updated 12/1/2004 3:28:22 PM ET 2004-12-01T20:28:22

Nov. 30, 2004 | 5 PM

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Cruising takes a bruising (cruise discounting that is)

It was only a matter of time. Less than a month since Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Carnival announced that they would no longer allow agencies to sell cruises at anything lower than “sanctioned” prices, Norwegian Cruise Lines has hopped on the bandwagon. Declaring on Friday that it wanted to “level the playing field” among agencies, it announced that it would no longer allow agents to advertise lower prices in any public forum; nor would it reward agencies that sold more cabins with special discounts. Colin Veitch, CEO of NCL, told industry newspaper Travel Weekly “We are simply defining the way in which we wish our pricing to be advertised, and we are making all of our pricing mechanisms available to any and all agents who wish to partner with us.”

Sounds healthy and above board, right? Wrong! What this really is is a not-so-subtle attempt of the big players to raise prices and do away with discounting altogether. Who could blame them? This year, 10.5 million passengers are expected to ante up for a shipboard holiday, a record number. But many of those passengers were lured onboard by special discounts and low overall cruise costs—if those sky-rocket (and prices are rising at a steady clip), will this type of vacation remain as popular?

In the past, cruise discounters had been able to “work their magic” in three very specific ways: 1) By rebating part of their commission back to clients and 2) by selling so many cabins that they were granted special discounts and rewards for their productivity by the cruiseline and 3) by purchasing cabins in bulk and at a group rate, assuming the risk if they didn't sell (or if a client's payment bounced) and passing along part of the discount to their clients. None of these methods are illegal but since the cruiselines control agent commissions, you can be darn sure the cruise lines will be successful in squelching them—unless of course, some brave agency, or consortium of agencies brings a class action suit, a very definite possibility here.

We've already seen prices on cruises rise this year. Gone are the days of the $50/night Caribbean cruise (doable as recently as mid-2003). We fear that with this move, the cruiselines will be able to accelerate price hikes even more rapidly.

So what can we the consumer do? Let's reward those cruiselines—Princess, Cunard, Disney, Holland America, Windjammer and Costa—that are giving the agents that work with them a little leeway in pricing. Sure, Princess, Cunard and Holland America are owned by the same companies that are putting these unfair policies into play, but currently these divisions aren't playing ball. Let's use our credit card clout to send a message: we like our discounts and we don't want them to go away!

Nov. 30, 2004 | 2 PM

Costa Rica’s earthly delights

Costa Rica owes a great big thanks to Mother Nature for its rapid rise in tourism. Now the Central American country’s top source of income, eco-tourism especially has lured nature-lovers by the thousands to Costa Rica. Bordered by Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica’s rugged undeveloped stretches of coast, jungle rivers, and rain forests hold special appeal for those hoping to spot spider monkeys and walk in cloud forests.

“Flying over the country on the way into the Daniel Oduber International Airport in Liberia, I was amazed at how the Costa Rican landscape was so completely pristine and untouched. I felt like Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park. I half expected to find dinosaurs wandering about when we landed,” says James Oates, who recently returned from honeymooning in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica’s biodiversity is endless, and thankfully the country’s economy depends on its delicate preservation; government initiatives extend far into the wild to areas that have managed to remain untouched by the hand of man over millennia.

Oates adds, “Our three-hour hike through the Rincon de la Vieja Volcano National Park was incredible. Deep inside a lush tropical rain forest, with sulfer steam clouds, bubbling mud pits and hot springs. It's nature at its most prehistoric.”

As if the country’s awesome natural beauty wasn’t enough, Costa Rica also delivers a wealth of great vacation opportunities for the budget traveler. In our opinion, some of the best offers around allow for intrepid explorers to get off the beaten path for back-road adventures.

Latin America travel expert Traveland.com has just such an independent travel special. Priced at $599, it includes round-trip airfare from Miami (many other major cities are available for $699), guide assistance, airport transfers, one night in San Jose at the Don Fadrique Hotel, hotel vouchers/passes for six nights in your pick of 43 hotels scattered across the country (many of which are smaller family run affairs), breakfast, seven days 4X4 jeep rental (Daitsu Terios) with unlimited mileage, and road maps to help you navigate your way between jungle and beach, volcanoes and cloud forests.

With this nicely priced offer, you can travel all the way through April 2005 (on select dates), but you have to book the trip by Sunday, Dec. 5.

