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Five Crucial Travel Strategies for 2010

This year, planning your travels isn’t just about finding the best price, though that’s certainly on everyone’s mind. There are also new practicalities to consider that could have just as big an impact on your travels as how much you pay for your ticket. But in a year that will be marked by economic uncertainty, there’s a lot to consider before you take out your credit card and book that trip.

Here are some of the situations that will affect your travels in 2010, and the strategies you’ll need to handle them.

How Do I Get a Good Deal This Year?

Situation: No one, not even the airlines, knows if travel will pick up this year, or if it will continue to struggle. Consequently, no one knows where fares are headed in 2010.

Fewer people are flying than two years ago, and the airlines reduced capacity to match the drop in demand. This, along with low fares, allowed carriers to keep their planes relatively full in 2009. But it’s those same low fares that cast doubt on 2010: The main reason people were flying is because tickets were cheap. If fares go up, will people still travel?

In this environment, airlines will be extra vigilant in looking for ways to increase revenue while offering competitive fares. So-called holiday surcharges are already in place for several dates this spring, and it’s fair to assume airlines will continue the practice as the year goes on. These surcharges allow carriers to pinpoint specific, high-demand dates with $10 to $20 surcharges while keeping base fares low.

Strategy: For one thing, keep track of those surcharges, and see if you can avoid flying on popular holiday travel dates. The airlines are banking on these high-demand days, and flexible travelers will benefit from adjusting their schedules accordingly.

Most importantly, compare, compare, compare. It’s a time-worn adage, but it’s also as relevant as ever this year. Airlines are in tough competition for a reduced number of travelers, and it’s fair to assume we’ll see lots of fare wars and competing sales as the summer travel season approaches. Start benchmarking fares to your destination as much as two or three months ahead of time, and monitor them for a few weeks to see what happens. When you find a price you like, you’ll know just how good a deal you’re getting.

Further, this is a year where discounted last-minute flights may play a larger role in the airline business. Carriers will no doubt try to push up fares in advance of flights, with the hope that public uncertainty about pricing trends will lead people to book early rather than risk watching their fare go up. If you have a strong enough stomach, you may be rewarded with a deal if wait until a week or two before your trip to book your flight. (Caveat: This won’t necessarily apply to the most popular destinations, such as Europe.)

Dealing With Fees

Situation: We will certainly see fees go up this year—in fact, we already have. The only questions are which fees will rise, and by how much? Baggage fees, in particular, stand to rise incrementally throughout the year. Each time it seems the airlines have maxed out their first- and second-bag fees, they tack on another few bucks. If there’s a limit to how much the airlines will charge, they clearly haven’t hit it yet.

There is also a growing consensus that more airlines may adopt the Ryanair model of checking in online—and charging a fee to travelers who don’t. This makes sense from a business perspective, but empties the wallets of travelers who can’t access a computer. But it could be a way for especially desperate carriers to bring in some extra revenue, so long as they can tolerate some consumer outrage.

Strategy: Keep factoring ancillary fees into your fare comparisons, and consider airlines that charge fewer fees than the competition. Most importantly, keep up with all the new fees so that you know exactly what you’ll be paying, and try to travel with only a carry-on if you can. (For an up-to-date look at the entire fee picture, download our free Ultimate Guide to Airline Fees).

United has an annual bag fee program that may work for frequent travelers. For $249 a year, you can check an unlimited number of bags on all United flights. If you know you’ll be traveling a lot, and United’s service and fares work for you, this could be a good money-saving option. So far, no other carriers have come out with a similar program.

Choosing an Affordable Destination

Situation: It’s been a rough few years for several prominent vacation destinations. Las Vegas, in particular, has struggled amid the recession, but hotel rates have dropped across the country in cities like San Diego, Chicago, New York City, and Hawaii.

Unlike airlines, which can be more flexible with how much capacity they offer, hotels are stuck with a set number of rooms. Sure, hotels can close floors or simply sell fewer rooms, but this fixed inventory forces hotels to lower rates in order to keep their rooms full.

