Vow to make the most of your 2009 travel dollar

The Baltimore Sun

The economic tailspin ensures that 2009 will be a travel year like no other. We're already seeing hefty discounts, but beyond that, who knows?

So, rather than deliver dubious prognostications about prices and trends, I offer five New Year's resolutions for the savvy vacationer.

I will beware of bankruptcies. Not a personal financial collapse, although few dare to discount that risk these days. I'm talking about airlines, cruise lines, tour companies and travel agencies that suddenly go out of business, stranding customers and collectively devouring thousands, or even millions, in trip deposits.

Beset by tight credit, skimpy bookings and other pressures, some travel suppliers are sure to stumble in 2009. Last year, ATA, Aloha Airlines' passenger service and GrandLuxe Rail Journeys, among others, ground to a halt.

Predicting who will be next is tricky, because companies might give little or no warning before they shut down. Your best defense is your credit card. Under a federal law called the Fair Credit Billing Act, if you buy a product or service with a credit card and fail to receive it, you can ask to have the charge removed from your bill.

Travel insurance might help if it broadly covers "financial default" or "cessation of operations," not just formal bankruptcy filings.

Policies sold by third parties are best, because waivers sold by cruise and tour operators typically won't cover their own financial defaults.

Check with the insurer to make sure your policy's default provision covers all the companies you're using.

I will figure on fees. The true cost of flying is more than the fare. Airlines last year added or raised charges for checked baggage, frequent-flier award redemptions, bookings by phone and more. Expect to pay at least $40 round trip to check a second bag on most domestic flights; many carriers also charge for the first bag. (Southwest Airlines, which allows two free checked bags, is one exception.)

Beyond these mandatory fees, you might be given options to buy more legroom, boarding priority or access to shorter security lines. A few carriers, such as US Airways and Spirit Airlines, might even charge for sodas. Don't forget parking fees or cab fare, plus $10 or so for an uninspiring sandwich from an airport concessionaire.

It's not just airlines, of course. Taxes and fees on rental cars and hotel rooms can sneak up on you. Budget for the full price.

I will get an edge through e-mail. Sure, you can find promotions and low rates on Web sites of travel suppliers and agents. But why stop there? Sign up for e-mailed deals from your favorite airlines and hotels.

Companies use targeted marketing to reward loyal, engaged customers and avoid tipping off the masses to their lowest prices. Las Vegas hotel-casinos are especially adept at this.

Just make sure that the "exclusive deal" lighting up your in-box is better than what you can get on the Web site or by phone. You never know.

I will diligently monitor the U.S. dollar. The greenback had a wild ride last year, diving and then soaring in the currency markets.

Blink, and that $400-per-night London hotel room dropped to $300 or $350. Multiply by seven, and the week's lodging bill might be $2,800 or $2,100, depending on the exchange rate.

Happily, as 2008 wound down, the U.S. dollar was mostly up. In certain countries, such as Chile, Iceland, South Africa and Turkey, it has been doing very well indeed. Take that as a cue to explore new places.

And don't dismiss a pricey favorite; it might be cheaper than you think. Check exchange rates often.

I will plan ahead to get a passport. Don't wait until the last minute to apply or you might spend your vacation at home.

On June 1, tighter border rules take effect. Most Americans returning by sea or land from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean will need a passport, a passport card or other secure document.

Two years ago, when the U.S. began requiring passports for air travel to these destinations, a crush of applicants overwhelmed the State Department. Some passports were delayed for months instead of three weeks or so, the recent average.

No one knows what will happen in coming months. Play it safe and get or renew your passport now. Details at travel.state.gov.

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