If offers less flexibility, but we do think the price is right for Jet-A-Way Holidays’ “Fire & Water” air-hotel package: $579. With this offer comes round-trip airfare (again from Miami), two nights in the capital city of San Jose at the spiffy Blamoral Hotel, two nights at the comfortable and charmingly rustic Arenal Lodge which has direct volcano views, and three nights at the breezy beachside Las Tres Banderas in Quepos. All ground transfers (including to and from the airport), as well as hotel taxes, are included in the total cost of the package too. Jet-A-Way Holidays' offer is good for travel through Apr. 31, 2005.

Both companies offer an array of sightseeing and adventure tours.

Las Vegas, where a fun getaway’s hardly a gamble

Of all of the cities on our radar, Las Vegas shines as a neon-lit destination that delivers deals on a steady basis. Specials may not roll in the clock-work, but we’re certain they’ll turn-up sooner or later. Now is no exception; there are a handful of currently running specials that we think deserve some attention.

Budget vacation powerhouse, Funjet, has a doozy of a deal right now for Midwesterners. The $279 special includes round-trip airfare from a handful of cities (see below) and four nights of accommodation. Which hotel you bunk at will depend on which city you depart from:

Right now, the lowest airfares alone for midweek travel in December from these cities stack up as follows:

  • $266—Buffalo (Northwest)
  • $166—Chicago (America West)
  • $198—Detroit (Spirit)
  • $326—St. Louis (United)

The promo runs on designated travel dates in December and January, but you have until midnight, Thursday, Dec. 2 to book.

Those leaving from Dallas have an even better air-4 night special. 4DiscountTravel.com is selling the package for $249, which includes stays at Treasure Island at The Mirage.

Since we’re on the topic, we’ll let you in on another terrific offer in Sin City. Holiday Network has week-long condo rentals in Las Vegas for $280. Each condo, which comes with a kitchen for when you tire of buffets and want to make your own meal, sleeps four. This means the cost for one person is $70 for the week, or just $10/night per person!

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Nov. 29, 2004 | 2:15 PM

Troubled airline ticket-holders may be flying by the seats of their pants

Airline ticket holders need to be prepared if the airline they’re scheduled to fly on goes under, but that’s getting more and more difficult to do, especially since the federal law that forces other carriers to honor tickets from failed airlines expired on Nov. 19. To make matters worse, airline industry lobbies are working hard to prevent the law from passing again.

Without a legislative safety net, travelers can expect turbulent times ahead. If you’ve booked with a financially troubled airline (do your research before you book), you could wind up losing the money you spent on tickets if the carrier suspends service and goes belly-up.

Passed almost immediately after Sept. 11 to balance the airline bailout initiative with consumer protection, the law (section 145 of the U.S Aviation and Transportation and Security Act) states that “airlines operating on the same routes are obligated to transport passengers of airlines that have ceased operations if space is available, and at a price not to exceed $50 on a round-trip basis.”

But the legislation is not perfect and does have its restrictions. For instance, it does not apply to foreign carriers even if they’re partners with domestic airlines, nor does it apply to frequent flier miles. But the real kickers are these: Everyone with re-issued tickets has to fly stand-by and must fly within 60 days of the original airline’s service suspension date. Still, a stand-by ticket on a carrier that’s still flying is better than eating the money you spent and not flying at all, right?

Is it just a matter of re-passing the law? If only it were that simple. Here’s where things get complicated on The Hill. The Internet Travel Monitor reports that while the Senate approved the extension as part of its bill revamping the U.S. intelligence bureaucracy, the House of Representatives approved a different intelligence bill, one that doesn't include the airline ticket issue. The two versions will have to be turned over to a conference committee. It’s too soon to tell whether the legislation will be revived in Congress’ abbreviated pre-holiday session, but some travel industry experts are hopeful.

Kevin Mitchell of the Business Travel Coalition rated as “a good probability” that Congress will extend consumer protection. In an interview with Tripinfo.com, Mitchell adds, “People are concerned that they're going to be left holding these tickets,” Mitchell says. “If you extend this, and people know about it, they'll sell more tickets as an industry.”

For the time being, we strongly recommend following the sound advice of USAToday.com:

  • Buy tickets with a credit card and demand a charge-back from the credit card issuer if your airline stops flying.
  • Don't buy a ticket more than two months in advance. Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, you must dispute the charge, in writing, to arrive within 60 days after the bill containing the charge was mailed to you.
  • Consider hedging your bets by buying a refundable ticket on another airline that flies to your destination or purchasing trip cancellation/interruption insurance that covers airline bankruptcies. (For a comparison of policies, try insuremytrip.com.)
  • Get a paper ticket. (E-ticket receipts can be easy to forge.)
  • Take a “use it or lose it” approach to frequent-flier miles. (Redeem miles for award tickets.)

