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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/26/2009 10:01:01 AM ET 2009-02-26T15:01:01

Yes, I’m worried about the economy and the downward spiral of my retirement account values. But lately I’ve been eating out a bit more and booking extra trips out of town.

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On the one hand, I can’t afford it. On the other hand, I can’t afford to stay home.

At least that’s the story I told my husband last month when, grasping a coupon I fished out of my junk e-mail box, we had a lovely two-for-one dinner at a restaurant that’s been way outside our budget. And it’s what I said when I booked that incredibly cheap two-night Las Vegas package that included hotel, airfare, buffet dinners, discount event coupons, two drinks and passes to the gym. (We never found the gym, but that was nice that they threw that in.)

The ailing economy is fueling some unusual and unprecedented deals at hotels, restaurants and attractions. Some of those offers are so enticing that Well-Mannered Travelers might feel like “vulture tourists” when taking advantage of the great deals. But hospitality experts say don’t worry too much about that: When times are bad, whatever you spend will be appreciated. And besides, when times are good, prices will quickly go back up.

Waiting for a rock-bottom deal?
If you’ve got some time and even just a little bit of money to spend, there’s no need to wait for around for a great deal.

Suzanne Rowan Kelleher of the family travel Web site, WeJustGotBack.com, says she’s seeing unprecedented offers staying on the table for longer periods than ever before. “My inbox is flooded with 50 percent and 60 percent off deals, many of which are good through December 2009. A lot of adult tickets are selling for child ticket prices. Even Walt Disney World Resort extended its big promo for seven nights for the price of four, including park tickets. Like I said, unprecedented.”

It’s not just Mickey who misses you. Theme parks around the country, including most Six Flags amusement parks, Universal Orlando and many others are rolling back admission prices significantly and in many cases offering season passes for the price of a discounted one-day admission ticket purchased online. And hotel vacancies are at a 20-year high, so right now hotels everywhere are slashing prices, offering extra night deals or throwing in amenities such as meals, gift cards, attraction tickets and other things to sweeten their deals.

For example, in addition to a free happy hour, the eight South Beach Group Hotels in Miami are offering complimentary transportation to and from the Miami International Airport, a pricey ride that a Greater Miami Conventions and Visitors Bureau (GMCVB) spokesperson says is “almost unheard of at any other Miami hotel.”

In Orlando, Fla., the folks at Imagine Vacation Home are taking a lead from Disney’s current offer of a free admission ticket on your birthday and offering Disney park tickets for up to five members of a family renting a vacation home.

And in the month of April, during its “Sweet Tax Relief” promotion, many Kimpton Hotels will be covering all hotel taxes and sending guests home with PAYDAY, 100 Grand and Sugar Daddy candy.

If you’re willing to pay for your lodging before you know exactly where you’ll end up staying, you might get an even better deal on sites such as Priceline and Hotwire.

Clem Bason, president of Hotwire, says hotels are opening up a lot more rooms at rates lower than a year ago “as our partners look to fill their unsold inventory.”

Hungry? Extended happy hours are popping up all over. And the “regular” restaurant discounts out there are putting the squeeze on some already great deals. Boston’s popular Restaurant Week promotion is coming up (March 15-20 and March 22-27), and the more than 200 participating restaurants that will offer three-course prix fixe lunches and dinners at $20.09 and $33.09, respectively, have had to be a bit more creative in order to compete. So, for the first time, many restaurants will honor the promotion on the usually blacked-out Saturday nights. Others will be offering lower-priced, two-course lunches for $15.09 as well.

Feeling like a vulture yet?
When TripAdvisor asked 2,600 people if they felt they got “worse service” when using a travel discount, 45 percent of respondents said “rarely” and 20 percent said “never.” So, contrary to what some people may feel, there’s no need to be shy about showing up with a coupon you clipped out of a newspaper or a flyer, or a print-out of a deeply discounted deal you found online.

“You’re not taking advantage of them,” says David Bojanic, a marketing professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “They wouldn’t offer discounted deals if they didn’t need your business. And right now it’s a buyer’s market.”

Bojanic predicts there will be even deeper discounting going on in the travel and hospitality industry in the months to come, so he advises potential vulture tourists to relax their claws: “Don’t plan too far ahead. It doesn’t look like anything is going to change before the end of the year. So the deals may just get better.”

He’s probably right. But just in case he isn’t, I just swooped down on a deal from United Airlines for a discounted mileage ticket to Europe. When I get back, I’ll let you know if vulture tourism has spread worldwide.

Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the “Stuck at the Airport” blog, a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for USATODAY.com.

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