) – You've no doubt heard stories about what it's been like to travel since Sept. 11. Interminable lines snaking through airports. Rifle-toting National Guardsmen. Random bag checks and body searches. Even calls to arms from airline pilots. Conditions that Americans aren't used to--and that run the gamut from annoying to intrusive to downright frightening.
But for every rifle brandished and security wand waved, there is also talk of airports without lines, airplanes with extra seats to stretch out in and impossibly low rates on air fares, hotels, cruises and package vacations.
Welcome to the new travel landscape, a place of contradiction, uncertainty, continual change and unprecedented opportunities for consumers willing to put up with it all. Navigating this new landscape--taking advantage of its opportunities without being overwhelmed by its challenges--is no easy matter. So, with the help of dozens of consumer-travel experts and industry sources, we've created a three-part guide to help you on your way, whether you're traveling for business or pleasure. First, we pulled together everything you need to know about security changes since Sept. 11--both things that may ease some of your concerns and things that will get you through the bulked-up security apparatus with minimal aggravation. Second, we offer tips for dealing with the morass of cancellations and reschedulings as a result of the industry's woes. The balance of the article is devoted to a sector-by-sector look at offers the travel industry is dangling to draw Americans onto the road. We've highlighted some that we find especially compelling but also offer strategies for finding deals that suit your tastes.
Here's what we found.
We're not going to try to convince you there's absolutely nothing to worry about. Fact is, most people agree there's more to be done to ensure travel safety in the future. But there's little doubt that security has been improved since Sept. 11. Cruise lines have increased patrols around mooring docks; train stations have added surveillance cameras; and at airports, the Federal Aviation Administration has restricted gate access to ticketed passengers only and enforced new baggage rules. Other measures have so far been left to the airlines, but many have stepped up by, for example, adding bulletproof cockpit doors. Add the presence of more police officers and armed National Guardsmen at airports, more federal marshals on planes and the widespread sense that neither passengers nor crew will ever again allow a hijacker control of a plane without an all-out fight, and you can see why some people argue that travel is as safe as it's ever been. "Things are immeasurably more secure than they were on Sept. 11," says FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto. "Security is at its highest level ever."
Maybe so--but we'd be remiss if we didn't point out that some experts think that's not saying much. "Most of what you're seeing is window dressing," says David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a passenger advocacy group. Stempler and others cite continuing deficiencies like lax security aboard planes, reliance on poorly paid and low-skilled workers to enforce federal security laws and a failure by airports to invest in enough high-tech screening equipment (or fully use what they have). In light of these issues, many analysts say that up to now the FAA's moves have been, at best, a small first step in the right direction. "They're playing catch-up, and it will take several years before any significant security measures are implemented," says Stempler.
Interestingly, a recent survey by analysts Yesawich Pepperdine & Brown suggests that Americans have been avoiding travel as much out of concern over the economy as concern over security. Either way, we'll eventually resume some of our old traveling routines--and knowing the new security rules in advance will make travel far more pleasant. You're bound to find inconsistencies among airports and airlines, but the following suggestions apply to most.
Timing. Heightened security measures generally take longer, so plan on getting to the airport earlier. Before Sept. 11 many airlines required that passengers show up at least an hour before domestic flights and 90 minutes before international ones. Now they're recommending two hours for domestic and 2 1/2 for international. Security delays have varied from airport to airport, but so far the guidelines seem to be adequate. In a Travelocity.com passenger survey, travelers leaving from Baltimore/Washington International were the most likely to report delays of more than an hour because of security. Other cities with long waits: Denver, L.A., Philadelphia and San Francisco.
To get to the airport, stick with public transportation whenever possible. Passengers are reporting long waits to get into airport parking garages due to security checks, and curbside access is now limited. You can still drop passengers off at the curb, but there's no waiting within 300 feet of a terminal to pick people up. Most airlines have resumed curbside check-in, but some locations have yet to meet FAA requirements, so check with your carrier to make sure it's in place at your departure airport.
Baggage. Most airlines still allow two checked bags, but gone are the days when you were able to talk an airline employee into letting you carry on an extra backpack. From now on, each passenger is limited to one carry-on and one "personal bag," which can be a purse, laptop or briefcase.
