The Brancatelli File



September 15, 1989 -- Once dismissed as an indulgence of cash-rich, time-poor yuppies, “short stay” weekend trips have become so popular in recent years that they’ve profoundly changed the nature of the American vacation.

We take 7 percent more vacations now than last year, but they’re shorter than ever: just 4.8 days compared with 6 days in 1983, says the U.S. Travel Data Center. And the number of weekend trips we take has grown 20 percent over the last two years.

“Fewer Americans take a traditional two-week summer vacation,” says an executive at Marriott, one of the first chains to promote weekend travel. “There are so many demands on our time that it’s difficult to block out two or three weeks. Taking several short vacations each year works better for many of us, especially two-career couples and families.”

But as shorter vacations grow in popularity, leisure travelers are learning that the rules of weekend travel are different. Here are some tips on how to get the most from a short-stay weekend trip.

Shorter Vacations Aren’t Necessarily Cheaper Vacations
Although there are ways to keep costs down, weekend vacations aren’t for bargain hunters. People tend to splurge on short vacations because they’ve got limited time.

Plan Ahead
The image of busy jet-setters flying to all corners of the globe for the weekend on 24 hours’ notice is just that: an image. The reality is that wise travelers plan weekend trips at least two weeks ahead to obtain the lowest airline fares. Most discount fares must now be purchased 7, 14 or even 21 days in advance.

Know When the Airlines Want You to Fly
Monday, Friday and Sunday evening are when planes are packed with business travelers and discount seats are scarce. Whenever possible, start your weekend trip on Thursday and return on Sunday morning or Monday after 12 noon, and always include a Saturday stayover in order to qualify for the cheapest airline fares.

Join a Weekend Travel Club
Trans World and American Airlines now sponsor clubs that sell weekend packages with discount seats (on selected flights), hotel rooms and car rentals. (American Express is testing a similar club in the Chicago area.) TWA “Breakaway Club” members, for example, pay $100 a year and receive biweekly newsletters offering special weekend prices to many TWA destinations, valid for a limited time (usually two weeks). A recent newsletter for New York members offered 110 discounted flights to a dozen cities, including an $828 per person, 5-day/4-night vacation in London with round-trip transportation and accommodations at the Hotel Russell.

Use Special Car-Rental Promotions
Leading rental firms have offered discounted weekend rates for years, but now they promote special weekend deals, too. Hertz, for example, recently launched “Three-Day Weekend Packages” with unlimited mileage, free collision coverage and a tank of gas for $99–$135 ($180–4210 IN New York City), depending on the size of the car.

Use Weekend Rates at Hotels
Top-flight hotels that cater to business travelers during the week are eager for vacation business on the weekend. Many offer 50 percent or more off the published daily rate on weekends. The Four Seasons Olympic Hotel in Seattle, for example, offers six weekend packages. One includes a deluxe room for two with room-service breakfast for $165, compared with $228 for a deluxe room without breakfast on weekdays. A $215 “spa weekend” package includes a deluxe room, a massage, a manicure and a haircut and styling in the hotel salon.

Think Strategically
Time is precious on a short-stay vacation, so don’t waste a moment of it waiting at an airport. Pack light and only take carry-on luggage so you won’t have to wait for checked bags and always take a nonstop or direct flight. Miss a connecting flight and you might squander half your weekend trying to make another connection.

Be Prepared to Book Your Own Trip
Travel agents are indispensable for regular vacations, but many of them have limited experience in the short-stay area. There are exceptions, of course, but travel agents as a group have been slow to embrace the concept of weekend travel. That’s why about 80 percent of weekend vacations are arranged directly by travelers themselves.

Don’t Limit Your Horizons
You needn’t restrict your weekend travel to domestic destinations. Depending on where you live, Mexico, Canada, Western Europe, the Caribbean and even Hawaii are weekend vacation spots. After all, you can fly from Los Angeles to Hawaii in less time than it takes to fly to Boston. And flying to the Virgin Islands from the East takes less time than flying to San Francisco.

This column originally appeared in Travel & Leisure magazine.

Copyright © 1989-2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.