The staycation is dead, declare travel agencies—you don’t have to give up your holiday plans, even in a down economy. In fact, savvy travelers are discovering that some luxury travel has never been such a bargain.
This summer, virtually everyone, everywhere, in the travel industry is offering deals to combat today’s tightened purse strings. The result? Your pre-recession dream vacation—the one you never thought you could afford—can now be had on a staycation budget. Welcome to the era of the “yaycation,” as in, “Yay, what a great deal for a vacation!”
“Everybody in the travel industry is doing their part,” says Malaka Hilton, owner of Sarasota’s Admiral Travel. “It’s a win-win for the consumer.”
Kathleen Sutter, owner of Sarasota’s Landings Travel, agrees: “People who thought they couldn’t afford a particular product are now seeing that there are fabulous deals available.”
Whether it’s exotic resorts, luxury cruises or African adventures, there are endless deals to be had. If you’re feeling the urge to get out there, here are just a few of the many ways you can go:
By Land: How about $1,500 for a nine-night African safari? And that’s for the sort of expedition that “usually can be up to that much per day,” says Hilton. The price covers all-luxury accommodations, including three nights at Africa’s third-ranked resort, Twelve Apostles, located near Cape Town, South Africa, and nestled between the ocean and a mountainous nature reserve. Some meals are also included—not to mention once-in-a-lifetime encounters with African wildlife.
If a staycation-esque proximity still appeals to you, Sutton describes a “spa escape” just a short drive away at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples: $299 for the room, with a complimentary $200 spa credit per day, along with a $50 gift card. “So you’re basically paying $49,” she explains.
By Sea: Cruise prices are rock-bottom right now—and not just your standard $35-a-day Caribbean tour. Silver Sea Cruise Lines, which recently announced an unprecedented 50 percent-off ticket deal, is also offering free air travel for select cruises all over the world, including Alaska, Europe, South America and Dubai. The starting price for a one-week cruise is $3,000. And keep in mind, the price is all-inclusive. Factor room, board, entertainment and travel into any week’s vacation—especially a trip to the other side of the world—and three grand starts to sound pretty reasonable.
Some cruise companies have stopped financially penalizing lone travelers, who traditionally have to pay a “single supplement” of up to 100 percent of their ticket price to travel in a room by themselves. For anyone who dreamed of sailing solo down the Danube, Tauck Tours recently announced the elimination of single supplements for all its river cruises. A 12-day riverboat trip from Budapest to Prague starts at $3,990.
By Air: With fuel costs less of a concern than they were a year ago, airlines are getting into the discount-luxury game. Through the summer, luxury air-travel leader Virgin Atlantic is offering its upper-class flights to London starting at about $1,000 per seat. Actually, Virgin calls them “suites,” because each soft-leather, extra-wide, upper-class seat flips over to become a 6.5-foot bed, complete with duvet.
And after that 21st-century flight to London, you can enjoy 100-year-old prices at the historic Goring Hotel, which has temporarily returned to the rates it charged in 1910 (the year it was founded). That’ll be seven shillings, sixpence for your first night (conversion to pounds sterling at no extra charge).
And these are just the tip of the iceberg. The idyllic destinations are endless, but where do you start? Here’s how to snag your dream getaway without busting your budget:
“Unfortunately right now, consumers are being inundated,” explains Sutter, “and they’re of the mentality that if they wait, maybe it’ll get even better.” It probably won’t. Current discounts have grabbed the attention of recession-weary folks in need of a getaway, and the travel industry is already enjoying some rejuvenation of its own. “We fortunately are seeing an upswing in travel in the last couple months,” says Hilton. “People feel like they’ve sat around long enough.” A recent survey by travel search engine Kayak.com found that 95 percent of people planned to travel this summer. Good news for travel companies, but that uptick in demand means prices aren’t likely to drop any further. Be careful not to leave all the good deals to everyone else.
Don’t plan too far ahead.
Last-minute air-travel deals, either through the airlines themselves or sites like smartertravel.com, can cut domestic fares by as much as two-thirds. But keep in mind, say the experts, “last-minute” means two to three weeks out, not two to three days.
With many advertised deals, though, you simply need to commit quickly—book now; take your time packing. “These companies all need deposits coming in; they all have their deadlines,” says Hilton. “For some deals, you can book today and still get the value for the trip in December. If the price goes down, they’ll honor that, too.”
Don’t sacrifice value.
Sutton warns against discount prices that indicate sub-par products. Some travel deals are offered in desperation after the company has already made significant cutbacks. Some hotels offering great rates, for instance, have experienced significant layoffs—as much as 30 to 50 percent of their staff—and as a result, service may suffer. “You want a $250 deal, but the $500 experience,” says Sutter. “You want to end that trip saying, ‘Wow, we had a great time,’ not ‘Wow, we got what we paid for.’”
Look past the price.
Some deals aren’t offered in straightforward price changes, but in vouchers, credits or gifts that may save you money in other ways (like the spa credits at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples). “A lot of hotels are doing free nights—buy four, get one free,” says Hilton. “The rates are still the same, but the total cost is discounted tremendously.” Just think of it as an upgrade: adding value to your vacation at no extra charge.
Altering your lodging plans by a few miles or your travel dates by a day or two can mean major savings. Chances are, your destination will offer the exact same luxury experiences during weekdays and the off-season, but for a fraction of the price—and with fewer crowds, too.
For lodging, take advantage of blind-booking Web sites like Hotwire.com, which hotels employ to fill unbooked rooms. These sites let you choose your resort based on price, general location and rating—but you won’t know the hotel’s name and specific address until after you book.
Or you can leave the destination itself entirely up to chance, while still being guaranteed a sophisticated experience. Luxurylink.com features “mystery auctions,” which describe a vacation package’s length of stay, amenities and perks like gourmet meals, champagne reception and spa treatments, while the destination itself is kept under wraps. Best of all, the bidding starts at $1.
…but not too flexible.
There are advantages to knowing what you want and going after it. Instead of being inundated with options, you can target newsletters, clubs and other offers specific to a city, entertainment venue or hotel group. Craving some time on the Strip? Las Vegas Players Club cards, which can be purchased online, open up a world of weekly deals at a family of Sin City resorts, including four- and five-star standouts like the Luxor, Bellagio and MGM Grand. Recent offers included $44 a night at the four-star Mirage, or $99 at the five-star Bellagio.
And don’t overlook those blind-booking offers on Hotwire.com just because you have your heart set on a specific hotel. Based on the specifics the Web site does give you before booking—a four-star resort within a five-mile radius, for example—you can often research the area in question and quickly determine exactly which resort you’re considering.
Get professional help.
In the end, Sutter and Hilton agree: Wherever your vacation dreams take you, travel agencies are the way to go.
With so many variables involved in planning a first-rate vacation, Sutton summarizes the advantages a travel agent provides: “Expert professional knowledge, insider access to better value, personal solutions when your plans change and a trusted resource to exceed the expectations for your trip.”
There are so many deals, says Hilton, that the options can be overwhelming. Travel agents can separate the wheat from the chaff.
Insider access is especially important. On top of what you see advertised on television and find on the Internet, some of the best deals aren’t even publicized. “The first people that the vendors go to is the travel agency community,” Hilton says. “It doesn’t make sense for them to spend money on a New York Times ad for something they’re losing money on in the first place.”
Give your agent the details that are important to you, and he or she will find the best vacation to put everything together—and maybe more.
“We don’t cost any more,” Sutter adds. “But we can get a better value.”