Contrary to reports from the days immediately after the disaster, you may board with nail clippers, safety razors, tweezers, umbrellas and even syringes (if you can document a medical need). Strictly prohibited, however, are knives, blades, metal scissors, metal nail files, golf clubs, baseball bats and ski poles. Check whatever you're doubtful about or run the risk of forfeiting it to security.
Another change: Only ticketed passengers are allowed beyond the screener checkpoints, except for those with medical needs and for children requiring parental supervision.
CANCELLATIONS AND BANKRUPTCIES
With most airlines reducing their scheduled flights by at least 20% in order to cut costs--and rejiggering their remaining schedules as a result--millions of individual travel plans have been upset. United said it would alter up to 90% of its schedules before the end of the year, changing the reservations of more than 5 million travelers. Meanwhile, our ongoing war on terrorism seems likely to disrupt travel plans even more in the months and years ahead.
Schedule changes. So what are your rights if your flight's been canceled or rescheduled? An airline is generally obligated to refund your money only if it can't get you on an alternate flight within three hours of your original departure time. If a flight is canceled for reasons outside the airline's control, like a government-ordered shutdown, the airlines must refund your money or let you use your ticket on another flight.
Our advice: Carry a paper ticket rather than an electronic one. If your flight is canceled or delayed, you can usually take a paper ticket right to another airline's gate and use it like cash. If you have an e-ticket, you'll often have to queue up to have a paper ticket printed and endorsed.
What if your flight is on schedule and you decide--as many people have since Sept. 11--that you don't want to travel? In the days immediately following the disaster, most airlines were extremely accommodating with refunds. But that's largely ended. If your flight is slated to leave on time and you don't want to fly, airline rules say you're stuck with the bill.
Practices among tour operators and cruise lines are more varied. Most major cruise lines are sticking to their long-time cancellation policies even if they've rerouted some of their ships. On seven-day Carnival cruises, for instance, if you cancel 30 to 70 days in advance, you lose only your $250 deposit; cancel within eight days of departure and you lose your entire fare. Many luxury operators, on the other hand, are doing more to accommodate travelers. Tauck World Discovery and Butterfield & Robinson, for instance, have been allowing travelers to postpone any trip until 2002. New York's Trafalgar Tours has been waiving penalties for postponing 2001 trips until 2002, even just a day before departure.
Business failures. Finally, what are your rights if your travel operator goes bust? This isn't an academic question these days: Several airlines have already declared bankruptcy since Sept. 11, including Midway, Sabena and Swissair, and others are likely to follow despite the U.S. Government's $15 billion bailout. Cruise lines, which haven't received federal aid and can't easily decrease capacity, are starting to join the ranks. Renaissance and American Classic Voyages were first to file for Chapter 11. Unfortunately, neither airlines nor travel agents are responsible for your loss if a carrier goes under before your trip, and secured creditors are entitled to liquidation proceeds well before passengers.
You may be in better shape if your cruise company goes under. The Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) requires cruise lines to post a per- formance bond of up to $15 million to insure against liabilities. If the company ceases operations, the bond is used to reimburse passengers. Unfortunately, this isn't a fail-safe system. The FMC doesn't have the legal authority to enforce payouts, and authorized self-insurers, like American Classic Voyages, don't have to post the bond at all. More significantly, only passengers departing from U.S. ports are covered, which is why hundreds of Renaissance passengers leaving from Europe and Tahiti lost both their trip and their money when the company went bust.
Ultimately, your best protection is to pay with a credit card. Through the charge-back rules of the Fair Credit Billing Act, if you pay more than $50 for a service with your credit card (not a debit card) and don't receive it, your credit-card company must remove the charge from your account.
Insurance. Can you insure your trip? Yes, but we've generally found that travel insurance is more effective for getting you through a crisis like medical evacuation than for financial protection. Most policies will pay you back only if you can't travel for documented medical reasons. And four large insurance companies, CSA Travel Protection, GlobalCare, Travel Insured and TravelSafe, have explicitly stated that they'll no longer cover cancellations due to "supplier failure," that is, bankruptcy. (When Renaissance filed for Chapter 11, CSA instructed customers to file a claim only after they'd disputed the charge on their credit card.) Read your policy carefully.
