Image: Cruise ship in Alaska
Business Wire file
Launching a small armada of newbuilds into the teeth of the recession, the cruise industry finds itself with too many ships, too few passengers and some of the lowest prices in recent memory.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/1/2009 10:45:45 AM ET 2009-07-01T14:45:45

As a New Jersey–based corporate travel agent, Leticia Huang knows all about scheduling travel arrangements in advance. Yet when it comes to her own plans, she and her husband have decided that flexibility is the way to go.

“We used to work our travel around our time off — holidays, school breaks, that sort of thing,” she says. “Now, we figure it’s going to be a lot cheaper if we can grab a bargain when it comes up. If I spot something, I’ll let work know that, two weeks from now, I’m going on vacation.”

Of course, flexibility has always been a valuable tool for deal-seeking travelers, but recently, it’s become a virtual requirement. The economy has more people leery about making plans far in advance; travel companies are offering more last-minute deals, and new technologies are fostering bargains that come and go like mayflies.

The key, then, is to be fast, flexible and well-informed. The tactics vary, but depending on where you want to go and what you want to do, there are plenty of ways to stretch your travel dollars. Here are five strategies:

Air travel
How “flashy” can those limited-time-offer “flash sales” get? Forget 48 or even 24 hours. When United announced its first Twitter-based fare sale in May — “Hurry and get your first-ever, time-sensitive Tware. $63 o/w Chicago to DC. + taxes…” — it was over in 59 minutes. Love it or hate it, the micro-blogging site is becoming yet another channel for airlines to create a lot of buzz and sell tickets to a lucky few.

Of course, following everyone from Alaska Airlines to Virgin America would be a time-suck of epic proportion. Instead, consider following the airfare followers, such as AirfareWatchdog.com and FareCompare.com. The latter recently launched individual Twitter accounts for 100 cities, so you can cut to the chase via city-specific posts like: $219r/t Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale down 8%, [http://bit.ly/1HMxT] #LAX #fare. Just don’t blink.

Cruises
Pity the poor cruise lines. Launching a small armada of newbuilds into the teeth of the recession, the industry finds itself with too many ships, too few passengers and some of the lowest prices in recent memory. “There have been prices as low as $399 per person for seven-night Alaska sailings,” says Stewart Chiron, aka The Cruise Guy, “and not just for the shoulder season, but for July and August as well. There are still some out there.”

To get the most for your Alaska-bound bucks, Chiron suggests opting for a roundtrip sailing out of Seattle rather than a one-way itinerary: “Roundtrips tend to be a little more expensive, but you avoid the additional cost of an open-jaw ticket.”

Tours and packages
According to a recent survey by the U.S. Tour Operators Association, average tour prices this year are 20 percent lower than last year. Operators are also introducing shorter trips and more domestic tours to appeal to travelers who don’t want to stay away as long or go as far. “Domestic programs are doing very well this year,” says Melissa Snape, executive vice president of product for Collette Vacations. “Napa Valley, the national parks ... we’re also seeing a lot of interest in New England.”

As for non-tour packages, some of the best deals right now are for Mexico, where operators hammered by the swine-flu alert (now lifted) are offering three nights’ lodging and roundtrip air from select U.S. cities for $400 or less.

Hotels
Looking for a good deal on a hotel room this summer? Ask and ye shall most likely receive. “In the past, the rule of thumb was that asking for a lower rate was successful about one-third of the time,” says Bjorn Hanson, associate professor at the Tisch Center at New York University. “Today, it’s successful about two-thirds of the time.”

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At the Mayfair Hotel & Spa in Coconut Grove, Fla., potential guests are actually encouraged to bargain for better rates. Under the hotel’s Let’s Make a Deal program, you can call the reservations department and make an offer, which may be accepted or met with a counteroffer. “It depends on occupancy,” says Tom Robertson, director of room operations, “but you can save 15–30 percent or more.”

Vacation rentals
For families and other groups, the inherent savings in renting a vacation home are well-documented. This year, though, weak bookings are prompting cash-strapped owners to cut prices and throw in more extras.

“Owners are trying to be more innovative,” says Kim Turner, director of marketing for GetMoreVacations.com, which helps owners boost their properties’ appeal via complimentary add-ons, such as golf and deep-sea fishing trips. “These are the things that people go on vacation to enjoy,” she says. “If you don’t want to open your wallet the whole weekend, you don’t have to.”

Or, as Leticia Huang puts it, “Travel is ultimately a treat for us. We need to save where we can, but not at the expense of happy memories.”

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail.

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