The Travel Critic

Surprise! Fall bargains will abound — and here’s where to find them

Tired of high hotel rates and airfares this summer? Just wait. Travel prices may be about to go into a tailspin — again.

But doesn’t this happen every year, as fall approaches? No. Not like this.

When I talk to travelers who are making plans this autumn, I hear about dramatic, unexpected bargains. Connect the dots with what I’m hearing from travel companies, who are telling me that some rates will be on par with last year’s record-low prices, and you might reasonably conclude that things are about to get interesting.

And then there’s this: The feeling that the worst is yet to come. Know what I’m talking about? It’s like the pit in your stomach right after the first drop on the rollercoaster, that premonition that you’re about to go freefalling off a precipice. I don’t know why I feel that way, other than the fact that the pundits have been talking about a double-dip recession for the last few weeks.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Airfares, car rental rates, cruise prices and hotel rates should be recovering from their record lows in 2010. And for a while, it looked as if that was happening. But one ash cloud, an oil spill and a wobbly recovery later, room rates are basically on a par with last summer’s record low rates and air fares, which are up slightly now, are already starting to head south for the fall in selected markets.
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Sorry, you don’t have an airline ticket

Question: I need your help with a vacation to St. Kitts that was missing a key component: our airline tickets. I had paid Expedia $2,521 for the package, which was supposed to include airfare from Cleveland.

But when I arrived at the airport, I discovered that our tickets hadn’t been issued. I had received an email from Expedia the day before, confirming our reservations.

I called Expedia’s customer service department, which asked me to buy new tickets. Expedia agreed to reimburse me the difference between the package price and the tickets, which came to $871.

Three months later, I still had no credit. I called again, only to find out that because they had no documentation that we had purchased new tickets, they could not issue a credit. I faxed them a copy of the receipt for the tickets.

Shortly after that, I received an email from Expedia denying my request for a refund. They did offer a voucher for $100 to be used when booking another Expedia trip. I don’t understand why my refund request was denied. I did everything they asked. I even bought Expedia’s trip insurance. Can you help? — Linda Foy, Cleveland

Answer: Expedia should have booked your flights, of course. When it didn’t, it should have bought your replacement tickets — not asked you to buy them.

And the three-month delay, followed by a “no” on your refund request? Let’s just say it wasn’t in line with its vaunted Expedia “Promise” that guarantees, among other things, that, “the travel you booked with Expedia will meet the descriptions on our site and in your itinerary.” Here’s the full text of its warranty.

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How to squeeze a ‘yes’ out of your travel company

This isn’t a political column, but when I heard the next president of the United States, Sarah Palin, announce she belongs to the party of “no” — actually, make that the party of “hell no” — I thought for a moment she was talking about the travel industry.

I’m just kidding about the president thing. But not the “no” part.

Travel companies love telling their customers they can’t help them. Want an upgrade? No. A different room? Sorry. A few more days to use a ticket credit? Forget it. An extra hour on your rental car? Nope.

The travel business hasn’t been about “yes we can” since the airlines were recklessly deregulated in the 1970s. But unbelievably, the industry has taken an even harder line in the last year or so, saying we can take it or leave it at a time when they need us more than ever. Go figure.
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6 tips for a summer daycation

If you don’t have the time or the money for vacation this summer, maybe you can spare a few hours for a daycation.

Somewhere between the staycations of 2008 and the naycations of last year there’s the daycation trend of 2010.

Sure, it’s another silly neologism. But the slowly improving economy means many travelers will take their first real first vacation in more than a year this summer — minus the long flight or drive and the hotel overnight. More Americans will opt for short day trips, instead.
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How to turn customers into critics? It’s in the fine print

As a lawyer, Sam Wyrick is no stranger to fine print. So when Spirit Airlines canceled his flight during its recent strike, he did what any respectable attorney would do: He read Spirit’s contract of carriage, the legal agreement between the airline and its passengers.

Unfortunately, so had the airline employee he dealt with. And Spirit apparently interpreted its own contract very differently.

“Two Spirit representatives — one on the ground at LaGuardia and one at a call center, had said if Spirit canceled our flight, we would be called and rebooked, on another airline if necessary,” he remembers.

But after it notified him that his flight to Myrtle Beach, S.C., was grounded, the airline changed its tune. It offered him a flight credit and a $100 voucher. (Never mind that Section 9.2 of Spirit’s contract suggests it owes him a refund.)
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4 things to take — and leave — when you’re on the road

Connie Langdon is a pack rat. Especially when she’s on vacation.

Hotels are a collecting opportunity for Langdon, a court reporter from Springfield, Mo. “I always take pens and notepads and then use them for work,” she says. “That way, when I’m in a rut and wishing I was someplace else, I can look at my pen and smile about some sweet vacation memory.”

But it doesn’t end there. Unused soaps, shampoos, lotions — all disappear into her carry-on. She lifts packets of ketchup and mustard from room service trays left in the hallway. And, of course, she brings home the hotel key cards.
“Not only do they remind me of where we’ve been,” says Langdon. “But they also make good little scrapers for the side-view mirror of my car. And emergency screwdrivers.”

