By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist contributor
updated 7/19/2010 11:28:12 AM ET 2010-07-19T15:28:12

Tired of high hotel rates and airfares this summer? Just wait. Travel prices may be about to go into a tailspin — again.

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But doesn't this happen every year, as fall approaches? No. Not like this.

When I talk to travelers who are making plans this autumn, I hear about dramatic, unexpected bargains. Connect the dots with what I'm hearing from travel companies, who are telling me that some rates will be on par with last year's record-low prices, and you might reasonably conclude that things are about to get interesting.

And then there's this: The feeling that the worst is yet to come. Know what I'm talking about? It's like the pit in your stomach right after the first drop on the rollercoaster, that premonition that you're about to go freefalling off a precipice. I don't know why I feel that way, other than the fact that the pundits have been talking about a double-dip recession for the last few weeks.

It wasn't supposed to happen like this. Airfares, car rental rates, cruise prices and hotel rates should be recovering from their record lows in 2010. And for a while, it looked as if that was happening. But one ash cloud, an oil spill and a wobbly recovery later, room rates are basically on a par with last summer's record low rates and air fares, which are up slightly now, are already starting to head south for the fall in selected markets.

Exceptions? Yes, they exist. Car rental rates are rising across the board — at least for now — says Jonathan Weinberg, who founded a site called AutoSlash. "We're tracking prices for hundreds of upcoming reservations over the next six months or so, we the general trend we are seeing is that they are rising — sometimes substantially."

Same thing for cruise prices. I heard from several cruise travel agents who say there are no bargains to be had this fall. (Priceline ran a few numbers and begged to differ; it found several late-fall Caribbean cruises starting at $399 for seven days, which is ridiculously cheap.)

But if the bottom falls out of the economy — and folks, I really hope this doesn't happen — then all bets are off.

There'd be a silver lining, though: The balance of 2010 could be a buyer's market for travel once again. So if you missed all the deals last year, here's your second chance.

But you have to shop smart. Here's where you'll find the steals:

Just have a look at this graph comparing the euro to the dollar during the last 120 days. At those exchange rates, Europe is looking like a bargain. Remove most of the tourists, and the deals multiply. Candi Kruse, who works for a software company in Emmaus, Pa., says the deals in Bavaria, where she's headed this fall, are "phenomenal." She found hotel rates for under $100 a night in September, roughly half what they were during the summer. "I'd definitely encourage people to think about traveling [to Europe] in the fall," she told me.

Theme parks
These aren't the best of times for amusement parks, whether it's the mom-and-pop arcade on the boardwalk or the destination theme park. Fall is typically a slow time, and with the rest of the travel industry looking at a possible downturn, some parks are already getting aggressive with their pricing. Lynn Cuda found a 50 percent-off rate at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, one of her favorite properties. (She says her rates were limited to Florida residents only.) Cuda, a nurse, lives in nearby Jacksonville, Fla. "It's a very appealing rate," she says. Without a doubt.

Vegas, baby!
"I almost fell out of my chair," says Steven Scholnick, a software engineer from Pittsburgh. He was trying to find a low rate for a resort hotel near the Strip, and did he ever. The MGM Grand was practically giving away rooms for as little as $55 a night. And not just any room: His quarters were in the Grand Tower, "larger than the average Las Vegas room," according to the property's description. Plus, they were around the Thanksgiving holiday. "It was a phenomenal deal," he says.

Look closely at the price quotes, because they may be a lot better than they first appear. Rates at the swanky Breakers resort in Palm Beach start at around $400 a night at this time of year. But Phyllis Cheung, an entrepreneur who lives in San Diego, found a deal for just about half that — around $249 a night — but it included kids' meals, activities, unlimited tennis, continental breakfast and valet parking. "Those kinds of perks are not typically included," she says. No, they aren't. And certainly not at a place like The Breakers. Like some of the other Florida resorts, they're not waiting for summer to end. According to their site, these rates are already available, and the deals continue into fall.

If there's a difference between this year and last, it's that the bargains aren't going to fall in your lap. You may to have to find them, or be patient.

