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8 things travelers should expect in 2008

Travelers deserve a break in ’08. Too bad they won’t get one. No reasonable traveler, travel expert, or wannabe-traveler can look at the wearisome events of 2007 and say, “No worries, 2008 will be great.” It’s impossible.
Image: Traffic backs up at a vehicle checkpoint at Los Angeles International Airport
Think 2007 was a bad year for travelers? Just wait for 2008. Columnist Christopher Elliott forecasts more fees, more gridlock, more delays and more headaches.Dan Steinberg / AP

Travelers deserve a break in ’08. Too bad they won’t get one.

No reasonable traveler, travel expert, or wannabe-traveler can look at the wearisome events of 2007 (which I covered in an earlier column) and say, “No worries, 2008 will be great.” It’s impossible.

Last year travelers were hit with bad news on almost all fronts: Gridlock on the ground, in the skies, high fuel and lodging prices and a seemingly endless series of irritating surcharges.

Can things get any worse? You betcha.

First, let’s review a few numbers. The cost of travel is expected to rise an average of 4.5 percent in 2008, according Runzheimer International, which publishes the most authoritative forecast of travel prices. (Runzheimer’s projections are specific to business travel, but are widely seen as a gauge of overall prices.) That’s a little more than one percent above the current rate of inflation, which, on balance, isn’t so bad.

But if you’re looking for more good news, dream on. For travelers, surviving 2008 will be a matter of knowing what to expect and having a strategy to get around each roadblock. Here are eight of the most significant ones:

Inconvenient “convenience” fees
Imagine having to shell out a $2 “convenience fee” for using your credit card to pay for your next hotel room? How about a surcharge for reserving the exact type of rental car you wanted? Sound absurd? It isn’t, at least to the travel companies that are just waiting for the right time to implement these frivolous extras. People already cough up convenience fees for event tickets or to pay by credit card at the Department of Motor Vehicles. At least one carrier, Allegiant Air, is charging an $8.50 “convenience fee” for tickets booked through its Web site or call center. Watch for more of them next year.

How to get around it: Disclosure of these fees will probably be negligible, which means you can negotiate your way out of paying them. Do it.

Even more stupid energy surcharges
Higher energy prices always send travel companies into an opportunistic frenzy. In December, the cruise line Star Clippers slapped an $8 fuel surcharge on future bookings. There’s just one little problem: Star Clippers operates a fleet of sailing ships. The Jamaica Hotel & Tourist Association in December also encouraged its members to impose an energy surcharge on its guests because of “the ever-increasing price of crude oil and the consequent threat to the profitability of hotel businesses.” Huh? Since when is crude oil — or any kind of fossil fuel — used to power a hotel? Point is, the fees often have little or nothing to do with the actual energy costs of the cruise line, hotel or airline. If they can get away with it, they will (and they are).

How to get around it: Look at your original cruise contract or terms of transportation. If there’s no provision for an energy surcharge, you ask them to be deleted from your bill.

Higher car rental prices — or higher fees (or both)
One way or another, the car rental industry is going to get its hands in your pockets in 2008. American Express projects car rental costs will climb between 2 and 4 percent, which sounds almost affordable. But chances are you’ll pay a lot more than that. Car rental companies have gotten much smarter about what they call “upselling” customers — persuading them to buy pricey upgrades, unnecessary insurance and extra amenities like GPS navigation systems — and then collecting punitive fees after you’ve rented (fees for gas, little dents or chips in the windshield). I would expect that to only get worse. I also think it’s possible that AmEx is wrong about its car rental projections. In 2007, Enterprise Rent-a-Car acquired Vanguard Car Rental, which owns the National and Alamo brands. Fewer car rental companies means less competition, and that normally translates into higher prices.

How to get around it: Resist the upsell and get your rate in writing.