A recent cartoon in the New Yorker hits our current ambivalence about travel discounts on the nose: "You thought we would offer lower fares?" an airline ticket agent says to a guilty-looking passenger. "How insensitive."
But the effective emotion today isn't your insensitivity, it's the travel industry's desperation to lure you back. With the cutback in business travel, the industry was already in serious trouble when Sept. 11 rolled around. Then came the attacks. When air traffic resumed, passenger numbers dropped to about 50% of normal levels. And from there it was a chain reaction: If people don't fly, rental cars sit in the lot, hotel rooms go vacant and restaurants are empty. The anxiety caused by war and the anthrax attacks has only made matters worse. "This is by far the worst crisis in the history of the travel industry," says Jonathan Tisch, CEO of Loews Hotels and chairman of the Travel Business Roundtable industry trade group.
Some analysts say the crisis--and the discounts it has triggered--are destined to disappear when confidence in air travel is restored. Others insist that Sept. 11 marked a permanent change in our attitudes about the way we move around the globe, and at what price. Whoever's right, this window of opportunity will persist for several months. YPB's Peter Yesawich calls it "the biggest clearance sale in the history of travel." Here is how to take advantage of it. (Note: Per-person rates assume double occupancy.)
Air fares. Without a doubt, airlines have been the hardest-hit segment of the travel industry. They've had to eliminate more than 150,000 jobs to stay in operation. And their dependence on high-paying business travelers means the biggest airlines are in the worst shape. Passenger numbers are up from 50% of capacity in the week airports reopened to 70%, but, says economist Dave Sweringa of the Air Transport Association, "It's going to be down for a while, and it will continue to put downward pressure on prices."
While you can expect to see low published air fares across the board--both Southwest and America West were recently offering $178 coast-to-coast round-trip fares, for example--you'll find the deepest discounts to places like Hawaii, the Caribbean and Europe. Why? "People want to be close to home," says Tom Parsons, president of discount-travel site Bestfares.com. Betsy O'Rourke, marketing director for the Travel Industry Association of America, agrees: The farther the flight, she says, the more bang you'll get for your buck.
Hawaii happens to be an especially good deal right now because it's so dependent on Japanese group travel, which is down dramatically and isn't expected to pick up again until April. We recently found round-trip air fares from New York City to the Big Island of Hawaii for $384 per person on Delta--less than half what it cost a year ago.
Another strategy: Take advantage of the drop in business travel by heading to places with infrastructure built to support it: big cities and convention centers like Las Vegas. Says O'Rourke: "Flying to New York and staying in a five-star hotel is now affordable."
Now more than ever, the experts agree that you'll find the best deals online. Some are so-called unpublished fares found at online consolidators like Lowestfare.com and Cheaptickets.com, which buy tickets in bulk. Still more extremely cheap tickets are packaged with hotels and rental cars to hide the size of the discounts. Our favorite travel sites are still Travelocity.com and Expedia.com; thanks to partnerships with other sites, they let you access the lion's share of negotiated fares.
Cruises. What happens to the cruise industry when you combine high amounts of debt, overcapacity, relatively inelastic costs and a major slowdown in leisure travel? Great deals.
Ships sail whether the cabins are filled or not. Plus, most cruise lines have pulled ships from Middle East and Mediterranean ports and redeployed them to the Caribbean and regions in Europe where they already had ships. That's why you can get a one-week berth in an outside cabin on Celebrity's Horizon, departing Dec. 14 from Miami for the western Caribbean, for $499 per person.
Once again, the best deals will be unadvertised in traditional media, so go to sites like Mytravelco.com (800-278-4737), the largest Web source for both published and negotiated cruise deals. We recently found a 10-night Holland America cruise from Ft. Lauderdale to the Bahamas, St. Thomas, Curacao, the Panama Canal and Nicaragua for an amazing $959 a person.
Hotels. Hotel analyst Robert Mandelbaum of Atlanta-based PKF Consulting doesn't expect any kind of turnaround for the moribund hotel industry until at least the middle of next year. In the meantime, there are never-seen-before deals in regions typically served by planes (again, places like Florida, Hawaii and Las Vegas) and hotels that focus on business travel--not only large chains such as Marriott, Hilton and Sheraton, but also luxury chains you wouldn't consider under normal circumstances. "Now's the time to get into that Ritz-Carlton for $150 a night instead of $400 a night," exclaims Mandelbaum.
