Journalist Mark Ellwood has spent his almost entire life in search of a good deal, from the half-priced 45s he'd track down as a kid growing up in suburban London to a pair of discount boat shoes he recently sussed out in New York's normally spendy Soho. His accumulated knowledge of the deal informed his new book, Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World, which touches in part on the travel industry, a realm Ellwood says was one of the first to embrace discounts a way to drive demand. The trick for consumers, Ellwood says, is discerning the difference between a cheap price and a good deal. Here are his tips for making sure you end up with the later:
What's your new book about, and should we be afraid of the title Bargain Fever? Even folks who don't want to pay a lot for their trip don't necessarily want a "bargain" vacation, right? There's a big difference between something that's merely cheap and a true bargain. The former suggest low quality and cost while the latter connotes great value, whatever the price. $500 per night at a hotel isn't cheap, but it could be a bargain—say, for a suite overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice with a private terrace. The crux of my book isn't that we should all be scrimping and plumping for the cheapest option every time. It's that we should never pay full price for anything, ever again—including airline tickets and hotel rooms.
How has the travel industry played a part in what you call our new "discounted world," where shoppers and companies alike are engaged in a constant back-and-forth over price? The travel industry was the canary in the discount coalmine. For decades, it's been tackling the issue around bargains and discounts that every other sector is facing now for the first time. Until the mid 1970s, fare prices were centrally fixed and companies competed to differentiate on service. Once those rates were unfettered, it was a price war like Gettysburg at 10,000 feet. As for hotel rates, they started yo-yoing when online travel booking made the process so transparent in the 1990s. This shift means operations are devilishly difficult for carriers and hoteliers, but has radically cut costs for travelers. There's never been a better time to travel.
Are group buying sites like Groupon a good value for travelers? Some people say it's too hard to separate the wheat from the chaff with these deals, particularly when it comes to travel. How can travelers make sure they're making the most of group buying sites? The best approach to such sites: avoid them. Groupon et al, whether flash sale or bulk-buying set-ups, have a whiff of desperation about them now, and few high end properties would willingly participate. It's far better to negotiate directly with a hotel, for example: just call up and ask for the BAR, or Best Available Rate. It is the lowest price that a given room can be sold at any time via conventional channels. Then ask if any additional sweeteners can be thrown in with your reservation, gratis—parking, perhaps. It's amazing how flexible hotels can be with a little charm and gentle pushiness.
What are other web resources for getting real travel values, and how can consumers discern the difference between a real deal and a cheap price? I rely almost exclusively on two sites for my travel deals. Firstly, Tingo.com, a clever money-back portal for hotels. It works so works simply: if anyone, anywhere books that same room for the same night for a cheaper price, the difference is automatically refunded. It's the best price guarantee. Secondly, for air tickets, I monitor Airfarewatchdog.com. It's the best place to find airline deals, because unlike other deals sites, it doesn't rely on automated searches. Rather, it has a team of real human beings manually checking prices on airline sites all day, every day, so they unearth "hidden" bargain fares. Create an alert for your favorite routes, and the site will alert you as soon as your route goes on sale.
Why is it that airline prices vary so widely, even for seats on the same flight? And what's the best way to ensure you're getting, if not a fire-sale price, a good deal on your tickets? Ninety-two percent of passengers on any flight have paid some kind of discounted price. This is thanks to computer modeling: it's a complicated algorithm that oversees flight pricing, rather than a human being. It relies on several factors to generate a ticket price, often including the traveler's history. Indeed, this is why some airlines have been gotcha'd offering what's euphemistically known as customized pricing, where the fact that a travel has been less price conscious in the past allows them to eke out extra revenue by charging more. It's also the reason you should always book a flight using an incognito browser window, without logging into any frequent flyer program, so no history, cookie or otherwise, can be factored into the price you're offered. Book that way, then return to the site and add any frequent flyer number once the seat is confirmed.
Hotels have gone above and beyond with hidden extras, Wi-Fi charges, "resort fees," and other nickel-and-diming. Is there a way consumers can find 1) a good price right up front or 2) avoid these charges? Join every single frequent stay program for every hotel chain: there will likely be offers tailormade solely to those potential loyalists (see how Kimpton provides free Wi-Fi to members of its InTouch program, which is also free to join) Another option: Costco and other big box retailers sell hotel gift cards at a discount from time to time—Hyatt, for example, has done it in the past. $100 vouchers will be offered for $80-85, which is an instant 15%-20% saving on your next stay.
Do last-minute hotel booking sites offer a new model for squeezing value out of hotels, or are these apps and deal sites just a fad that the industry has yet to catch up to—and leverage for profit? Last minute hotel-booking sites can be overwhelming, as there's seemingly an inventory dump at the eleventh hour that can be confusing and frustrating for a traveler. However, HotelTonight is a standout to me. It's app-only and flawless to use: HotelTonight down the selection of hotels to a rarefied and verified roster of three star and higher hotels, with deep discounted prices that won't condemn you to a shoebox-sized room on a low floor. For example, I use it every time I travel to Los Angeles, and I've landed rooms at my favorite spot, the Palihotel, for just over $100 that was almost half price. Even better, first time bookings earn a $25 discount.
Ellwood's new book, Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World, goes on sale October 17.
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