Maybe you know someone like Langdon. Maybe you are someone like Langdon. Either way, you probably also know that there’s more than ever to collect while you’re on the road, from cheesy T-shirts and coffee mugs to boarding passes and key cards.
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Flying to Europe? It pays to know EU 261

EU 261.

Mention the word to an airline employee, and you’re likely to get one of the following responses:

“We’re not going to talk about that.”

“No comment.”

“Sorry. Try getting in touch with IATA.”

Those are actual answers, the latter referring me to the International Air Transport Association, a trade association for the airline industry. But my all-time favorite reaction came when I was touring the operations center of a certain airline that shall remain nameless. As we passed by the department that handled EU enforcement issues, I asked if I could talk with them about EU 261.
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Car-rental craziness: 6 odd rules and how to steer clear of them

If you thought airlines had wacky rules, try renting a car.

Like airlines, car rental companies don’t think twice about changing your rate. Except that they sometimes raise the price after you’ve driven off the lot.

Like airlines, car rental companies are astonishingly creative with their fees, from additional driver add-on costs to premiums for customers aged under-25. There’s even a down-to-earth equivalent of the cramped regional jet: Car rental companies are quietly redefining their vehicle sizes in an apparent attempt to lift their profits.

It seems that just about the only thing car rental companies don’t have in common with airlines is — well, cars don’t fly.
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Crazy cruise: 7 absurdities of the seas

There’s something for everyone on a cruise. And I don’t mean that the same way your travel agent or cruise line does.

Whether it’s a silly upsell, like asking you to pay extra for fine dining on your “all-inclusive” vacation, or dumb laws that prevent you from boarding or disembarking your vessel, you won’t fail to find something absurd at sea.

Just ask Shirley Ann Schultz, a sales assistant in Tampa, Fla. When she boarded a recent cruise, the ship’s security confiscated a five-inch knife she uses to prepare food. “Then, a couple of hours later, they handed us a steak knife — with a six-inch blade,” she says.
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When hotels fly: What you can do about new lodging fees

If you think hotels will never stoop to the level of airlines — charging extra for anything that isn’t bolted down — maybe you’ve never heard of easyHotel.

Sure, rooms at this cut-rate European hotel chain are cheap (about $35 a night) but if you need anything extra, like maid service, a fresh towel or a TV, it’ll cost you. Add it all up, and your stay costs closer to $50 a night, which is less of a bargain.

American hotels, long envious of the so-called “ancillary” revenues that they extract from guests by quoting a deceptively low base rate and then piling on mandatory extras, are watching easyHotel carefully. They’re no strangers to fees, but charging guests for housekeeping and TVs definitely crosses a line. Many are hoping customers will buy it.

Do we really want to live in an a la carte world?
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TSA’s liquid rules: So long, 3-1-1?

The Transportation Security Administration’s unpopular restrictions on liquids, gels and aerosols in carry-on luggage — better known as the 3-1-1 rule — are history.

Passengers say the TSA has all but stopped screening their baggage for liquids. They say transportation security officers no longer ask them to remove lotions, shampoos and even water bottles from their luggage, and overlook all manner of liquids packed in their carry-ons during screening.

“I was never asked about the liquids in my bag or asked to remove them,” says Doris Casamento, a retiree from Naples, Fla., who recently flew from Miami to Rome. “My husband had a bottle of water from the hotel he forgot was in his carry-on and it was never confiscated. The water was in a shallow shoulder-bag bulging practically in plain sight.”
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Advanced vacation rentals: 9 things to know

Renting a reliable vacation home isn’t easy.

And not just because there are a seemingly endless number of rental resources to turn to — everything from local sites that list a few condos to big listing services like or

For me, it’s the politics.
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Lessons learned from your worst travel gaffes

Forgetting to read the fine print. Not packing a change of clothes. Confusing a.m. and p.m.

In a previous column, I asked you to tell me about your worst travel mistakes. Did you ever!

And if I could generalize about the types of screw-ups most common to travelers, I’d say they’re not errors of commission as much as they are errors of omission: leaving something out, forgetting to verify a reservation, or just making an incorrect assumption.
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Maiden voyages: What you can learn from a first-time air traveler

Do you remember your first time?

The sweaty palms. The racing heart. And the paralyzing fear: What if something goes wrong?

Betsy Talbot was 25 when she took her first flight on a puddle-jumper from Midland, Texas, to Dallas. “I was almost vibrating with excitement,” she remembers. Then the pilot made an announcement: There was a mechanical problem. “All I could think of were disaster scenarios on take-off. I even seriously considered getting off the plane at that point, but when I looked around no one else seemed worried — frustrated, maybe, but not worried.”
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Oops, wrong city! Don’t let geographic illiteracy destroy your next vacation

Want to hear the latest stupid-passenger joke? Just hang out near the galley on your next flight, and you might catch the attendants poking fun of our gullibility — and geographic illiteracy.

I overheard two crewmembers on a recent flight from Orlando to Seattle mocking customers who believed the Earth’s rotation could slow the speed of an aircraft.

“And that’s why the westbound flights are slower than the eastbound flights,” one of them giggled.

Actually, a strong tailwind might account for the difference in speed.

The travel industry employees shouldn’t be so smug. After all, their geographic illiteracy — if not their gullibility — has cost us in the past.
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