Next General posting

London sales extended

Good news: The $299 London Super Sale we recently told you about has been extended until Dec. 6, that's next Monday. In case you don't remember or this is your first time reading the Sleuth, Go-today.com's sweet package includes not only round-trip airfare to London (from NYC and Boston but more cities are available for an add-on fee), but also breakfast and hotel taxes too. Though you must book by the 6th, you have nearly the entire month of January in which to travel.

While we're at it, we'll remind you about the British Airways' sale on tickets to London; it's been extended until Dec. 2. Make your purchase by end of day Thursday and you’ll make out with round-trip tickets the US and merry old England (NYC-London) from $120 each way. This base each-way fare applies to travel all the way through March.

The icing on this post is that if you buy tickets before Dec. 2, you’ll also get two free night’s worth of accommodations in London. This offer is based on availability, but considering how expensive London lodging is, we think this detail seals the deal. You can check the dates you’re interested in here.

Next Europe post

• Nov. 24, 2004 | 11 AM

Turkey please (the country, not the bird)

Istanbul casts a spell. The monumental city, which straddles Europe and Asia, is an exhilarating blend of old and new, East and West, Christian and Muslim, and forever exotic. The secular Turkish government is working hard trying to win a spot in the EU, and the upshot is an explosion of modernity and liberal attitudes—toward the economy, women, and having a good time. In short, it’s an exciting time to visit this Turkish hot spot. Of course, you won’t want to miss the Old City, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, or the centuries-old bazaar, but you’ll also want to savor the winds of change that are blowing over the Bosphorus Straits, chill out in sleek modern cafes and if you have the energy, dance ‘til dawn in some of the hottest nightclubs on the other side of the ocean.

This brings us to an astounding offer from Picasso Travel: Round-trip airfare on Delta to Istanbul, five nights at the Ilkay Hotel, a modern middle-of-the-road property with a great location, airport transfers and breakfast for $439 per person. When we priced the cost of airfare alone, Delta had the best price, but at a whopping $580 per round-trip ticket, we didn’t think it was such a bargain.

The lead price is for travel from New York, but Picasso can price the trip from some 30 odd US cities. Here are some example add-ons: $50 from Boston and Philly, $100 from Atlanta and D.C.; $150 from Chicago, $175 from Houston, and $200 from San Francisco.

Picasso’s package is good for travel on Tuesdays or Thursdays through Mar. 26, but the period between Dec. 23 and Jan. 3 is, not surprisingly, blacked out. To leave on a Saturday or Sunday will cost you $50 more, and all purchases must be made by Dec. 10.

NOTE: We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Booking travel through Picasso Travel or any one of its sister companies (Nordique Tours, Splendida Italia, etc.), can be trying at best. You’ll need a good dose of patience on the phone, and may have to wait a half hour to get through. This isn’t always the case, but should be expected if they have a super hot special like Istanbul for sale.

Previous Europe posting

Last week in Savings Sleuth

• Nov. 24, 2004 | 12:30 PM

A grab bag of Carib cruises

It may be cold and rainy on the East Coast this Thanksgiving eve, but just as sure as many are calculating when to stick their turkeys in the oven tomorrow, many northeasterners (and others) are also plotting how to escape to sunny spots when the holidays are over. Where could be more inviting than the Caribbean?

Friday, Nov. 26, is your last chance to scoop up CruCon Cruise Outlet’s $279 special: a Western Caribbean sailing on the Carnival Imagination, a colorful vessel with top-notch fitness facilities and dining. The cruise is for five nights and takes you from Miami to Grand Cayman and Ochos Rios in Jamaica before sailing back to Florida. While this price is for an inside cabin, oceanview digs go for just $389, including port. Plus, those who book the discounted rate by Nov. 26 will receive a coupon book of over $300 in on-board savings.

There’s one travel date only at this price: Jan. 31, which falls right about the time of year when you’ll really want some warming up.

A somewhat similar itinerary (Miami-Grand Cayman-Honduras-Miami) is being offered for a Jan. 16 sailing through discounter 123Travel.com on the entertainment-loaded NCL ship—the Norwegian Spirit. The cost is $374 for five nights in an inside cabin and includes port charges. You can upgrade cabins to an oceanview room for $45 additional, and balcony cabins are $180 more. Book by Dec. 16.