He isn't kidding. Besides throwing in parking, breakfasts and transfers to and from airports, high-end hotels are slashing rates. Miami's newest luxury oceanfront resort and spa, the Ritz-Carlton in Key Biscayne ( www.ritzcarlton.com; 800-241-3333), is offering an Island Getaway package, which must be booked by Dec. 20: a double room, valet parking, breakfast for two in the resort's ocean-view restaurant, Aria, and 20% off spa services--all for $189 a night. Upgrade to an oceanfront room for $30 more. Hotel rooms alone at this time of year normally run $300 a night.
Another impressive deal: A room at the Harbor Beach Marriott in Ft. Lauderdale (www.marriott.com; 888-236-2427) is down from $350 a night to $149, including two spa treatments.
In Chicago, the Fairmont is offering rooms for as little as $189. They're usually $289. And if you stay at least two weeknights, the hotel will deduct up to $100 if you show you've spent the money at local restaurants, theaters or stores.
In Las Vegas, where occupancy rates dropped from nearly 100% to 40% immediately following Sept. 11 and 240 conventions were canceled, the luxury Bellagio hotel (www.bellagio.com; 800-987-3456) has doubles for $109 a night during the week. Those rooms usually cost $259 at this time of year. An $89-a-night package at the Paris Las Vegas hotel (www.parislasvegas.com; 877-796-2096) includes a room, two passes to the Eiffel Tower Experience observation deck, $50 in dining certificates and a 15% spa discount. The same package normally goes for about $300.
Car rentals. Rental companies too were already reeling prior to Sept. 11, and analysts are now forecasting a 20% drop in business vs. last year. That means consumers are in the driver's seat. It's always been a good practice to ask about AAA or corporate discounts, which can save you 10% to 15%, but now there's an excellent chance you'll also be able to snag a free upgrade.
No negotiating is necessary to find good prices. Consider these: at Avis (www.avis.com; 800-230-4898), $20 a day for compacts and $40 for premium cars, sport-utility vehicles and minivans, plus $49.95 a day for one-way rentals to any destination in the United States; at Alamo (www.alamo.com; 800-462-5266), mid-size cars in Hawaii for as little as $25 a day through mid-December, and convertibles, luxury cars or minivans in Florida for as little as $38 a day; and at Budget (www.budget.com; 800-527-0700), Jeep Grand Cherokees for $40 a day.
Packages and resorts. Prices for package tours have fallen an average of 30% in the past year. And, says Richard Copland, president of the American Society of Travel Agents, tour operators are becoming more flexible about customizing packages. "Everyone's looking for business," he says. So negotiate. Ask for a free car upgrade or transportation to and from airports.
With Expedia.com's new package-building feature, we were able to design an eight-day trip in December, flying from New York City to West Palm Beach, staying at the Crowne Plaza West Palm Beach and renting a compact car from Alamo, for just over $600 per person. Even with the current discounts, booking the elements of the trip separately would have cost at least $830 per person.
Thanks to their vast purchasing power, the large operators typically offer the best deals to destinations that rely heavily on air travel, like the Caribbean, Hawaii and Florida. Take Carlson Wagonlit Travel's (www.carlsontravel.com) package to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico: round-trip air fare from Chicago, seven nights at the Allegro Resort Nuevo Vallarta and three meals a day for $1,000 per person, down from $1,255.
Ski resorts have also sweetened their deals this year. Vail Resorts (www .snow.com; 800-404-3535), which operates Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Vail itself, is offering a free second night's lodging and lift ticket with the purchase of a first--a 50% discount--for up to three free nights. The offer is good through Dec. 20.
And if you assumed the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City would be sold out, think again. Tickets for even the most popular events are still being released, and there are said to be more than 1,000 hotel rooms still available in the Salt Lake valley during the events. Packages won't necessarily be cheap--four-day hotel-and-ticket deals start at about $4,000 per person--but it's a rare opportunity. Go to www.slc2002.org or call 877-222-2802 for details.