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A DEAL-ICIOUS SEASON
By Joe Brancatelli
September 1, 2010 -- Talking-head travel "experts" are filling papers, news channels and Web sites with predictions of sharply rising business-travel prices during the busy fall season. They are also doing their best Chicken Little imitation and warning leisure travelers that holiday travel options will be severely limited and much more costly than last year.

For once, the purveyors of conventional wisdom may be correct. Prices are likely to rise. But that's only compared with the autumns of 2008 and 2009, when airfares and hotel rates plummeted due to the nation's economic turmoil. If you take a longer-term view, travel prices this fall are likely to be notably less expensive (in absolute as well as inflation-adjusted terms) than in 2007 or even during the late 1990s Internet bubble. Even when you factor in annoying fees such as checked-baggage charges, prices will be surprisingly reasonable.

And the good news? Now is the season of bargains. The major airlines have just rolled out their best business-class sales of the year. The hotel industry is gearing up for its fourth-quarter frequent-guest-program promotions. And even car-rental deals are breaking. If you act quickly and book tactically, the savings are substantial.

The Mother of All Fare Sales
Major airlines long ago broke the last taboo of not offering deep discounts in their premium classes. There are ongoing bargains throughout the year for savvy travelers who book a month or two before departure. But nothing matches the business-class deals that some carriers offer to Europe during the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year periods.

How about business-class fares around $1,300 roundtrip to places like Brussels, Dublin, London, or Lisbon? That's this year's entry-level pricing for Thanksgiving travel from Star Alliance such as United, Continental, Lufthansa, and SAS? How about Paris, Barcelona, or Madrid for Christmas for about $1,700 roundtrip? Or Rome or Milan for New Year for about $1,800 roundtrip? Those prices, from New York, may seem to be too good to be true, but they are real. And they are only a few hundred dollars higher from important Star Alliance gateways like Chicago and Houston. Prices from West Coast gateways like Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco are about $1,000 more.

Give or take a few basis points, the fares represent discounts of 80 percent off walk-up prime-time business-class prices.

The holiday fare bonanza was initially popularized by Continental Airlines in the depressed fall and winter after the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001. But the deals were so successful in filling seats that would have otherwise gone empty, Continental launched a similar sale for summer business-class travel. Now that it is part of the Star Alliance, Continental's international partners Lufthansa and SAS have been dragged along. Book now if you want to fly in holiday style between November 21 and December 1 or between December 20 and January 13. This sale generates intense interest from smart travelers who know the low prices are coming; they jump on the deals as soon as they are loaded into the airlines' reservation systems.

Of course, airlines aren't giving you this pricing gift because they're moved by the holiday spirit. The sale actually solves a logistical problem. Many leisure travelers want to fly for the holidays and will pay premium prices in coach to do it, but there simply aren't enough seats available at the back of the bus. And since business travelers tend to stay off the road during the holidays, the front of the plane is often empty. So airlines slash the up-front fares to convince bargain-hunting flyers to spend a few hundred more to get the extra comfort. That fills the business-class cabin and frees up more seats for airlines to sell in coach.

Want to fly to Latin America, Africa, or Asia under the same terms? Not likely. Because the distances are greater, seats less numerous, and the cultures less attuned to Thanksgiving and Christmas, similar fares don't exist. The only real bargain out there is for coach flights from the West Coast to Australia. The two major competitors, Qantas and United, have dropped prices to as low as $900 for travel until early December.

Pointed Promotions and Free Nights
The brutally competitive lodging landscape—too many rooms chasing too few guests while new hotels continue to open—means that major chains are in constant promotion mode. The preferred vehicle? Bonus points and free nights for members of the already-rich frequent-guest programs.

Three of the largest chains have already announced fourth-quarter promotions even though they don't begin until later this month:

* Starwood's Every Night Counts deal runs from September 8 to December 15 and offers double or triple Starwood Preferred Guest points. The caveat? You must rack up nine nights of stays at participating Starwood properties to earn the double points and at least 10 nights for the triple points.
* Marriott's MegaBonus runs from September 15 to January 15. You can earn a free night after two stays and a second free night after four stays. The free nights, which can be redeemed at many of Marriott's lower-priced properties, can be used until May 31. The caveat? You must pay for qualifying stays with a Visa card. One other note: Marriott's published MegaBonus offer may be superseded by a "private" promotion emailed directly to members of Marriott Rewards program. Check your inbox.
* Hyatt's Great 10K promotion will be active between September 15 and December 15, and participants will earn 10,000 Gold Passport points after every five nights stayed. And as is usual for Hyatt, which has to try harder because it has fewer properties than its competitors, the sky's the limits. You can earn as many as 180,000 points during the promotion. The caveat? Existing Gold Passport members must contact Hyatt by phone (800-228-3360) if they want to register for the deal before the mid-September launch.

Another deal worth noting: Choice Hotels, a chain of lower-priced properties, last week launched a promotion that runs until November 3. After two separate stays, you'll earn enough Choice Privileges points for a free night in about 1,500 of the chain's properties.

Two Drive for Freebies
The usually somnambulant car-rental industry nevertheless produces one of the year's most-anticipated promotions. National Car Rental's OneTwoFree deal offers a free rental day after two rentals of a midsize or larger car for two consecutive days. Qualifying rentals must be completed by January 31. The free rental days can be used until June 25. National locations in the United States and Canada participate in the promotion, although there are some exceptions and blackout dates.

The Fine Print…
All of the sales and promotions mentioned above come with the normal blizzard of terms, conditions, and restrictions. The airline prices listed are before taxes and fees, and the tickets are nonrefundable. But the "minimum stay" rules are surprisingly liberal. All of the hotel and car-rental promotions require advance registration. I urge you to read the details on prices and promotions carefully before you book or participate.
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.