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NEW YEAR, NEW DEALS
By Joe Brancatelli
January 13, 2010 -- When I told Josh Moss that I was going to write about travel deals this week, Portfolio.com's Fearless Leader was quick to chip in with a happy tale of his own.

"I noticed a big change last week," he emailed me over the weekend. "On Monday, I priced tickets to go to Charlotte [from New York] this week. They were $134 each way. On Tuesday, they were $46 each way." The total cost of Moss' US Airways ticket, purchased seven days before he flew and without a Saturday-night stay: $117.90 ($91.16 for the actual airfare and $26.74 for taxes and fees, which never get a discount).

Welcome to the wonderful world of January travel deals, when airlines and hotels bow to the inevitable and slash prices in hopes of creating a little discretionary business.

The first quarter is historically the slowest for travel, but 2010 comes with its own unique challenges. The economy stinks and out-of-work people—not to mention folks who think they might soon be unemployed—tend not to splurge for a holiday. Businesses fretting about the state of the economy keep frequent travelers chained to their desks. Renewed fears of terrorism aimed at travelers won't help either.

Here's a look at some of the top bargains right now. I hesitate to say these will be the best deals of the year—the travel industry is nothing if not reliably unpredictable—but prices probably can't get too much better.

Up Front Across the Pond
At least two airlines have launched summer business-class sales this month, a clear sign that the industry is unsure about future demand, especially in their profitable premium cabins. SAS, the Scandinavian carrier, has slashed July and August fares to traditionally pricey Nordic destinations. Prices start as low $1,778 round-trip from Newark to Copenhagen or Stockholm. From the West Coast, the business-class fare is also attractive: $2,578 roundtrip to Copenhagen or Stockholm from Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Seattle. Meanwhile, United Airlines has lots of summer deals from its hubs at Chicago's O'Hare and Washington's Dulles airports. It has a $2,450 roundtrip in business class to Paris, and even cheaper fares to other destinations. These prices represent savings in the 70 percent range compared with standard, walk-up business-class fares.

Can't wait until summer? By the end of the week, Aer Lingus will be selling a unique product using its home base in Dublin. Buy a business-class seat on the airline's flights to Ireland from New York's Kennedy Airport, Boston, or Chicago, and you'll also get a free coach round-trip ticket to 20 cities in England, Scotland, or continental Europe. Prices start at $1,878 round-trip and you can travel anytime before the end of August—so long as you purchase your tickets by January 29.

Pacific Overtures Under Retail Price
Whenever the cost of transpacific travel drops below four digits in coach, you know there are bargains to be had. Cathay Pacific's so-called Deal of the Month pegs San Francisco-Hong Kong or Los Angeles-Hong Kong fares as low as $818 round-trip for travel until May. If you're willing to change planes in Hong Kong, Cathay will also fly to you Bangkok, Manila, or Singapore for less than $1,000 roundtrip.

Low fares have even reached Australia, once home a cozy duopoly between Australia's Qantas and United Airlines. But now with both Delta Air Lines and a local startup called V Australia plying the U.S.-Australia routes, Qantas has become extremely aggressive on fares. The carrier's business-class prices once hovered around $20,000 round-trip, but seats now can be as low as $4,500 round-trip from the West Coast and about $5,000 from New York. The advance-purchase restriction of 50 days is stiff, however. If you're willing to fly the long hauls in coach, Qantas' less-restrictive Walkabout promotion offers some seats at around $800 roundtrip from Los Angeles or San Francisco.

Domestic Bliss Real Cheap
Not interested in an overseas trip? You're in luck. With the exception of President's Day weekend, the first quarter is extraordinarily slow on domestic routes. Hence the eye-popping deals on virtually any destination you fancy.

Besides that $46 New York-Charlotte fare, you can fly some coast-to-coast routes on Virgin America for as little as $99 each way. JetBlue Airways has put its entire network on sale too. Its prices begin at $39 one way (Boston-Baltimore, for example), include some $99 one-way transcontinental flights and also offer bargains such as $67 (Chicago-New York) and $59 from Long Beach, California, to Seattle. Frontier Airlines also has great fares, including $76 from its Denver hub to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Other airlines almost always match on routes where they offer their own flights, of course. Buy-by dates and the days when you can purchase the cheapest prices vary by airline.

Weekend at the Waldorf—Or Somewhere Else
Major hotel chains approach the weak first-quarter travel environment even more aggressively than airlines. They not only cut nightly room rates, but they also offer their richest frequent-guest-program promotions of the year.

You'll find a bonus-points offer from Marriott Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest, a free-nights deal from Hilton HHonors—and a choice of points or free nights from Hyatt Gold Passport.

The best hotel price deals are on weekend getaways. Marriott's promotion, for example, offers 20 to 40 percent savings on weekend stays until March 21. On the other hand, Hilton is offering 20 to 50 percent off on weekends for the entire year. But there's a catch: You have to prepay Hilton by the end of the month for any weekend rooms you book this year. A slightly different wrinkle comes from Radisson. Its winter promotion, called A Room, A Meal, A Deal, is for midweek stays until the end of February. It gives guests a $50 food-and-beverage credit for each two-night stay.

Don't see something you like? Check you favorite airline or hotel. There's bound to be something for less money than you expect. But be warned: The travel industry has mastered the art of charging for ups and extras and unbundling taxes and fees from the quoted rate. You'll almost always pay more than the advertised price. And don't forget to book in advance. The closer you get to the departure day, the more you'll pay.

The Fine Print…
Now is also a great time to cash your frequent-flyer miles or frequent-guest points, since airlines and hotels are willing to redeem "off peak" awards. Case in point: My wife and I are headed for a little R&R in Rome next month. I secured two business-class tickets on Continental Airlines for just 105,000 miles each. They'd cost 250,000 miles each during the peak season. But be reasonable: You're not likely to score free seats to Orlando for the family over President's Day weekend. To get those, you'll have to pay the airlines handsomely—and in hard cash.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2010 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.