Strategy: In 2010, the real bargains will likely be on the ground, and savvy shoppers would be wise to start any search by looking for great hotel deals and worrying about airfare later. Most travelers take the opposite approach—airfare first, hotel almost as an afterthought—but unstable fare pricing in 2010 suggests this may not be the way to go. In fact, this is a good year to base your destination choices on price, since some destinations may offer deals too good to pass up.

Within hotels, high-end properties have generally seen larger price drops than other properties. This has resulted in price compression, where the difference between rates at high-end hotels and those at middle-of-the-pack accommodations has shrunk, making upscale rooms more accessible to budget-conscious travelers.

Lastly, take a long look at vacation packages this year. For the same reasons above, online travel agents like Expedia and Travelocity will look to sell bundled packages as a way of clearing unsold hotel inventory. This desperation could lead to some pretty good deals on vacation packages, especially in some of the harder hit U.S. cities.

But What About Europe?

The Situation: Transatlantic travel is one of the areas hit hardest by industrywide capacity cuts over the past 18 months. As demand for travel dropped off, so too did the number of passengers flying across the Pond, leaving airlines with half-empty planes flying long, costly routes. But now, people thinking of a vacation in Europe face a market with decidedly fewer flights, and the potential for a very expensive summer travel season.

Further complicating the matter is high demand for flights to the U.S. from Europe. George Hobica, at our sister site Airfarewatchdog, has noticed very high Europe fares lately, and attributes this to a weak U.S. dollar attracting budget-conscious European travelers. This spike in demand, of course, also affects fares for U.S. travelers looking to head to Europe.

Strategy: This could be a tough year for Europe travel, especially if airlines don’t move quickly to restore some of the transatlantic capacity. Carriers will likely be hesitant to do this for two reasons: 1) A reluctance to trust early signs of recovery, and 2) the fact that they can charge more on popular routes with limited seats.

For U.S. travelers, the best way to grab a deal may be to price the ideal route for your travels, such as Chicago to Rome, and then price a flight to one of Europe’s main hubs such as London, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, or even Reykjavik on Icelandair, with a connecting flight to your destination on a low-cost carrier. This latter option may be less convenient, but it could save you some serious money. Bear in mind that many European low-cost carriers charge exorbitant fees, so make sure you factor these costs into your comparison (and pack light if you can).

Airport Security Issues

Situation: This year, it’s just as important to pay attention to the practicalities of air travel as well as the price. Last year ended with a close call on Christmas Day, and 2010 began under a cloud of security issues and questions about airline safety.

Things have quieted for the moment, and travelers flying domestic routes shouldn’t experience much out of the ordinary. Passengers entering the U.S. from other countries, however, can expect to encounter long waits and, in some cases, additional screening at the airport. For U.S. citizens, prolonged security lines should be the worst of it, but there is a chance that you’ll be selected for random screening.

Strategy: You simply need to give yourself extra time. You may not need it here in the States, but consider it an investment in peace of mind. Abroad, give yourself an extra two hours or more beyond what you would normally budget. Again, you may not need it, but you may also be glad you arrived early.

Beyond time, be prepared for some new experiences. The Department of Homeland Security is expected to add roughly 300 whole-body imaging scanners to U.S. airports this year. These scanners can see beneath your clothing and detect some non-metallic items such as bomb-making materials and composite knives. They also create a greyscale image of your body, which many people feel is a violation of privacy. For the average traveler, this will be a very new and potentially unsettling aspect of airport security, but it appears these scanners will nevertheless become a part of the flying experience.

Lastly, keep an eye on the news, as the security situation is constantly evolving. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and foreign security officials may make policy changes, for better or worse, and you don’t want to be surprised at the airport. Make sure you pack in accordance with current restrictions so your security wait time is minimized. Use common sense and check anything that might invite time-consuming additional scrutiny.

Have any travel strategies of your own that you’d like to share? Leave a comment below.

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