- The Washington Times - Friday, May 19, 2006

The cost of travel has been going up all year and that is making it difficult — but not impossible — to find summertime bargains.

The U.S. travel industry is enjoying greater pricing power in large part because it has succeeded in minimizing the supply of airline seats, hotel rooms and rental cars at a time when demand for these services is rising. Fliers are also paying more as airlines pass along their soaring jet-fuel expenses.

With Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer, just around the corner, the sweetest deals may already have been snapped up, travel specialists say, though it is still possible to save a few bucks by planning ahead and remaining flexible when it comes to itinerary details. For example:

• Families that can get time off together in June and September will generally find travel to be more affordable, and less crowded, than those taking trips in July and August.

• When visiting coastal towns, consider staying at a hotel that is, say, a one-mile drive — or better yet, walk — from the beach, instead of splurging for the ocean view.

• Begin and end 7-day trips midweek instead of on weekends, when airports are busier and ticket prices tend to be higher.

Guidebook author Pauline Frommer said that while travel Web sites are an effortless way to search thousands of rooms and rates at once, it is also worthwhile to try and negotiate an even better deal over the phone, particularly when dealing with smaller family-owned hotels.

“Sometimes it will work,” she said. “Just make sure you’re not taking ‘No’ from somebody who doesn’t have the authority to say ‘Yes.’”

Travelers who plan to hit the highways have a few money-saving and time-saving options, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic:

• Keep the car properly tuned. Fixing a broken part can be much more expensive when done in a pinch at a repair shop on a desolate highway than ahead of time in the city.

• Store extra antifreeze in the trunk to keep the car cool in the summer heat.

Fuel prices have stabilized at an average of $3.04 per gallon in the Washington area since climbing 15 cents over the past month, but the remainder of the summer shows potential for fuel costs to rise, cautions the AAA.

“It’s not going to discourage motorists from making trips this year,” said spokesman John B. Townsend. “Motorists will shake their fists at the marquees topping gas stations [but] we don’t expect any drop in travel plans for Washingtonians.”

Probably the best strategy of all, Miss Frommer said, is to “look at the places that aren’t as popular in summer,” such as the Caribbean and Mexico, or Australia, whose winter months are June-August.

Putting up with potentially very hot weather, she added, may just be “part of the deal.”

Dick Spencer of Nashville, Tenn., understands this.

He and his wife have visited St. Croix, a U.S. Virgin Island, many times during the summer and they are planning to return this year.

However, even to St. Croix, Mr. Spencer found that airfares were noticeably higher this year, and that the least expensive tickets may require flying in a less-roomy 50-seat regional jet.

Still, lodging is significantly cheaper in summer throughout the Caribbean.

Mr. Spencer, who is an executive with a biometrics technology provider, said years of frequent business travel have made him a savvy purchaser of airline tickets.

He books flights through the carriers rather than third-party Web sites because in his experience the service is usually better if there is some kind of mix-up or an itinerary needs changing. And Mr. Spencer said he prefers to start and end his vacations on Wednesdays “both because of the lower number of travelers and because the fares are generally less.”

When it comes to rental car rates, consumers have some decent leverage, specialists say. Unlike airlines and hotels, many car rental agencies do not charge cancellation fees, so there is no risk in booking early and then, just before the trip, checking to see if the rates have dropped.

Heather Leisman, director of merchandising for the travel Web site Orbitz, a unit of Cendant Corp., said the best value is available for those who book an airfare and hotel at the same time, even though the cost of each will not be broken out.

Washington Times staff reporter Jen Haberkorn contributed to this report.

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