Image: Christmas Lightings in Paris
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Think traveling this fall and during the holiday season will be unbearable? Think again.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist contributor
updated 9/8/2008 11:09:24 AM ET 2008-09-08T15:09:24

Here’s a holiday travel forecast you probably won’t read anywhere else: look for lower prices on everything from air fares to hotel room rates, smaller crowds and a more pleasant overall experience.

Am I nuts? Couldn’t I just write the same story everyone else is? You know — the holidays are coming! The holidays are coming! They’ll be busier than ever this year. So here are a dozen tips on how to stay sane, but really, you’re better off just staying home.

That’s how the facts seem to line up. Consider:

Airlines will pare their domestic flights by 8.1 percent during the last four months of the year. That’s a total of 25 million fewer seats, according to an estimate by OAGback Aviation Solutions and reported by my colleague, columnist Rob Lovitt . It’s the biggest pullback since 2001 — and perhaps ever. Drivers are making similar cutbacks. Since last November, Americans have driven 53.2 billion miles less than they did over the same period a year earlier, according to the Transportation Department. That’s a bigger drop than the one in the oil crisis of the 1970s, which precipitated a decline of 49.3 billion miles. As a result, Labor Day travel by car was basically flat compared with last year, and car rental rates have remained more or less unchanged since 2007. Hotels are feeling the pinch, too. They were about two-thirds full, on average, during the second quarter of this year, down by more than two percent from the same period a year earlier, according to Smith Travel Research. The only bright spot — at least for the hotels — is that they’ve been able to squeeze more money out of each guest. Average room rates are up by almost four percent for the same period. That’s bad news and more bad news for travelers. Panicky hoteliers are cranking up the fees and rates on their remaining guests. That’s no fun.

You don’t have to be a snarky travel columnist to connect the dots and conclude that this is going to be the worst fall for travel ever and that the upcoming holidays will be completely unbearable.

But that would be nonsense. The fall of 2008 and Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years might be among the best for travel in recent memory. Certainly, the best since 2001. It could even be the best ever.

I’ve come to this contrarian conclusion after talking with a lot of folks in the travel industry and with you, dear travelers. You are not barricading yourselves in your bedrooms like extras in a zombie movie. You have no problem scheduling a trip during the holidays. No, you are actually looking forward to this fall. Here are five reasons why I am, too:

Behold, a president bearing gifts
Regardless of who wins the presidential election in November, travelers can probably expect a change for the better. Practically speaking, it could mean lower fuel prices (after all, both candidates say they want to lessen our dependence on foreign oil) and a higher dollar (both candidates have pledged to control spending and jumpstart the economy). Author and blogger Janet Groene is upbeat about travel after the presidential election, adding that her optimism holds true, “no matter who wins.” I agree.

A more civil flying experience
Air travelers are adjusting to the historic airline cuts by flying less. So it’s unlikely that flights will be more crowded than ever. In fact, it’s possible that more air travelers will forfeit their trip than the airlines expected, which could translate into smaller crowds at the airports and possibly even lower fares. There’s some evidence this is already happening. Expedia says in certain markets, prices are dropping precipitously. Fall fares between Denver and San Francisco are down 32 percent and those between Denver and San Diego are down 30 percent. How about airline delays? “Passenger trip delays will remain at the same levels as 2007,” Lance Sherry, executive director for the Center for Air Transportation Systems Research at George Mason University, told me. That’s not exactly good news, but then again, at least it won’t be any worse.

Some cruise prices are sinking
The cost of a Caribbean cruise is falling to levels not seen since 2001, according to Sharon Emerson, a Seattle travel agent and blogger. Why the slide? She speculates that there are overcapacity issues — too many berths, not enough cruisers — or that it’s just the slow season in the islands. Either way, there are deals to be had. “For instance, Royal Caribbean has cruises from under $700 to the Caribbean,” she says. “Carnival has many under $600.”

Smaller crowds overseas, too
The fall and holidays were already a great time to take an overseas vacation — it’s a slow time of year, and most of the rest of the world has never heard of Thanksgiving — but this year it could be even better. “There will be a lot less traffic to international destinations,” predicts Michael Stone, a travel consultant with Gestation, Inc., in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “This will likely mean better service as employees in international destinations will be happier to see American travelers.” His personal favorite is the Caribbean, but my colleague Tim Leffel favors Central American destinations like Panama, Ecuador and Belize.

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Cheaper hotel rooms? You got it!
John Boyd, the founder of MeetingWave, an online networking service for business executives, believes hotel room availability and pricing should improve as occupancy rates slide later this year. “Both corporations and individuals are cutting back on travel,” he says. “They should find better deals at domestic travel destinations such as Las Vegas, Miami and New York.” But what about the holidays, when hotels are typically sold out? They’ll still be full, but the chances of finding a last-minute deal through a site that sells distressed room inventory, like or, will probably be better than it’s been in years. So spending a long New Year’s weekend at a bed and breakfast (New Years Day falls on a Thursday in 2009) may not be out of reach. 

Now let me connect a few dots. During the last four months of 2008, prices for almost every travel product could drop. There will be fewer passengers crowding the airport terminals, fewer motorists on the road and fewer people on cruise ships. What’s not to love about that?

This reminds me of the fall of 2001. Right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, travel fell off a figurative cliff. I flew a week after Sept. 11, and truth be told, I haven’t has such a good flight since airline deregulation. I was one of only a few guests in my hotel. The staff and flight attendants were friendly. What a pleasure.

The fact that people are comparing this fall to 2001 gives me hope. It should give all of us hope.

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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