By Joe Brancatelli

From Summer 2000

The Ten Commandments of
Summer Travel Buying

 It’s June and you’re probably deep into your travel mode. After all, what’s more perfect than the Great American Summer Vacation? So now, more that ever, is when you need to learn Joe's Ten Commandments of Travel Buying.

 These commandments aren't written in stone--in fact, they change all the time to keep up with the vagaries of travel--but they are exceptionally useful as guideposts for navigating around the costly pitfalls of the millennium's travel-buying landscape.

 1. NEVER PAY RETAIL   The single worst values in travel today are full-coach airline fares, hotel "rack" rates, and the cabin prices printed in a cruise brochure. These are the travel industry's equivalent of "retail"--and no leisure traveler should pay retail. In fact, the travel industry no longer even expects to sell at retail prices. By and large, retail prices now exist solely as a benchmark against which the travel industry can promote their percentage-off sales.

 2. BEWARE advertised BARGAINS   Since retail prices are meaningless, travelers must negotiate their way to the best deals, and Caveat emptor (Let the buyer beware) should be your travel-buying philosophy. Be especially wary of travel promotions: Never assume that a travel supplier is advertising its lowest price.

 3. DEMAND the lowest price   Cutting through the thicket of competing "deals" isn't as difficult as it seems. You can often secure the best price simply by asking for it. Whenever you speak to a reservation clerk or travel agent, never make a purchase before bluntly asking, "Is this the lowest price available?" Once the agent responds, ask the obvious follow-up question: "Are you sure this is the lowest price you have?" You'll be surprised how often--and how far--prices drop when you ask those two questions in a firm, but polite, manner.

 4. "Sold out" doesn't mean sold out   The travel industry controls prices with "yield management," a computerized system that theoretically matches existing supply with historical demand at the highest price each traveler is supposedly willing to pay. To achieve this often elusive balance, yield-management computers frequently change prices and regularly reallocate the number of airline seats, hotel rooms, cruise cabins or rental cars available at each price level.

 So, when a reservations agent tells you a flight or a cruise is "sold out," this does not necessarily mean that there are literally no more seats or cabins available. It often means only that there is no inventory available at that particular price at that exact moment. If you try a week, a day, or sometimes even an hour later, a seat or a cabin may be available. In a way, you're trying to outguess a computer when you make a travel purchase, so be persistent.

 5. Be flexible   Yield-management computers slice and dice the demand for travel so precisely that prices now differ substantially depending on the date, the day of the week, and even the hour you travel. Shifting your travel plans by a few days, or even a few minutes, can mean substantial savings. Make certain you ask your travel agent or reservation clerk if the price will decline if you choose an alternate travel date or departure time.

 6. BOOKING EARLY ISN'T ALWAYS BEST   Yield management has drastically altered one travel-buying cliché: Booking early no longer guarantees you get the best price. It's still wise to plan ahead, especially for travel during holidays and peak seasons, but be alert. Yield-management computers can and do launch price wars at any time. Mastering the web is also useful since travel suppliers have recently begun to create last-minute discounts that are accessible only by tapping into their home pages.

 7. FIND ALTERNATE SUPPLIERS   Even with yield management, the travel industry almost always has extra inventory. It dumps its excess capacity on "bucket shops" and "consolidators," middlemen who resell travel at deeply discounted prices. For airline deals, try LowestFare.com [http://www.lowestfare.com] or 1Travel.com [http://www.1travel.com]. Quikbook [http://www.quikbook.com]  and Accommodations Express [http://www.accommodationsexpress.com] traffic in excess hotel rooms.

 8. WATCH THE SURCHARGES   The price you negotiate is rarely the final cost of your travel. Some extras, most notably government-mandated taxes and user fees, are unavoidable. Others, such as the value-added levies in Europe and Canada, are refundable in certain circumstances. Still others, like extra-driver fees on car rentals and inflated phone charges at hotels, can be avoided altogether if you plan carefully.

 9. Don't go it alone    A good travel agent is an indispensable ally. After all, are you qualified to plow through the rules of the more than 360 airfares that exist just for flights between New York and Los Angeles? Don't have a good agent? Ask friends and families for a suggestion. If all else fails, surf the web. These days, everyone's a cyber-critic: People aren't shy about posting opinions on their home pages about everything from lousy room service to spectacular walking tours.

 10. Know when to say when    Finally, don't be obsessive. Is finding the absolute lowest price the best use of your time? There's almost always a way to slice another $50 off the price of your cruise or an airline ticket. But I say it's not worth it if you must squander an extra day tracking down the discount. The best deal in travel isn't necessarily the lowest price. The best deal is the price that logically balances a reasonable expenditure of your money and your time.

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