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The Basic Rules of Buying Travel Now
September 16, 1994 -- If enlightened travelers know anything, it is that travel is first, last and always a commodity.

To be sure, travel should be exciting, educational, entertaining and relaxing. The experience is important and it's impossible to hang a dollar sign on that.

But, the bottom line on travel is the bottom line: It's s a commodity to be purchased with the simple goal of getting the best value for the money you spend.

Keep these general rules of buying travel in mind as you plan your travel purchases in the months ahead.

NEVER PAY RETAIL
No one else pays retail for travel anymore, so why should you? The overwhelming majority of airline tickets, hotel rooms, rental cars and cruise vacations are now sold at substantial discounts off the suggested retail price. For example, as many as 95 percent of all airline tickets sell for less than the full coach fare. Don't feel uneasy about demanding a discount because the travel industry no longer expects to sell their products at the retail price anyway. By and large, retail prices now exist solely as benchmarks against which the industry can promote their "x percent off" sales.

ADVERTISED BARGAINS AREN'T ALWAYS THE BEST DEAL
Since retail prices are meaningless, travelers must negotiate their way to the best deals. Caveat emptor should be your personal travel-buying philosophy. Be especially wary about travel advertising. Never assume an airline, hotel, car-rental firm or cruise line is promoting its lowest price. One example: Southwest Airlines' recent Friends Fly Free promotion, which offered a free ticket to every traveler who purchased one at Southwest's "regular low unrestricted fare." Sound like a good deal? Not necessarily. If you purchased a roundtrip to New Orleans from Austin, Texas, at the qualifying Friends Fly Free fare, you'd have paid about $25 more than if you had simply purchased two roundtrips at Southwest's lowest prices.

ALWAYS ASK FOR THE LOWEST PRICE
Cutting through the thicket of competing "deals" and conflicting discounts isn't always as difficult as it seems, however. You can often secure the best price simply by asking for it. Whenever you speak to a reservation clerk or travel agent, never make a purchase without bluntly asking, "Is this the lowest price available?" Once the agent responds, ask the obvious follow-up: "Are you sure this is the lowest price you have?" You'll be surprised how often--and how far--prices drop when you ask those two questions in a firm, but polite, manner.

SOLD OUT DOESN'T MEAN SOLD OUT
The travel industry controls prices with "yield management," a computerized system that theoretically matches the supply of inventory with historical demand at the highest price each traveler is supposedly willing to pay. To achieve this often elusive balance, yield-management computers frequently change prices and regularly reallocate the number of airline seats, hotel rooms, cruise cabins or rental cars available at each price.

So when a reservations agent tells you a flight or a cruise is sold out, it does not necessarily mean that there are literally no more seats or cabins available. It often means only that there are no seats or cabins available at that particular price right now. If you try a week, a day--or sometimes even an hour--later, a seat or a cabin may be available. You're essentially trying to outguess a computer when you make a travel purchase, so be persistent.

BE FLEXIBLE ABOUT TRAVEL TIMES AND DATES
Yield-management computers slice and dice the demand for travel into hundreds of components. For example, they price airline flights not only by destination, but also by the day, the date, and even the hour of departure. Computers that manage hotel inventory, rental-car fleets and cruise cabins are equally precise. So shifting your travel plans by a few days, or even a few hours, can yield substantial savings. Don't bother trying to unravel the intricacies. Just make sure to ask your travel agent or reservation clerk if your cost will decline should you select an alternate travel date or departure time.

PLAN AHEAD, BUT KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN
The advent of yield management has changed one other thing about buying travel: Booking early no longer guarantees you get the best price. It's still wise to plan ahead, especially for travel during holiday and peak seasons, but yield-management computers can and do launch price wars and short-term discounts at any time. If you want peace of mind, book early, but then be ready to pounce on any last-minute price breaks.

DON'T GO IT ALONE
A good travel agent is an indispensable ally. After all, are you qualified to plow through the rules of the 348 separate airfares that exist just for flights between New York and Los Angeles? But keep in mind that travel agents don't work for you. Like real estate brokers, travel agents work for the seller and earn their money in the form of commissions paid by the travel industry.

DO YOUR OWN HOMEWORK
No one, not even a travel agent inclined to keep your best interests in mind, can know about all the deals and discounts available. So do your own homework. Scour the newspapers, get all the brochures and look for deals in unlikely places: through direct-mail promotions, from frequent travel plans and travel clubs. Always ask about packages. Wholesalers who bundle the separate components of travel into an all-inclusive package usually offer the best value for money. And ask your travel agent about "consolidators." They frequently have last-minute deals on hotel rooms, airline tickets, and cruises.

This column originally appeared in Travel Holiday magazine.

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