Image: Memorial Day driving
Paul Sakuma  /  AP
A rented Cruise America RV drives on highway 101 through a foggy San Francisco skyline on Friday.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 5/25/2007 1:54:17 PM ET 2007-05-25T17:54:17

Worries about inflation are tugging at the U.S. economy again, as consumers pay more for everything from gas to groceries. But that’s not the only place where our purchasing power is declining.

As millions of Americans begin planning their summer vacations, they’re discovering that their dollar isn’t taking them as far as it used to.

Call it vacation inflation.

A recent survey by the Travel Industry Association of America, a trade group representing the travel industry, suggested vacation inflation is a growing concern among travelers. In its study of leisure travelers, it found that the biggest barrier to achieving an ideal vacation is money. More than a quarter of the respondents admitted that they were disappointed with their last getaway.

No doubt about it, travelers are getting less for more. But for every sky-high airfare or overpriced hotel, there’s a way around vacation inflation. I know because I’ve spent my entire career helping people make the most of their vacations, no matter how much money they have to spend.

Consider the price of your airline ticket. If you haven’t booked your seat yet for the summer, you might be in for a surprise. Fares have been on the rise, and this season we could see some uncomfortably high prices on popular routes.

Airline experts are quick to point out that even these elevated ticket prices are a bargain when you put them into historical context. And while it may be true that prices have remained more or less flat for the last two decades, it’s also true that the flying experience has deteriorated rather dramatically. Seats are wedged closer together than ever, service is often rendered with a snarl instead of a smile, and meals have been replaced with snacks (or nothing at all).

In other words, your airfare dollar is buying less than it used to.

So how do you control that kind of inflation? The Internet offers several great tools. Two of them — Farecast.com and Farecompare.com — allow you to find the lowest prices on your desired destination. And a new site called Yapta.com, which debuts in May, promises to alert you when your fare drops below your purchase price and then helps you secure a refund from the airline. But perhaps the best inflation-fighter can be found offline: a trusted travel agent who knows how to find a high-quality air travel experience at a reasonable rate.

Video: U.S. braces for busy travel weekend But airfares only represent a fraction of your vacation budget. Hotel rates are also climbing, with some of the steepest price increases coming in the categories preferred by leisure travelers, such as motels and economy hotels. By one estimate, prices in the so-called “economy” hotel category rose 19 percent last year, to an average rate of $164 a night. How can they charge so much? Higher demand and fewer available rooms have made finding affordable accommodations nearly impossible.

Not completely impossible, though. Travelers are attacking this kind of vacation inflation by choosing alternative accommodations, like camping, staying with friends, or short-term rentals. New online sites such as Homeaway.com and Forgetaway.com are connecting travelers to some of these non-hotel options. One of the biggest shifts, though, is happening in the minds of travelers, as they begin to treat a room as nothing more than a bed to sleep in. That allows them to focus their efforts — and money — on the parts of their vacation that deliver real value, such as activities.

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There are other aspects of your vacation that are affected by inflation. But customers are getting savvy to the pricing games played by everyone from restaurateurs to car rental franchise owners. The smartest travelers choose to eat lunch at a restaurant instead of dinner. Why? Because the dinner menu, which offers many of the same dishes at the same portion sizes, can be inflated by up to 40 percent. Instead of paying what amounts to a candlelight premium, they buy groceries and prepare dinner in their rooms.

And they steer clear of car rental bills that can often double by the time all the extras are added up by prepaying for the vehicle on sites such as Hotwire.com, and turning down unnecessary extra liability insurance and other options.

Too bad the American vacationer can’t turn to the Federal Reserve to help bring vacation inflation in check. But thanks to a couple of online tricks, solid advice from travel agents and some clever strategies of their own, they’re putting up a good fight.

Yet, as the traditional start of the vacation season approaches this Memorial Day, the real question is: What will the travel industry do about its inflation?

Are airlines, hotels, car rental companies and restaurants giving us real value for our vacation dollar — or do we have to resort to tricks and online tools to get our money’s worth?


Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler
magazine and the host of “What You Get For The Money: Vacations” on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at
celliott@ngs.org.

© 2007 Christopher Elliott ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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