Gridlock on the ground: the sequel
In 2007, cities competed for bragging rights to the worst traffic. In 2008, the government is finally going to do something about it, if Transportation Secretary Mary Peters is to be believed. The Secretary in December announced that her agency wants to develop technology “designed to fight congestion and improve the safety and performance of the nation’s transportation system.” With more than 250 million vehicles on U.S. roads — a number that has grown by about 2 percent a year over the last decade — it’s about time. If I may, I have a solution: It’s called a train. They use them in Europe, and they seem to work pretty well. What’s that, Americans wouldn’t stand for it? Well, then how do they like standing in traffic? Because they’re going to be doing a lot more of that if they can’t break their unhealthy car habits.

How to get around it: Try mass transit.

Cruise lines that charge you for anything that isn’t bolted down
Your cruise fare is just the tip of the iceberg in 2008. Sorry about the nautical cliché, but how else do you describe the cruise industry’s recent fascination with surcharges? Most passengers understood why cruise lines needed to impose a fuel surcharge on future sailings (though many balked at paying them for cruises they’d already bought, and rightfully so). But rather than incorporating higher fuel costs into the price of future cruises, the cruise industry intends to continue charging these fees indefinitely. That sends a troubling signal. The cruise industry is ignoring an important 1997 settlement with the State of Florida in which it agreed to not charge any fees in addition to the advertised initial ticket price except government fees. (Last time I checked, fuel wasn’t a government fee.) I think fuel surcharges are a test case. If they’re allowed to stand, there’s no limit to what the cruise lines can charge their guests. Watch out.

How to get around it: You mean, other than refusing to cruise? Find a good travel agent who will make sure you don’t become a victim.

Hotels that take you for granted
This is probably the last thing you want to hear before checking into a hotel, but I might as well tell you: your resort doesn’t need you. Next year will be another seller’s market for hotel rooms, according to the influential lodging analyst Bjorn Hanson of PricewaterhouseCoopers. He’s looking for a jump of nearly 6 percent in average daily room rates. Let me connect the dots for you. Higher room rates and near record-high occupancies (about 63 percent) means hotels can pretty much charge you whatever they want. They can invent new surcharges and fees and they can get away with them. And they know it.

How to get around it: Look for a lodging alternative. I wrote about several of them recently.

Airlines that treat customers like cargo
Even if the passenger bill of rights is voted into law in 2008 — and there are many who doubt that it will — it will be a largely symbolic victory. The current legislation is watered-down from its powerful original language, and the persuasive airline lobby has done a fine job of convincing Congress it can do better on its own. Prediction: the airline industry will spend 2008 showing us how foolish our lawmakers were to believe them again (you’ll recall they bought the “we can do better without regulation” line back in ’99, when airlines voluntarily adopted a misleadingly named program called “Customers First” that did absolutely nothing to help air travelers). Score: Airline industry 2, passengers 0.

How to get around it: You can’t. They own the airport you’re flying out of. They own your elected officials. And by golly, they own you.

Industry executives that lie whenever they open their mouths
At the end of every year, travel experts like to make a cop-out prediction. They call for more “industry consolidation.” Consolidation is nothing more than a fancy term for companies buying each other. And it’s a cop-out because it happens every year, without fail. (For example, as I write this, travel site Kayak announced that it acquired Sidestep, creating what it claims is the world’s fifth-largest travel “brand”.) It’s possible that 2008 will see even more mergers, and big ones. Maybe Delta Air Lines will merge with United Airlines, or US Airways will hook up with another big carrier, like Continental Airlines or Northwest Airlines. No one knows. But what you should know is this: When a merger is announced, the companies will do their best to convince you and regulatory authorities that this is a “win-win,” and that fewer airlines or car rental companies or hotels are better for all of us. It’s nonsense. Less is not more. Less is less.

How to get around it: Consolidation is not inevitable. If a merger isn’t in your interests, ask your elected representatives to stop it. They have the power to do it.

Whether you’re flying, driving or cruising, you’re unlikely to get the break you deserve in 2008. But it you travel smarter — and know what lies ahead — you can make sure it’s no worse than 2007.