Image: New York City
Bebeto Matthews  /  AP file
New York City is focusing on marketing itself as a classic, iconic destination, the city’s revamped tourist site, NYCgo, now has prominent sections listing discount offers at theaters, restaurants and hotels, and attractions and museums with free admission.
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/12/2010 2:33:50 PM ET 2010-03-12T19:33:50

Did you cash in? Last year at this time, well-mannered travelers with spare dollars in their wallets could pick and choose from some incredible recession-fueled deals.

In an effort to lure guests, hotels were offering everything from complimentary upgrades and extra nights to free meals, theater tickets, massages, car washes and gas tank fill-ups. Restaurants were rolling out elaborate Happy Hours, theme parks were selling single-day tickets that could be used for admission year-round, and giving away free tickets for volunteering .

I worried about being a “vulture tourist” by taking advantage of some of these deals that were just too good to pass up. “Don’t worry,” said David Bojanic, a professor of marketing and tourism at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “You’re not taking advantage of them. It’s a buyer’s market.” Besides, he added, “when times are good, prices will quickly go back up.”

While some parts of the economy are getting back on track, Erik Torkells of Tripadvisor.com said the travel industry has a ways to go. “We’re still a long way from where we were three years ago. There are absolutely still travel deals to be found.”

Last year’s travel deals kept getting better and better, but you may need to do a bit of hunting this time around.

Airfares not so up in the air
Unless you stay close to home, a big part of your vacation budget will still be spent on airfare. In the past year, airlines have made route and capacity cuts that make it harder to get a great fare. While international fares are “stubbornly high,” said Airfarewatchdog.com’s George Hobica, alert travelers may still find deals for domestic travel.

“With winter almost over, this is the first time in memory that the airlines didn't have panicky —as in $300 round-trip, with tax or so — dead-of-winter sales to Europe.” Domestically, Hobica added, “we are still seeing panicky fare reductions. These are unadvertised ‘strategic’ sales that last only a few hours.”

In other words: pay attention.

Hotels still a great deal
Travelers are still in luck when it comes to hotel prices. According to a report released earlier this month by Hotels.com, hotel rates fell by 13 percent in Europe in 2009, 14 percent in the U.S., and by even more in Asia and Latin America. “We keep using the word ‘unprecedented.’ But most room rates are down to where they were back in 2004,” said Hotels.com’s Nigel Pocklington.

Pocklington sees the rate decline slowing and stabilizing, but said many hotels — especially four and five-star luxury hotels — are continuing to cut rates, while others are adding value by including extra nights, free breakfasts, upgrades and other complimentary amenities. Top 10 spring break destinations

Last year was the first year a handful of hotel properties in Beverly Hills, Calif., offered a collective deal. This year that deal is back: in addition to free breakfast and a complimentary extra night, the dozen hotels offering “Breakfast in Beverly Hills” are throwing in a free day on rental car reservations. And in Las Vegas, where the average room rate now hovers at just $80 a night, free show tickets, meal vouchers and waivers on property resort fees are often included in the package.

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Suzanne Rowan Kelleher of the family travel Web site, WeJustGotBack.com, said she senses stabilization. “We're not seeing nearly as many blowout deals as we saw last year, when rooms could often be snagged for 40 to 50 percent off regular rates. Now a great deal is when you can snag 25 percent savings or more,” she said.

Yet some hotels no longer need to cut prices. Sasa Nikolic, a spokesperson for the Sagamore Hotel in Miami, Fla., said the hotel last year felt “forced” to offer an in-season third-night-free promotion because both occupancy and revenues were way down. This year is a different story. “No specials are needed; and in fact many weekends we have the two-night minimum stay.”

Some attractions and theme parks still wooing you
In an effort to convince travelers to spend a weekend away from home, some cities with pricey reputations last year created free and low-cost online and print promotions. Those pitches continue in 2010. For example, while New York City is focusing on marketing itself as a classic, iconic destination, the city’s revamped tourist site, NYCgo.com, now has prominent sections listing discount offers at theaters, restaurants and hotels, and attractions and museums with free admission.

Furthermore, many Six Flags theme parks are once again offering significant discounts for purchasing single-day tickets online and offering reduced prices on season passes, which are good for admission at all the Six Flags parks around the country. And starting March 12, SmartDestinations.com is dropping prices on sightseeing passes for Boston, San Francisco and Seattle, while adding extra attractions to passes for several other cities.

Dining deals
The menu is mixed when it comes to restaurants. Since 2001, Miami restaurants have hosted the successful summer “Miami Spice” program, featuring prix fixe lunches and dinners. But for a month last year, 30 restaurants offered the same deal during the first-ever winter program. “This winter, restaurants in town didn’t feel they needed to repeat that offer,” said Jennifer Haz of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It seems as if the economy has gotten better.”

However, Boston restaurants are still feeling the crunch. In the upcoming Winter Restaurant Week (March 14-19, and 21-26), more than 200 restaurants will participate. Like last year, many of the venues offering the three-course, prix fixe meals will be honoring the promotion on Saturday nights, which are traditionally blacked out — and this year the meal deals come with discounts on theater tickets and parking spots downtown.

“We had to come up with these types of deals to make it as affordable as possible,” said Stacy Shreffler from the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Everyone is looking for value.”

And in Seattle, where a new Restaurant Week promotion (actually lasting two weeks) will join the more established month-long “Dine Around Seattle” program, the owners of the Tidbit Bistro vow to keep their special money-saving option on the menu — offering customers a 10 percent discount if they pay their bill in cash.

“It started back in November,” co-owner John van Deinse said. “We wanted to give people a little more money to spend at the holidays. Now, even though business is down, it’s a way we can give a little something back to new and repeat customers who make a point to come here.”

So did you miss all the great deals?
Not at all, marketing professor David Bojanic said. “You don’t have to feel bad about missing out by not taking advantage of last year’s rock-bottom deals because the landscape hasn’t changed all that much. There are plenty of deals available.”

In fact, when it comes to sweet deals, there’s a repeat promotion coming up that should appeal to travelers focused on the bottom line: During the month of April, participating Kimpton Hotels will once again be offering their “Sweet Tax Relief” promotion that waives room and hotel restaurant taxes, and provides guests with a Sugar Daddy, Payday and other candy bar bonuses.

Harriet Baskas is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com, authors the “Stuck at the Airport” blog and is a columnist for USATODAY.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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