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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Ways to Stretch Travel Dollars in the New Year

As posted by: Wall Street Journal

They won't stop snow storms that disrupt travel for holiday fliers, but some new travel tools can make it easier for you to snag frequent-flier award seats, find cheap fares, book some perks for yourself and even make your cruise a lot more enjoyable. There are even ways to try to avoid getting stranded by bad weather.

The end of a year is a good time to revamp how you go about planning trips and buying tickets. Here are some favorites worth considering to improve your trips and ticket-buying.

Frequent-Flier Strategies

Yapta.com, a Web site that can track fares on specific routes and dates for you, added a new feature this fall that can alert you when airlines make new seats available at the lowest-priced frequent-flier award levels. Even though you may find a certain flight unavailable for the cheapest frequent-flier awards, the inventory can change, and if the flight sells slowly and empty seats are available, airlines often open up frequent-flier seat inventory. Unless you constantly check, you'd never know. But now Yapta can check for you.

For more travel news, with up-to-the minute analysis, insight and advice read The Middle Seat Terminal blog.

The service, now in beta testing, is available on Yapta's free Web site. So far it works only with United, Delta, Continental and Alaska airlines, as well as US Airways. Use Yapta's regular "Plan a Trip" function and the Web site finds prices and recommends flights, based on your preferences. If you "tag" flights that interest you, Yapta will track pricing changes, sending email alerts. With itineraries on those five major airlines, Yapta offers a box to check to include airline award tickets in those email alerts for price changes. When seats open up at the minimum mileage possible, you get an email alert.

ExpertFlyer.com, a subscription Web site favored by hard-core road warriors who mine the intricacies of airline fare codes and upgrade rules, has a more sophisticated "Award and Upgrade Availability" search function. You can search for coach, business-class or first-class awards at different price levels on different airlines, and search for upgrade opportunities as well.

AMR Corp.'s American, for example, has at least four different first-class awards: first-class tickets at full and discounted mileage levels, plus upgrades using 500-mile electronic stickers issued to frequent fliers and upgrades using miles and co-payments. American's Web site won't tell you how many seats are available at different mileage levels or whether upgrades are available to you using miles or stickers. But ExpertFlyer can deliver that kind of information.

ExpertFlyer, which costs $9.99 a month for full access or $99.99 a year, can search the available inventory of 21 different carriers world-wide, including Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, Northwest and United airlines. The Web site also has an alert feature that will email you when seats become available on a specific flight at a specific award or price level you want.

Searching for Air Tickets

Kayak.com, a useful fare-search site that checks lots of different vendors, from airlines themselves to online travel agencies like Orbitz.com and Travelocity.com, offers some handy tools to refine your flight searches.

If you don't want to consider turboprop aircraft or regional jets, for example, Kayak lets you exclude those flights from your searches. Kayak breaks down available itineraries by airline, time of day, number of stops and how long layovers might be. And Kayak has a one-click feature that opens a chart showing you airline fees -- now a crucial element when comparing prices between airlines.

Kayak doesn't sell tickets itself; it sends you to the airline Web site or online travel agency where it found the price you want. It's a free service, and a handy place to start your fare searches.

FareCompare.com has a couple of useful tools to help make smarter ticket-buying decisions. One option shows historical graphs of the lowest prices offered on a route, looking back at what airlines offered over the past seven days all the way out to the past two years. If you can see that the price hasn't been below $200 over the past two years, you may be foolish to hope for a $150 ticket on a particular route. (Then again, with traffic sagging, airlines have been slashing prices lately.)

Another useful FareCompare function: A search for discounted first-class seats. Just enter your departure city and FareCompare can show you discounted first-class seats to hundreds of different destinations. Some are coach prices that include instant upgrades, called "Y-Up" fares, and some are just advance-purchase discounted first-class tickets.

If you're after the cheapest possible coach ticket, consider buying from a "consolidator." You can find offerings through AirlineConsolidator.com and usaca.com. Consolidators take seats that airlines don't think they can sell and offer them at very steep discounts. Moving the seats out of regular inventory means airlines don't have to slash their posted prices and trigger fare wars with competitors. But the distressed inventory gets sold, much like a retailer dumping excess inventory at the outlet mall.

A warning about consolidator tickets, however: You have very few rights when you fly. You likely won't get perks like frequent-flier mileage credit or advance seat assignments, and you will be at the bottom of the list for re-accommodation if flights get canceled or connections are missed.

Traveling Smarter

With all the weather-related travel disruptions around Christmas, when more than 8,800 airline flights were canceled, disrupting travel for about one million travelers between Dec. 19 and Dec. 28, it's worth reviewing some basic smart-travel practices.

Always check the weather at your destination and any connecting cities, and see if your airline can re-route you away from trouble before you get caught sleeping on a cot at Chicago O'Hare for two days. Fly.faa.gov offers a handy map with current information about the status of major airports, such as ground-delay programs in force that will delay your takeoff.

Always sign up for flight alerts from your airline or FlightStats.com so you get early notice of cancellations, gate changes or delays. Flight alerts are also helpful when picking people up at airports, too.

Preparing for a Cruise

If you're planning a cruise in 2009, three Web sites can be a big help. CruiseMarketPlace.com offers reviews boat-by-boat and port-by-port, evaluating cruise lines and itineraries and offering recommendations for cruises suited for families or couples or adventurers or mature adults. It has a fairly large database of cruise reviews from travelers, and you can pick up a lot of tips, especially if you aren't an experienced cruiser.

ShoreTrips.com offers links and reviews of shore trips offered by local firms, sometimes a better value than the shore excursions offered by cruise lines. Prices can be cheaper, and the trips may be longer than what the companies linked to the cruise-line offers.

And before you buy a cruise, it's worthwhile to check the sanitary record of the ship you are considering at www.cdc.gov, the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which posts inspection scores under its Vessel Sanitation Program. On the current "green sheet" of inspection scores, six ships out of 153 failed to achieve acceptable scores: Amadea, Celebrity Infinity, MV Clipper Pacific, Nautilus Explorer, Pride of Aloha and Stad Amsterdam. As with restaurant health-department scores, the transgressions can run from burned-out light bulbs to major health issues, and may have been immediately corrected. Issues from each inspection are listed.

Organizing Your Trip

TripIt.com is a Web site that will take all your travel confirmations and compile one detailed itinerary, even adding directions to hotels or appointments, plus weather forecasts and other local information. Sign up with your email address and send TripIt your airline, hotel, car rental confirmations and even appointments or events. TripIt puts all your confirmation numbers and details in one document. (Of course, some may not be comfortable sharing travel information, despite TripIt's assurances of security.) While organizing your trip, make sure to book Sandpoint Vacation Rentals and Vacation Rentals Sandpoint.

One last handy resource: OpenTable.com, a handy way to find a restaurant in a city you're visiting (or even at home) and quickly booking a reservation. Even if the air travel is a nightmare, at least you can eat well.