Thu, Apr 09, 2009 - Page 13 News List

Bad times, great deals

Vacationers are finding that there are some incredible bargains out there for people who can still afford to take advantage of them

By Michelle Higgins  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

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When Suzanne Schaefer was laid off from her position as a recruiting manager in the New York office of Lehman Brothers in November, she did the things most people do in her situation. She revised her resume. She contacted headhunters. She commiserated with friends and consulted mentors.

And then she went on a two-week vacation to Vietnam.

“For years, I’d been working hard — 60 to 70 hours a week, not being able to a take a vacation,” said Schaefer, 33, who cashed in her frequent-flier miles for the flight and took advantage of a 15 percent discount that Intrepid Travel, an Australian-based tour operator, has been offering to people who were recently laid off, bringing the total cost of the trip to just US$1,500. “I started realizing, hey, when else do you have more than a week and a half to go somewhere?”

Next on her list: South America.

Schaefer isn’t alone. As the world economy tanks and stories of financial despair abound, a surprising number of travelers (some who are still collecting paychecks and some who are not) are deciding to take advantage of the recession’s inevitable effect on the tourism industry. Some airfares are at the lowest level in years, and hotels are scrambling to fill rooms by cutting rates 40 percent or more.

Just like the vulture investors who swoop down and take over troubled companies at a fraction of their former market values, these vulture vacationers are finding that there are some incredible deals out there for people who can still afford to take advantage of them.

CASHING IN

That’s why Dennis Weber headed to China in February for a 10-day tour of Beijing, Xian and Shanghai. Weber, a 60-year-old slate roofer from Conestoga, Pennsylvania, took advantage of a trip organized by Friendly Planet Travel, based in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, that included 12 meals, guided tours and flights to, from and within China. The total cost: about US$1,400. “If I was going to do this on my own, the airfare alone would have turned out to be US$1,475,” Weber said.

Weber, a longtime stock investor who says he made decent profits before the market turned south late last year, explained that the continuing downturn in share prices persuaded him to divert his money elsewhere. “My thought was, some of the best investments I could make would be to spend my money on travel right now,” he said in a recent phone interview.

Certainly, the low prices being offered provide plenty of incentives for people who feel that they would rather live it up than put their money into a retirement fund that may only plummet in value over the next year.

The average one-way domestic coach ticket bought in advance from the US was US$106 early last month, down about 20 percent from US$135 in early July, according to Harrell Associates, a consulting firm that tracks airfares. In some cases, fares have dropped more than US$100 in just a few weeks. A March flight to London from Chicago on United, for example, was US$475.60 on March 4, down from $629.90 the month before, according to the airfare tracking site Yapta.com. A flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico, that same month from New York on JetBlue dropped to US$258 just two weeks before the trip, from US$374.20 in February and US$424 in January.

HOTEL DISCOUNTS

As hotels cut prices to entice travelers, average room rates have come down about 20 percent, to US$180 in the Caribbean; about 25 percent, to US$119 in Europe; and 32 percent, to US$108 in Australia and the Pacific islands, according to the latest data available from Smith Travel Research.

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