Early-birds looking to lock in savings for cruises in the new year might like SmartCruiser.com’s $399 six-night Royal Caribbean cruise that sails from San Juan, Puerto Rico on Apr. 29 to St. Maarten, St. Thomas, and Hispaniola before docking in Ft. Lauderdale. You’ll ride the clear Caribbean aboard the Empress of the Seas, a freshly renovated mid-sized vessel that comes with state-of-the-art amenities. Accommodations are in an inside cabin, but upgrades are available.

The cheapest one-way flights to San Juan on Apr. 28 are $113 (on JetBlue) from NYC; $177 (on Spirit) from Chicago; $223 (on JetBlue) from Los Angeles; $133 (in USAir) from Miami.

• Nov. 23, 2004 | 1 PM

The 16 worst airports for airport security line waits

If you read Keith Alexanders column about the potential travel disasters waiting to happen this weekend (record numbers of passengers, many fewer airport staff due to the continuing financial woes of the airlines), you know how ugly the airports may get on Wednesday and Sunday.

But problems with security waits and poor service will vary from airport to airport. Accoring to the Wall Street Journal, the longest security lines tend to be in the coastal cities as more passengers originate their travels at these hubs (instead of simply changing planes). Airports that play host to a number of upstart airlines, such as Dulles and Fort Lauderdale, also tend to have longer waits at security, due to the recent influx of new passengers.

The Journal took a survey of the worst airport waits (between Oct. 12 and Nov. 9). If you're planning on flying out of any of following gateways this week, we suggest you get there early—really, really, early (ie, if the sun's already risen, you may be too late).

  • Fort Lauderdale: Maximum wait time 63 minutes. Worst time for lines: Thursday at 5 pm and Friday at 11 am, both at checkpoint D; Sunday at 11 am and Saturday at 10 am at Checkpoint C.
  • Washington Reagan: Maximum wait time 59 minutes. Worst time for lines Monday at 7am at Center Pier; Thursday at 1 and 2 pm and Fridays at 2pm at North Pier; Tuesdays at 3pm at Concourse A.
  • Los Angeles: Maximum wait time 58 minutes. Worst time for lines Sunday at 11 am, Friday at 10am both at Terminal 1; and Tuesday at 7am at Terminal 7.
  • Washington Dulles: Maximum wait time 57 minutes. Worst time for lines Friday, 4pm.
  • St. Louis: Maximum wait time 55 minutes. Worst time for lines Thursday at 8 am.
  • New York-LaGuardia: Maximum wait time 52 minutes. Worst time for lines Friday at 6 pm, Monday at 4pm and Thursday at 5pm on Concourse B.
  • Phoenix: Maximum wait time: 50 minutes. Worst time for lines Monday at 6 am and Sunday at 6 am at Terminal 2.
  • San Juan: Maximum wait time: 50 minutes. Worst time for lines Sundays at 11 am at checkpoint 4.
  • Honolulu: Maximum wait time: 48 minutes. Worst time for lines Monday at 4pm.
  • Pittsburgh: Maximum wait time: 47 minutes. Worst time for lines Monday at 8 am, main checkpoint.
  • Denver: Maximum wait time: 45 minutes. Worst time for lines Sunday at 3pm at A Bridget.
  • Miami: Maximum wait time: 45 minutes. Worst time for lines Sunday at 7pm at Concourse E-Lower.
  • Cleveland: Maximum wait time: 44 minutes. Worst time for lines Fridays at 6am and Thursdays at 4pm at A Concourse.
  • Philadelphia: Maximum wait time: 44 minutes. Worst time for lines Wednesday at 4pm at Checkpoint B.
  • Dallas-Fort Worth: Maximum wait time: 43 minutes. Worst time for lines Friday, 10 am at A35 checkpoint.
  • Boston: Maximum wait time: 42 minutes. Worst time for lines Monday at 8 am, B5 checkpoint.

If you don't see your home airport on this list, you can find average wait times by going to the website of the TSA.

Previous General posting

• Nov. 23, 2004 | 4:23 PM

Quick tip for winter trips to the Sunshine State

If you happen to be traveling to Florida this year, and if you're planning to rent a car, and if you'll need it for a full week, then steer clear of the major car rental companies. Instead, rent from E-Z Rent a Car which is charging just $75/week for a compact for the entire month. That's a good $40 less than the Big Boys are charging during the same period, and EZ Car has offices in all of Florida's major tourist cities should anything go wrong with the car.

It's an "if"-laden deal, but good for Florida-bound tourists (and there should be a lot of you out there).

Previous US & Canada posting

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