The Navigator: With vacation travel up this summer, what are the best travel tips?


(Luci Gutierrez)
Columnist June 1, 2011

Nothing — not higher gas prices, not soaring airfares, not climbing hotel rates — seems to be keeping travelers off the road this summer.

Offering them useful travel advice? That’s something of a roadblock, it turns out.

Close to 35 million Americans traveled over the Memorial Day weekend, mostly by car, according to the AAA. That’s about 100,000 travelers more than last year, which to many suggests a fairly busy summer season ahead.

The airline industry is upbeat, too. The Air Transport Association predicts that U.S. airlines will carry a total of 206.2 million passengers from June through August — about 3 million more passengers than during the same period last year, an increase of 1.5 percent.

Readers such as Tom Thomas, a retired federal employee from Takoma Park, are making big plans. He’s flying to Washington state for his high school reunion and then on to Alaska for a tour of the Inside Passage from Vancouver. “I’ve never been to either,” he says.

After several years of staycations, it’s clear that a good number of American travelers are planning a long-overdue getaway. Higher prices don’t seem to be standing in their way.

Hotel rates are up between 5 and 10 percent, depending on the amenities, says the AAA. Airfares are up 14 percent from 2010, with the lowest average round-trip fare at $201. Meanwhile, a gallon of gas costs an average of around $3.80, more than $1 higher than this time last year.

While that’s good news for the travel industry, it’s not so great if you’re in the travel advice business. Dispensing tips is easy during a recession, when the deals are everywhere, but it’s not as simple during a recovery.

I’ve been collecting some of this year’s best and worst advice over the past few weeks. The travel site Cheapflights.com just sent out a warning about hidden travel fees, which are among my top annoyances. The worst are the so-called “peak travel day fees,” which increase the price of your flight because of higher demand. Problem is, almost every day during June, July and August is considered a “peak” day, so the only way to avoid it, according to the company, is to postpone your vacation until the end of the summer. If you have kids in school, that may not be an option. (Full disclosure: Cheapflights is a supporter of my blog.)

Another Web site, LowFares.
com
, recommends that bargain-hunters look to the Caribbean, Cancun and Las Vegas for relief from high prices. Sure, you can find deals in those places. That’s because summertime is low season in the Caribbean (hurricanes and rainy weather), Cancun (it’s Mexico, say no more) and Las Vegas (hot enough for you?).

Not to single out LowFares.
com. The experts on the Bing Travel Fareology Team like the idea of sending summer travelers to Sin City, too, where the average high temperature in July is a blistering 106 degrees. “Vegas, baby,” they crow in a news alert, calling it a “good option” for travelers who want a deal. Bing says that another fine choice is my home town of Orlando, where the average temperature in August is a sweltering 91 degrees with an oppressive 60 percent humidity. Oh, wait. Did they forget to mention that’s when the locals like to get out of town?

A lot of the travel advice being broadcast is just obvious, and it has little if any relevance to this summer. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) sent out a news release at taxpayer expense advising us of travel requirements for U.S. citizens. But those rules are already clearly outlined on its Web site. How about some summer travel advice from the federal government? The good people at CBP offer eight tips, each one more obvious than the next. (Tip No. 4: “Build extra time into the trip in the event of crossing during periods of exceptionally heavy traffic.”)

And more obvious tips: ExxonMobil recommends keeping your tires properly inflated. It estimates that U.S. motorists could save 700 million gallons of gas each year with properly maintained tires. Give your car a tuneup, and be sure to use the correct motor oil, it also advises. These measures could improve your fuel efficiency by between 2 and 4 percent.

I see these tips before every major travel holiday. I’m actually grateful to ExxonMobil for one thing: It understands what so many others — and I include travel writers like me — don’t. A vast majority of summer vacations will be domestic road trips. Only a fraction of us will fly. So the talk about fees and high fares doesn’t really apply to most travelers. We’re grounded.

And there’s value even in the most questionable advice. In a summer when everyone is going somewhere, there are no shortcuts, a careful reading of the bad tips leads me to conclude. The only foolproof way to save money is to stay home.

That’s what Jim Castro, a geologist from Helena, Mont., is planning, for the most part. “We may take a few days off and drive up to Alberta, and we’ll be visiting family over on the other side of the Divide,” he says, “but that’s it.”

Castro says he’ll postpone his big trip until October, when he attends a conference in Minneapolis (average high temperature, a comfortable 58 degrees).

“That will have to do for a vacation this year,” he says.

Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate. E-mail him at chris@elliott.org.

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