Why high gas prices could cut your vacation costs

By | September 1st, 2008

Too bad gas prices are falling.

While the rest of the world whined about the seemingly unstoppable rise in energy costs this summer, and the greedy oil companies that were probably to blame for them, we missed the other side of the story.

Soaring fuel costs can potentially save us real money on our next vacation — if not in the short term, then down the road. The effects were already being seen across the board: hotel rooms, car rentals and counterintuitively, even airline tickets. If nothing else, paying more at the pump would have encouraged travelers to do things that will make travel more sustainable in the future.

Don’t believe me? Just talk to your seatmate or fellow hotel guest.

If you do, you’ll hear that contrary to travel surveys that basically shrugged off the energy crisis, travelers either plan some dramatic and permanent changes to the way they get around, or they’ve already made them.

Chat with Kathleen Hargan, a child custody mediator from Oakland, Calif., and she’ll tell you the sad story of downsizing her car to a Prius. “I loved my Lexus almost as much as my firstborn,” she says. “Well, a far second, anyway. It was a dream car. But I had an epiphany when gas hit $3 a gallon.”

Some travelers have gone even further. “I’ve cut my gas consumption in half — or even better — by parking my old reliable GMC Suburban in favor of a BMW motorcycle,” says Jack Riepe, who works for a trade organization in Alexandria, Va. “In most cases, a pair of khakis and a dress shirt can be teamed up with a blazer in the saddle-bags for a business look. Business associates have gotten used to the boots.”

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Others are trying to kick the fossil fuel habit altogether. “Gas prices pushed me to buy a bike,” says Lynette Phillips, a university research associate who lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio. “We live close enough to some stores that we can walk, so I do that more often.”

So how is this affecting travel? J Michael Murray, a retired professor from Sarasota, Fla., canceled his Mediterranean cruise this fall. “Flying to Istanbul and back from Rome was too big a hassle,” he says. “The cruise and related expense was just too much for what we would have gotten.” Remember, cruise lines have imposed fuel surcharges on their tickets, which jacked prices up without raising fares. Very clever. Or maybe not.

I’m hearing from a lot more people like Doreen Friel, a communications consultant from Tampa, Fla., who is frustrated by both higher energy prices and the hassle of travel. She just canceled her Delta Air Lines affinity credit card because, “Sky Miles are now worthless,” adding, “it’s just not worth leaving home anymore.”

If fuel prices head higher, travelers like Friel will benefit. Have I fallen off my rocker? No. Here are three ways high gas prices can you money.

1. Hotels: more incentives and falling rates?
During the last few weeks, just before fuel prices started edging downward, lodging analysts and hotel insiders told me rate growth had slowed. If conditions don’t change soon, they added, rates could start to fall. It seems every other hotel is issuing gas cards to encourage people to visit. No company is beneath this kind of incentive. I just saw Preferred Hotel Group — to which upscale boutique properties like the Mosaic Hotel Beverly Hills and San Francisco’s Huntington Hotel belong — offering gas cards.

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