For Travelers This Summer, It's All About the Perks
Forget the staycation. Americans are ready to roam this summer.
Despite a sluggish economic recovery and sky-high gas prices, consumers are putting a priority on summer travel this year. Unfortunately, what they are going to find is that pretty much everything is more expensive than it was last year.
Airfares have risen about 11 percent to an average cost of $388, according to research from Travelocity. Hotel room rates also have climbed. And there's that gas tank that's costing more to fill, which will bite into the budgets of the vast majority of travelers who will be piling into the car to get to their destination.
"What's really important is that people are concerned about gas prices, but most people say it is not affecting how they think about travel," said Marita Hudson Thomas, a travel expert at Orbitz.
The good news is that deals are still out there, but this year most of them are coming in the form of perks and other value-added offers.
Travel Web site Expedia is marketing its annual "Summer Sale" eventby pitching a number of freebies such as spa credits, food and beverage credits and gift cards for customers who book at specific hotels as well as discounted hotel rooms.
But other travel experts have also seen a shift toward hotels offering such deals as "the third night free," and generous resort credits.
The "value-added" offers are a way of hotels holding on to the higher room rates, but still being competitive with what they are offering customers.
"It makes sense for the hotels because they are not slashing the prices," said Genevieve Shaw Brown, Travelocity's senior editor.
Several experts also recommended that travelers book their airfares and their hotels together, which they claim is the easiest way to save on travel.
Travelocity has conducted a study of sample vacations and compared the cost of a package to the cost of booking the same flight and hotel separately, and discovered that consumers can save as much as $525 on average.
"I believe it is the easiest and the most overlooked way of saving," said Shaw Brown.
Tim MacDonald, senior vice president of Expedia.com, also recommends booking packages. He thinks consumers overlook these deals because they don't understand how they work and fear that they limit their flexibility.
By combining the airfare and hotel price together, airlines and hotels are able to mask just how much they are cutting prices.
"Even in the busy season, hotels have rooms that are not booked and airlines have seats that go empty," MacDonald said. With packages, hotels can move these rooms and flights.
And even if you want to travel to a popular destination, you are likely to get a good price. In fact, some of the best deals this year are in the most popular markets such as Orlando and Las Vegas. That's because these areas have so much capacity. Plus, summer can be the off-season for some of the popular warm destinations such as Cancun and islands in the Caribbean.
Cruises also are offering travelers a lot of value, with many offering free nights or onboard credit that can be used for drinks or excursions.
But if you are committed to a less popular destination, or don't like the idea of a package, the place to focus is on the hotel room. Some options: shorten your stay, trade down to a hotel with fewer "stars," or book a trip without knowing what the hotel is until you book it, according to Shaw Brown.
Travelocity claims travelers can save as much as 55 percent off the published price by booking one of their "secret" hotel rooms. Using this option, customers state the city name and are told how many stars the room has, but not much else.
"It's more for people more focused on price than brand and are watching their dollars," Shaw Brown said. This feature is even on the company's app, so it could be an option for people on a road trip, who are looking to book something in the area fast.
Also, with prices increases so widespread, it may be about finding a relative bargain.
According to Shaw Brown, some of the top destinations with relatively smaller price increases include markets such as South Florida, Boston, Dallas-Fort Worth, and San Antonio, among others.
And that's where being flexible and combing the travel Web sites can help.
"You can always find travel deals," said Hudson Thomas. "It's a myth that there aren't any deals out there."