Ed Perkins, editor of the monthly Consumer Reports Travel Letter since 1985, says the bargain-finder's challenge this year is clear.
"Stop obsessing about airfares and start directing your concerns toward hotel bills," says Perkins, whose 1997 edition of Consumer Reports Best Travel Deals is an essential in any frugal traveler's library.
Don't get Perkins wrong: He's attuned enough to the complexities of air travel that he devotes more than 100 pages to that subject in his new book.
But, Perkins says, "I see reasonable airfares continuing to be available to those who know how to find them. By contrast, in the hotel business we've got a significantly growing demand and a stagnant supply of rooms."
The result, Perkins says, is that hoteliers, confident they can fill rooms, are increasing their prices. The trend is evident in North America and Europe, especially in large cities where new hotel construction has lagged. (One exception, he says, is Las Vegas, which now boasts more than 100,000 rooms.) Perkins especially decries the increase in "rack rates," which he describes as "the hotel industry's answer to a full-fare air ticket."
So what are our options? Perkins recommends several strategies: Joining a program that offers "half-price rates" at participating hotels and operates nationwide is a must for people who travel often.
Typically, travelers enroll in a "club" or buy a directory of participating hotels. Discounts are subject to availability, and the 50 percent savings usually are off standard rates that few consumers pay. But, he says, using a program once or twice can offset the fee, which can range from $20 to $100.
The three largest programs are operated by Entertainment Publications (800-445-4137), Encore (800-444-9800) and ITC-50 (800-987-6216).
Deal with hotel brokers. "These are the outlet stores of the hotel industry, often cutting prices as much as 50 percent," Perkins says. Brokers work almost exclusively with big-city hotels.
Ask if your travel agency has an arrangement that offers "preferred rates" at specified hotels. Large-chain agencies often operate their own programs. "This can knock between 10 and 40 percent off a hotel bill," Perkins says.
Inquire about promotions at European hotels. "One example is a program this year through which Mount Charlotte Thistle hotels [in Britain] are charging Americans the same amount in dollars that they charge others in pounds. You have to prepay the rate, but with 1 pound equaling about $1.65, the savings are significant."
Consider renting an apartment in Europe. "If you plan to stay in a destination a week or longer, we find that for about the same amount of money you'd pay for a mid-range hotel room, you can get an apartment with a lot more space," Perkins says.
"A good travel agent can help you find apartments, condominiums or villas. They're in the mountains, at U.S. beaches, in the Caribbean and in Europe. A lot of people now advertise home exchanges, too."
The best accommodations buy in this country, Perkins says, remains the budget motel. "For $30-$50 a night, depending on location, you get a good-size room, good heating/air conditioning, a modern bath and color TV," Perkins writes.
Overall, Perkins lists his Top 10 travel deals for '97 as: budget motels, hotel brokers, promotional rates in European hotels, low-fare airlines, airlines' sales, consolidator air fares, frequent-flier elite status, rail passes in Europe and Japan, weekly car rentals and discount cruises.
Of the last, he says: "The cruise industry today is exactly the opposite from the hotel industry. Supply is exceeding demand. So cruises will continue to provide good value for the dollar through this year."
Perkins also lists his five worst travel buys for '97: rack rates at expensive hotels, full coach airfares, rental-car collision
insurance, new time shares and designer luggage.
"If I could wave a magic wand at the travel industry, I'd say it's illegal to advertise something that has no 'buy-ability' -- for example, hotel rates advertised per person, not per room, but only available per room, and airfares advertised one way but based on a required round-trip purchase."
Bookstores stock or can order Perkins' book. Retail cost is $8.99. To subscribe to Consumer Reports Travel Letter ($39 for one year, $59 for two years), call 800-234-1970.
Pub Date: 4/13/97