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Ten Good Things About Recession Travel

With reports about layoffs, reduced air service, and travelers’ tight budgets, there’s no shortage of bad travel news in the current economy. But intrepid travelers are discovering ways that travel is easier, cheaper, and better right now. So amid the doom and gloom, we’re hot on the trail of 10 silver linings in travel:

1. Deals Galore

With fewer people traveling, airlines, hotels, and other travel providers are desperate. That means sales, deals, discounts, and added perks. From slashed fares on usually expensive international flights (in recent weeks we’ve seen way-discounted fares to New Zealand, China, Ireland, and many other destinations). Hotels are discounting rates and offering fourth or fifth nights free. Tour companies and destinations are adding free airfare.

2. More Free Stuff

Hotels, resorts, tour and package providers, and other travel companies are throwing in perks and freebies to sweeten the deal. For example, Los Cabos is offering visitors $400 to cover airfare. Keep your eyes peeled for resort credits; free or discounted meals; complimentary spa treatments; rebates upon check-out to apply to airfare; free nights; upgrades; or other perks when you book.

3. More Frequent Flyer Award Availability to Europe

Now is the time to do more with your miles, at least in one situation. SmarterTravel’s Tim Winship recently polled frequent flyers and discovered that passengers are having an easier time now booking award travel to Europe than they did a year ago. Plus, United has discounted award prices for Europe flights. And, many airlines, including American, Continental, Delta, United, and US Airways, are offering elite-mile bonuses.

4. Faster Airport Security Checkpoints

Fewer passengers traveling mean less crowded airports, and that leads to shorter lines at security checkpoints. So you can reduce the time you spend shuffling through the line in your socks, holding your pants up because you’ve taken off your belt and trying to keep track of your jacket while you fumble with your laptop. Another recession travel silver lining? Less pocket change may well reduce those pesky second trips through the metal detector. Just kidding. Sort of.

5. Higher Chance of the Empty Middle Seat

Fewer people are flying, which gives you a better chance of scoring an aisle or window seat with an open middle seat. On a recent cross-country flight, my row-mate and I divided the prime real estate of the empty middle seat between us: he took the legroom and I used the seat. Not quite first-class, but still pretty good.

The drop in passengers also reduces the odds of finding yourself in the DMS (dreaded middle seat); and if you do, it increases the possibility of switching to an open aisle or window seat once onboard.

6. Better On-Time Performance

If you’ve flown recently, there’s a good chance your plane was on time. SmarterTravel’s Carl Unger recently blogged about the improvement in airline on-time numbers in February, a result of the reduced number of flights and more airlines making the effort to stay on schedule. Airlines posted an 80 percent on-time rate for the month, though delays continued to plague Newark and LaGuardia.

7. Faster Luggage Return

Passengers may have to pay a fee to check bags on most airlines, but they may not have to suffer the additional inconvenience of endless wait times at the baggage carousel. Fewer passengers and the fees that are inspiring more people to pack light mean fewer checked bags. And that has taken the edge off wait times at the baggage carousel. It also stands to reason that with less baggage per flight, there are fewer bags that look alike, and so a reduced chance that someone will accidentally take your bag, leaving you with no choice but to wear snow boots in Hawaii.

8. Favorable Exchange Rates

The global downturn has had a broad effect on currencies around the world. After years of a weak dollar cramping overseas spending, Americans are seeing much more favorable exchange rates in many countries. You can now get more euros, British pounds, Icelandic kronas, or Mexican pesos for every dollar. Not only do better exchange rates drive down the overall cost of a vacation, but they allow travelers to splurge a bit without breaking the bank. Whether that means staying in a slightly nicer hotel or visiting an extra attraction or two, the strong exchange rate offers travelers more vacation for every buck.

9. Easier No-Reservation Dining

On a tropical getaway, making a dinner reservation can be anathema to the laid-back, take-it-as-it-comes pace of vacation. Overseas, the prospect of making a phone call in a foreign language can be daunting. However, in places hit hard by a drop in visitors, you’re more likely to score walk-in seats or dramatically reduce the time you wait at restaurants. During a recent six-night stay in Maui, a SmarterTravel reader reported he was able to eat daily lunch and dinner at restaurants around the island and only had to wait for a table once. He says, “We even ate dinner out on Valentine’s Day at a nice restaurant and there was no wait.”

As always, if you’re trying to get a table without a reservation at a popular restaurant, it’s still a good idea to show up at off-peak times, say 5:00 or 8:30 for dinner instead of 6:30.

10. Shorter Lines in Popular Destinations

Las Vegas visitor numbers dropped for the 16th month in a row. Travel to Hawaii fell 12 percent in January, and Britain is reporting a similar drop. Fewer travelers in popular destinations are rough on hotels and local merchants, but there is a bright side. Visitors who do make the trip may find shorter lines at museums, attractions, taxi stands, and the other places you’d normally squander precious vacation time. For instance, a SmarterTravel reader recently reported “no massive lines for cabs and open spots at tables” in Las Vegas. The trend may not last through summer, but it’s an appealing benefit for now.

Bonus: Better Onboard Selection

If you’ve ever boarded a plane hungry, you know the disappointment of having your food purchase all picked out, only to find that by the time the flight attendant pushes the cart your way, there are no more turkey-bacon-avocado sandwiches and you’re left buying the dry cracker snack box. And while it’s true that an emptier flight won’t be as well-stocked in the first place, I’ve never had to settle for second (or third) choice on an uncrowded plane. And you might even be able to score another soda or an extra baggie of pretzels.

Know another good thing about travel right now? Join the optimism and add a comment below!

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