HONEY, EUROPE’S BEEN CANCELED!
By Joe Brancatelli
May 12, 2010 -- A wealthy private investor I know planned to take his investment-banker wife to Europe in mid-March. He sprang for first-class seats, a suite in one of the finest hotels in London’s Park Lane, and an ornate private residence near the Grand Canal in Venice.
It was, he told me, a long-delayed celebration of nothing in particular. "We make stupid money, and we can afford it," he said.
But the holiday was wiped out by the British Airways strike. So he rescheduled for late April. That trip tanked when ash from the volcano in Iceland closed 80 percent of Europe's skies. He shrugged his shoulders and rescheduled once again, this time for early next month.
Guess what? The third time is not the charm. Flight attendants that crew almost all of British Airways' transatlantic service announced four new five-day strikes starting next week and the final tranche of the work stoppage would wipe out the June splurge.
Strikebound and wary of the ash cloud—which once again last weekend caused the cancellation or delay of thousands of Europe flights—the investor is rescheduling for July. But if he stays true to his email message on Monday afternoon, he and his wife will visit Tokyo and Hong Kong, their favorite Asian cities. Europe, he insists, is off.
They won't be alone. Discouraged by the news of new strikes at BA, the potential for work stoppages at Lufthansa and Air France, and the confusion over the flight-killing ash that continues to billow from Eyjafjallajokull, some Americans are rethinking plans for a European summer holiday. How many will skip Spain, pass on Paris, or check their impulse to head to the Czech Republic is anyone's guess. And it'll be the end of the year before the statistical data is known.
But if you're intent on erasing Europe from your summer travel schedule, I do have a few alternative suggestions.
Hawaii: More Flights, New Hotels
Hawaii never falls off the vacation-route map, of course, but these have been tough times for the 50th state. The 2008 oil-price spike wiped out two of the largest carriers to the Islands, and the AIG Effect made any business-related trip to Hawaii seem unnecessarily profligate. That destroyed occupancy and depressed room rates at several major island resorts.
But things are a bit better now. In the last year, airlines have added flights from the West Coast or restored many links from Chicago. US Airways pioneered a nonstop Charlotte-Honolulu route. And a most unlikely player, Alaska Airlines, has been furiously adding routes from its Seattle hub. In fact, 10 percent of Alaska Air's capacity now flies to or from Hawaii, a state it didn't even serve just three years ago.
On the lodging front, an urbane new Trump-branded hotel opened last fall across the street from the Halekulani, Waikiki's best hotel. And Honolulu will be home to the Edition, the first joint venture of lodging giant Marriott and Ian Schrager, the king of high-style hostelries. It's expected to open late this summer. Starwood has updated its Waikiki properties, which include the Royal Hawaiian, the so-called Pink Palace of the Pacific, and the high-rise Sheraton Waikiki. And both Marriott and Hilton have added to their already extensive Hawaiian Island portfolios. That's great news for travelers looking to cash frequent-stay points for free hotel stays.
Australia: The Duopoly Crumbles
There's nothing like a few new-entrant carriers to ratchet up fare wars in a once-somnambulant marketplace. With the arrival of Delta Air Lines and V Australia on the U.S.-Australia runs, fares to the Land Down Under have plunged. With a modest advance purchase, business-class tickets from the West Coast can often be had for less than $5,000 roundtrip now, a far cry from the $15,000 or more commanded when Qantas and United Airlines were the only carriers offering nonstop service. Coach fares have dropped too, and Qantas this week was selling seats in the back of the bus for less than $1,000 roundtrip. The Australian dollar isn't selling for 60 U.S. cents anymore—it's more like 90 cents now—but the airfare savings more than cushion that blow.
While we're discussing the Southern Hemisphere, it's worth nothing that New Zealand is an even better bargain than Australia. The New Zealand dollar is weaker (about 72 cents to the greenback), ticket prices to Auckland on Air New Zealand are often cheaper, and vacations tend to be more laid back and bucolic. Besides, you can often get a package deal that bundles visits to both Australia and New Zealand into one holiday.
Canada: No Bargain, But Still Nearby
Canada's long national nightmare—a loonie that dipped as low as 62 cents to the U.S. dollar—is over. The Canadian dollar is near parity with the greenback. That means Canada isn't a guaranteed vacation bargain anymore. But Canada is close, and there are plenty of transborder flights at reasonable fares. Vancouver is basking in its post-Olympic glow, and it offers some of the best Asian restaurants in North America. Toronto, which often stands in for New York on film, is cheaper and less smug than the Big Apple. Montreal and Quebec is as near as you can get to France without crossing the Atlantic. And the Atlantic provinces are an easy drive or ferry ride from the U.S. northeast. The best news of all: The nearly paranoid Canadian government response to the Christmas Day underwear bomber has ended. The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, Canada's equivalent of our Transportation Security Administration, now permits two carry-on bags on transborder flights again, and you won't be stuck in hours-long queues at Canadian airport security checkpoints.
The Caribbean: Pick an Island, Any Island
The Caribbean suffered from the same AIG Effect backlash that whacked Hawaii during the last two years. That's made resort operators ready to deal. Summer prices are always 30-50 percent cheaper than winter "high season" room rates anyway, but look for lots of free-nights promotions and value-added bundles too. Delta Air Lines, US Airways, and JetBlue Airways are adding flights to compete with American Airlines, the region's largest player, and that has lowered summer airfares substantially. The problem, as always, is the potential for summer-holiday-destroying hurricanes. No one can outguess Mother Nature.
China and India: Two Kingdoms, Same Story
America's favorite Asian playground, Thailand, is off the board for most tourists this summer because of the continued political upheavals in Bangkok. But China and India should do nicely as replacements. Airlines lately have added too many new flights to major destinations in both countries—and American Airlines begins service between its Chicago hub and Beijing on May 25—so that means surprisingly reasonable prices for such long-haul flights. Western lodging chains are opening new hotels in both countries at a record pace. That also means bargains, especially in Beijing and Shanghai, which is hosting the 2010 World Expo through October 31. A fair warning: You'll need to plan in advance for visits to either country, including leaving plenty of time to secure visas. And if you're at all skittish, book a package that includes inter-city transportation, accommodations, and sightseeing.
Where Does Route 66 Go, Anyway?
Finally, even if you don't do it in your Chevrolet, this would be a fabulous year to see the USA. Gas prices are down from their 2008 highs, so a family driving trip isn't a budget-busting impossibility. The nation is awash in excess lodging inventory, so you'll find reasonable room rates everywhere. Your best bet for big deals are in the big cities on the weekends; look for value-added deals that bundle the nightly rate with everything from free parking and breakfast to sparkling wine and strawberries. If you're interested in a resort, try to book midweek. That's when rates are lowest in the summer months.
The Fine Print…
Europe isn't the only place where Americans may fear to tread this summer. Although great bargains abound, fearful violence just over the border has tainted all of Mexico for many risk-averse travelers. A high crime rate and the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament in June and July might make South Africa a flight too far for many Americans. A visit to the Holy Land has been risky for 6,000 years. The question is always how long you'll wait before visiting, and only you have the answer. And the growing ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is likely to put many travelers off a visit to usually pristine beaches along what has been called the Redneck Riviera in Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle.
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.