9 essential travel strategies for 2009

By | January 12th, 2009

We’re traveling down an uncertain road this year. Buckle up.

“This kind of reminds me of the old sea maps from the 1300s that showed a coastline with the caption which read, ‘Here be Monsters,’” says Patric Douglas, the chief executive of Shark Diver, a tour operator in San Diego, Calif. “Trying to forecast this thing using any models from the past 20 years will be useless.”

That hasn’t stopped anyone from trying. Take American Express, which delayed publication of its closely-watched business travel forecast by a few weeks this fall to account for Wall Street’s implosion. Amex now predicts the average domestic business trip will cost 2.8 percent more in 2009. But considering the massive cuts in corporate travel and the deflationary pressure of falling fuel prices, its numbers are almost certainly wrong.

What’s going to happen? Nobody really knows. Not for business travel. Not for leisure travel.

Here’s what we do know: Travel will be different next year. Different than it’s ever been. Or ever will be again, probably.

These nine strategies will help you make the most of it:

1. Think outside the travel box
Relying on the same old travel strategies is folly. Think differently in 2009. For example, if you don’t have a lodging budget for your next trip, don’t fret. “Home exchanges have been rising in popularity during the past year,” says Zach Everson, a travel blogger. “I think they’ll see a sharp spike next year.” (He and his wife just bought a house in Louisville, Ky., and they’re looking for ways of making it more attractive for a home swap.)

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2. Be a ‘frugalist’ — even if you aren’t one
Almost everyone seems to be cutting back on travel in ’09, and hopping on the cheapskate bandwagon may have its advantages. Guido Adelfio, president of the Bethesda Travel Center, calls these travelers “frugalists” and believes 2009 will be their year. “With deflation, buying-power increases, which is a huge plus for the typical traveler,” he says. “Hotels are all feeling the pressure, as are the airlines.” In other words, buy a pool-view room or an economy class ticket and then wait for the “special offer” to upgrade to business class or get into the suite.

3. Become a price-watcher
When will airfares rise? When will they fall? No one knows for certain, but there are certain people who have a good idea. Like Hugh Crean of Farecast, who says, “Travelers will need to be more savvy at buying at the right time.” With so many dynamics driving prices up and down — such as oil prices, consumer confidence and capacity — Crean expects fares to be more volatile in 2009. Put differently, the deals will come and go faster than perhaps ever.

4. Expect once-in-a-generation sale prices
The bargains in 2009 could be very, very good. Jeffery DalPoggetto, a manager for Tamalpais Travel in Corte Madera, Calif., recently got a preview of what may be in store next year. British Airways offered a four-day sale on its first-class fares during the Thanksgiving holiday. “The usual roundtrip first class fare from San Francisco to London is $20,128,” he says. “They cut it to $4,774 — or about 75 percent off. Incredible.”

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