For example, some airfares to Europe are outrageous. That's because airlines are playing that game they always play with us at this time of year, which is to keep the prices high until they start to panic.

Trust me, they will panic.

Kirsten Dial, a former college classmate who now lives in Los Angeles, told me about her plans to visit her sister and her fiance in London this fall. The fares are currently an outrageous $1,200 in economy class. "To say I was shocked at the flight prices is an understatement," she told me.

I can't imagine them staying that high, so to anyone who sees a fare that's completely unaffordable, I recommend a site like Yapta, which lets you track the price and buy when the time is right. Also, check out Bing Travel, which actually projects the direction the fares will go. (It recommends waiting, although prices have already come down by about $200 for fall flights).

I kinda hope I'm wrong about the bottom falling out of the travel industry this time around. But if it does, you can't say you weren't warned.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, or e-mail him at

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Video: The best deals on summer travel

  1. Closed captioning of: The best deals on summer travel

    >> announcer: today's travel is brought to you by the smarter way to book.

    >>> this morning on "today's travel" the best deals of the summer from beach resorts to california coastal adventureadventures. some good deals out there. just need to know where to look. the features director of " travel and leisure magazine " says this is the big segment ever.

    >> it is. going to hawaii, going to waikiki, doesn't that almost sound relaxing just the name of it? it is a boutique hotel on waikiki beach and you can get it for $140 a night.

    >> wow.

    >> this is amazing. this is prime season. you're getting a great deal there. and they're throwing in complimentary wi-fi, complimentary breakfast, doing surf lessons for two at sunset.

    >> what's more romantic?

    >> a lot of other little additional details that are so nice and people, hawaii, you can't go wrong.

    >> no, you can't. let's go to italy. always wanted to go there.

    >> you know, it is so magical. it's one of the most beautiful places. i was in italy and it makes you swoon. and staying on the coast tends to be expensive but not at the hot hotel, they're throwing in welcome cocktail, welcome dinner and 10% off spa treatments and you'll be sipping and looking at the incredible mediterranean below you.

    >> how about the caribbean ?

    >> oh, i love the caribbean . you think about the caribbean , you want to go to that one island that no one else knows about and basically nevus, population 11,000, is it. there are no high-rise hotels. there's not even a stop sign. no stoplight on the island. the place to stay is the plantation. it was voted the top resort in the caribbeans for their awards. the big deal is the fact you can stay for under $300 a night for $292 a night. and they're throwing in, again, more things. hotels are really enticing people to come. and so they're throwing in five-night stay, daily breakfast , tea, afternoon tea , very civilized, and dinner and throwing half off your transfer to the hotel.

    >> i love catalina island inc l california.

    >> what i love is you have to take a ferry there so your vacation starts as soon as you get on that boat. an hour ferry from long beach to l.a. and you get to catalina land and you can do a lot of things or not a lot of things. the pavilion hotel for $250 a night, a hot deal on our website, you get not only your stay, wi-fi, breakfast, you'll get 15 different kinds of island activities for free as well as their beach club . u're going to get lots and lots of stuff, almost more than you can do. i think it's a great weekend destination.

    >> now if you're a wannabe chef go north.

    >> to toronto. the fairmont has a fun thing for foodies who want to be in the city called shop with the chefs, so you can spend the weekend. they're throwing in a six course tasting dinner with the price of your stay, $217 a night, and you get to go to the farmer's market with the chef for an hour and you get to see those who have been there often since the 1900s , the same families.

    >> and great tips on what to look for.

    >> they'll have tastings. you have a foodie in the ing family.

    >> you want to come down and be outside our window on the world , new york city .

    >> new york city is very difficult because the hotels are pricey. we have a brand-new hotel that opened less than two weeks ago on fifth avenue and 41st street right across from the new york public library . location wise, couldn't be better. amenities wise couldn't be better. they are really doing everything they can to make people feel comfortable. loft like rooms, marble in the bathrooms, soaking tubs for your feet. when you're tired of walking around new york city , free wi-fi, free local calls, free snacks in the room, everything in your mini bar not including booze free. i think for under $300 a night, $295 a night.

    >> and if you act now


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