Untangling Travel

Nowadays, flying high at a lower cost has never been easier—if you’re willing to do the work. In large part because of the current recession, there has been a surge of websites and online services dedicated to penny-pinching, last-minute travelers. And they’re not serving only honeymooners looking for an affordable jaunt to Hawaii. Many up-and-comingwebsites, as well as the more established travel websites, are focusing on making business travel, traditionally a cash cow for the travel industry, more affordable.

The airlines, which are struggling in the current economy, are introducing more ways to wring out an extra buck by charging for baggage, eliminating free meals, and upping the costs for changing an itinerary. Erin O’Rourke, a medical affairs liaison with Genzyme in Pittsburgh, who’s on the road 50 percent of the time, says finding the best rates on flights and hotels has become an even higher priority. “What I have noticed in the past few years is that there is less flexibility for changing tickets, and the fees related to any change in my itinerary have risen. So I have to work harder to keep the fares down—but it’s possible.”

If you are a savvy—and patient—shopper, you can find some great deals online. Searching for the lowest price can be overwhelming due to the abundance of sites that compare deals on hotels, flights, and car rentals, and the ability to search for all three, or any combination of two, within the same search. But this packaging technique, a feature offered by the larger, more established sites in particular, can be a money saver and well worth the effort.

Here is a summary of some of the features for the business traveler that can be found on the larger websites.

  • Expedia has a section called Business Travel that is tailored to individuals traveling for professional purposes and offers savings on the most popular business travel destinations.
  • Travelocity has a section devoted to last-minute packages that are typically the cheapest available rates on the site. When you fill out an online Service Guarantee form, the site then becomes responsible for fixing any booking problems that may occur throughout the duration of the trip.
  • Orbitz gives users an up-front nightly total price for hotels—including base rate, taxes, and fees—with one click.
  • Hotwire provides the up-front price, including taxes and fees, for any combination of hotel, flight, and car rental options. This all-encompassing price could save travelers time.
  • Priceline, taking a different approach, allows customers to search city and hotel guides. Users get a list of all the hotels in the region and can narrow the search to a specific neighborhood and even to a particular theme, for instance, business travel.
  • Kayak aggregates the widest variety of flight and hotel information but does not do the booking. Instead, Kayak takes users directly to that site to make the purchase; it even generates separate windows displaying results from rival websites Expedia, Priceline, Hotwire, and Travelocity.

Smaller websites have also popped up in the last few years to serve the travel market.

  • Hipmunk provides a spreadsheet that lays out times of flights. In addition to sorting by price, users can sort by “agony,” an option that categorizes results by the fewest connections and inconveniences for a given itinerary.
  • Last Minute Travel.com has great rates, but waiting until the last minute may not be an option for many business travelers. Also note that the name of the hotel where the offers apply is not revealed until after purchase. But as on Priceline, you can pick your neighborhood and star rating for a hotel, so you’ll have an idea of what to expect.
  • All these websites offer rewards, though they are often restricted to frequent users of a site. The best strategy? Pick one or two sites that suit your needs and stick with them. The more you use a certain company to locate deals, the more rewards the site will offer.

Frequent Flier: Benefit or Headache?

Get Going for Less

As with flights and hotels, the best deals can be found online. Websites such as Car Rental Express compare the costs of rental cars in a destination area for price-conscious travelers. VroomVroomVroom compares the costs of rentals from a multitude of companies. The total price displayed with the first click includes all taxes and fees, making for easy comparisons.

When using these sites, do not limit your search to airport car rental companies, which can hike prices to capitalize on convenience. Smaller businesses in and around a city can offer lower rates and save you money even if you need to take a cab to pick up a car.

For a green solution, go to PlanetTran. You can find a hybrid rental, thereby reducing both your fuel costs and your carbon footprint.

With Orbitz and Travelocity, you have the option of searching for rail travel as well as car rentals. The sites will tell you which mode, rail or car, will be the most convenient for travel within cities and nearby neighborhoods. By checking public transportation routes and rates, you might be able to eliminate the need for a car altogether.—LR

Like most regular business travelers, Genzyme’s O’Rourke racks up a large number of frequent flier miles by sticking with one or two airlines. However, because airlines have increased the number of miles required to earn certain trips, purchasing a ticket can be thriftier.

Purchasing regularly from an airline can provide other perks, especially for the business traveler. Concierge club fees at airports are waived in cases of highly loyal, habitually airborne members. As O’Rourke notes, such clubs  “provide a quiet area to work in, complimentary beverages and snacks, guaranteed Internet access, and a receptionist who notifies you of flight delays and cancellations.”

Frequent fliers—and stayers—can also be entitled to use hotel concierge floors, which can have  the same amenities as airline concierge clubs. In some cases, travelers receive complimentary meals. Concierge.com can generate a list of hotels in a destination region, complete with a dollar rating scale that lets users weigh cost versus quality.

What Happened to the Travel Agent?

In the past decade, the travel industry has undergone two significant changes: the restrictions put in place after 9/11 and the move toward everyone becoming his or her own travel agent as a result of the Internet.

Robert Ross, a travel training administrator in the travel division of AAA (American Automobile Association, the nation’s largest leisure travel agency), has observed firsthand how the industry has evolved and how the changes impact the business traveler. The most significant changes, Ross says, have come about due to the advent of electronic media. “It has been a paradigm shift. When I first got started in the business [in 1985], the other competition was just other travel agents. Now it’s the Internet as well.”

This has led AAA, as well as other travel companies, to offer more money-saving perks than ever before and, most important, to migrate their services online. Although brick-and-mortar travel agencies still exist, the need for face-to-face contact is on the decline. According to Travel Agent Central, the traditional travel agent industry comprising actual agents saw a loss of approximately 1,400 agencies in 2009 alone.

Ross attributes this to heightened customer expectations. “Looking at the lifestyles of people today, they want the information immediately, and they can go to the Internet, to aaa.com, or to whomever they feel they have that relationship with. You can’t do that with a travel agency that is closed on a Sunday.”

While most business travelers prefer to use online sources, many still want to deal with an agency. Genzyme, O’Rourke’s company, turns to Carlson and Wagonlit, and O’Rourke works directly with an agent who, she says, “is excellent and does price comparisons and provides the lowest fares even if the airline is not my preferred carrier.”

Although travel agents are still an option, the future is clearly in the digital realm. Control is with the customer, the prices tend to be better, and in this age of customization, the savvy business traveler can tailor a trip precisely to her needs. DW

Lindsay Rice is a freelance writer based in Washington D.C.

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