SEAT 2B | By Joe Brancatelli
Economic Crisis Opens Getaway Options for a Holiday
Tuesday, March 10, 2009; 10:45 AM
What this financial and economic crisis needs is a good aphorism, so let me try my hand at crafting one: When the going gets tough, the tough look at the amazing travel bargains out there and plan a vacation.
Okay, okay, I admit that one won't make Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, but the sentiment holds true. Thanks to an amazing confluence of factors, almost all of them related to our current parlous business climate, now is the time to take a vacation. Prices are approaching almost inconceivable lows, especially for premium-class air travel and deluxe hotels.
So let's put aside business travel for a week and focus on 10 great places to take a vacation right now. Would it kill you to take a holiday? After all, the crisis will still be here when you get back. And you'll be tanned and rested and ready to tackle the bad news with renewed vigor.
Seven consecutive months of double-digit declines in visitor arrivals has sent the islands into a panic. So has the AIG Effect, which apparently includes any resort with the word Hawaii in the name. One example: Wells Fargo cancelled a total of 11,000 room nights in May at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, an upmarket, but hardly deluxe, resort. The result? Deep discounts for travelers willing to pay cash and sizable reductions in the number of frequent-guest points that major hotel chains require for free nights. Airlines are slashing fares too. United Airlines, the largest carrier to Hawaii, is offering roundtrips for about $400 from the West Coast and about $600 from the East Coast.
The collapse of the financial markets has hit London hard. Hotel occupancy rates have dipped to the 70 percent range, and business-class cabins, once filled with bankers shuttling back and forth across the Atlantic, have emptied out. Then there are the vagaries of exchange rates: The British pound was commanding around $2.05 last summer, but it plunged to $1.40 over the weekend. Bottom line: London, the most popular overseas destination for American travelers even in pricey times, is now a huge bargain. British Airways' current London for Free promotion throws in two free nights in tourist-class hotels along with fares that start as low as $298 roundtrip before taxes. Summer business-class fares with an advance purchase have dropped below $2,000 roundtrip.
London's twin in the financial-markets meltdown, New York, is suffering from the reverse of London's currency woes. As the dollar strengthens against the pound and the euro (which has fallen to about $1.28 from last summer's $1.60), Brits and Europeans find New York more expensive than it has been for years. That means Americans can afford to visit again as New York hotels discount lustily to offset the weak economy, the Wall Street crisis, and the disappearance of overseas visitors. Last year, travelers were paying $300 a night for a hotel and $500 for anything in the four-star category. Last month, I scored a suite with free breakfast at a big chain hotel for just $149 a night. Airfares? Over the weekend, JetBlue Airways launched a $99 one-way promotion on flights to New York from Southern California. Fares are higher from other places -- but near or at post-9/11 lows.
Since consumption has tanked in the global recession, very few business travelers need to fly to China to buy goods from Chinese factories. The result? Empty planes and even emptier hotels, especially in Shanghai and Beijing, which overbuilt for the Summer Olympics. Alone among U.S. carriers, Continental Airlines launches a new nonstop service to Shanghai (from its Newark hub) later this month, and its introductory pricing set off a fare war. Flights to China can now be scored for as little as $800 roundtrip with a modest advance purchase. With overall hotel occupancy rates hovering around 50 percent in Beijing and Shanghai, bargains are everywhere. Room rates as low as $100 a night in newly built, four- and five-star properties with familiar Western brand names are common.
The six-month-old W Hotel Scottsdale is the poster child for the excesses of building booms in places such as Arizona and Florida. The 225-room hotel came in over budget, a year late, and with unsellable condos in a market that already had too many resorts and vacation homes. Both the property's lender and its general contractor are trying to foreclose, and guestrooms with a published high-season rate of about $750 are selling for around $250 a night. And as was reported here over the weekend, resorts elsewhere are already renting rooms at summer low-season rates.
The travel equivalent of the neutron bomb has hit the tourist-dependant Sunshine State. Hotels and resorts are still standing, but visitors have disappeared. During the last week of February, the heart of Florida's winter high season, Smith Travel Research reported that year-over-year average daily room rates were down almost 15 percent in Miami, 13 percent in Orlando, and 11 percent in Tampa-St. Petersburg. It's anybody's guess what the rate structure will look like next month, when the "shoulder season" begins. Except for the Easter/Passover period, it'll probably be name-your-own-price.
Sin City has become Pubic Enemy No. 1 among crusaders who rail against excessive corporate travel spending. Even President Obama recently called out Vegas. Everything I mentioned about Las Vegas in January is true now, except that the discounts have gotten better. And if you want to stay off the Strip, the sumptuous (but bankrupt) Ritz-Carlton Lake Las Vegas is selling rooms for as little as $219 a night, including breakfast for two and free parking.
Australia and New Zealand
Global bad times, a falling Australian dollar, and an untimely (for the airlines, at least) increase in flights make the land Down Under a standout vacation choice. Over the weekend, Qantas sent an email to travelers offering roundtrip coach flights to Sydney, Brisbane, or Melbourne for as little as $675 from Los Angeles or $875 from New York. United Airlines recently sold business-class seats for less than $5,000 roundtrip, which is about 75 percent lower than the previous going rate. And with the Australian dollar worth only about 65 cents against the greenback, lodging, dining, and other ground costs are a bargain. The same can be said for New Zealand, except that business-class airfares have always been lower than those to Australia and the New Zealand dollar is now worth less than 51 U.S. cents.
The 20 percent upswing in the U.S. dollar's value against the euro makes anywhere in the Eurozone a better bargain today than last year, but the cognoscenti have focused on Lisbon lately. Compared with other European capitals, Lisbon's marvelous dining scene is inexpensive, its lodging rates are lower, and its human-scaled, frozen-in-time city center isn't overrun with global retail chains. Coach fares to Lisbon are higher than to London, Paris, Madrid, or Munich, of course, but the summer business-class fare sales knock roundtrip prices down to about $2,200 from the East Coast.
The Fine Print . . .
A follow-up to my column about Lufthansa's unique First Class Terminal building at Frankfurt Airport: The German carrier has duplicated the building's services and amenities in a sybaritic new 13,000-square-foot lounge located inside Frankfurt's main terminal complex. It's part of a $190 million investment in clubs that Lufthansa is making at airports around the world. The airline recently opened lavish new lounges at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport, Washington's Dulles Airport, and Detroit/Metro Airport.
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