Is it a good time to travel?

“Crazy times call for crazy fun!”

…Or at least that’s what some recent Las Vegas tourism commercials would like us to believe. The TV spots feature seemingly normal workplaces that quickly devolve into chaos. In each one, a lone, sane worker quietly slips out and the sympathetic viewer is invited to “plan your escape” at the tourism bureau website.

Creative marketing spin, you say? If you’ve been watching the headlines over the past few months, you already know that tourism in Las Vegas is suffering due to tough economic times. A yearly vacation — or any vacation at all — is a luxury that many people are opting to take a miss on right now. It happened this past summer with the now infamous “staycation” trend, and now the economy is likely to affect holiday travel and winter-getaway plans as well.

On the other hand, fewer people travelling can mean empty seats and hotel rooms, which means that many hotels, cruises and tour companies are offering deals to entice people to travel. Now could be time to snag a great deal if your finances allow.

So should you pack your bags or pack-in your travel plans?

Reasons to stay home

– Budgets are tight, especially with the impending threat of holiday debt. For many, travel is a luxury and necessities come first.

– The financial future is uncertain so it’s hard to make long term plans. Understandably, many people don’t want to book a trip “just in case.”

– The costs associated with travel, from airline fees to insurance and exchange rates, are going up.

– There are many interesting places to visit and experiences to be found closer to home, or within a short distance away. Many people feel it’s prudent to support their local economy rather than spending their money abroad.

Reasons to go

The Las Vegas ad campaign isn’t the only one promoting the idea that people need an escape from the stress of the current financial crisis — it seems to be all over the media. It’s not the strongest reason to travel, and many people simply roll their eyes at the commercials like the couple shopping for worry dolls because they’re upset over their investments (they are, after all, nicely dressed and on a trip in a foreign country). However, before we blame advertisers it’s important to note that travel and tourism industry is an essential part of the economy both in Canada and abroad. It stands to reason that any business needs paying customers to support it.

If you’ve got some room in your budget, there are better reasons to consider planning a trip:

– Fuel costs are coming down (at least for now). Road trips becoming a more affordable option, and some companies are scaling back those heavy fuel surcharges they introduced in recent months. This fall, Air Canada, Porter Airlines and WestJet eliminated or adjusted fuel surcharge fees, and Air Canada even scaled back its charges for overweight baggage. Many other airlines around the world, including Virgin and British Airways, recently announced decreases too. (Unfortunately, train and bus fairs aren’t likely to go down again since fuel costs were built into the fares).

– There are many discounts and deals to be found as companies and venues struggle to attract customers. Popular US tourist destinations like Hawaii, South Florida and Las Vegas are suffering an economic slump. Those three along with Phoenix, Arizona and British Columbia’s Whistler Blackcomb were named the “Economy’s Five Biggest Losers” when it comes to travel venues by journalist Barbara E. Hernandez. (They’re also the source of some great bargains at the moment).

Travel expert Arthur Frommer has been keeping a running tally of deals on his blog over the past few months. Airlines have discounted flights to Hawaii due to a drop in visitors, Iceland is offering attractive packages due to its national crisis, cruises are offering record low fares, and even in a rare move Disney has discounted its hotel rooms for the general public during November and December.

In short, the bad economy is good for those who can afford to travel. Frommer even goes as far as to call travel “a buyer’s market” in a recent post. Suppliers are in such dire straits that they’re open to some negotiation. Travel now and you might be able to make your dollars go farther (in more ways than one).

If You Go

Considering a trip? Before you make up your mind, consider these tips:

Budget. Regardless of what kind of trip you go for, you’ll want to keep a close eye on the cash flow. Online tools like Independent Traveler’s Travel Budget Calculatorcan provide realistic estimates.

Ask for discounts. It’s a supply-and-demand market. Even suppliers who aren’t advertising discounts may be willing to negotiate just to have your business. Remember, their budgets are often based on a per-seat or per-room basis, and empty spaces mean losses.

– Get on the upgrade list. When it comes to empty seats or hotel rooms, the cheaper ones are often easier to fill with walk-in or last minute travellers. If you’ve already got a booking, your hotel or airline might just upgrade you to make room for discount travellers.

Scale down. Instead of a week abroad, try a week or even a weekend closer to home. As little as 48 hours away can be a refreshing break.

Think outside the box. It’s time to get outside your comfort zone and look at less expensive destinations and travel options. Maybe this is the year you give some of those higher-end hostels a try, opt for a vacation rental or even test out home-swapping.

Do something for someone else. Volunteering abroad means that someone (other than travel companies) will benefit from your vacation, and the time you spend in a developing country will help keep things in perspective at home. (Check out Travel that feeds the soul for inspiration).

Brave the cold. Everyone else may be heading south to escape the cold, but keep your eye out for some off-season deals in Canada, the US and Europe. Winter festivals are also great attractions for the whole family, and who can resist celebrating ice wine?

Comparison shop, but evaluate offers carefully. Is it really a good deal or clever marketing dress-up? Don’t say yes right away — do your research first. See Deal or no deal? for more tips.

Watch out for scams. Sadly, there’s always going to be opportunists looking to capitalize on current issues. Even if you’re not on the Do Not Call List, be very suspicious of anyone calling to offer special deals or free giveaways. Many cost-cutting measures and discount services will simply steal your money. See Vacation scams: what you need to know for more advice on how to avoid getting caught.

Look for free activities to balance the budget. There’s a lot going on near where you live and further afield that you can take advantage of at no cost. These “free” events attract visitors and bring in income for nearby shops and restaurants. Many large cities offer free greeting services and walking tours with volunteers. (In case you haven’t read it, we’ve got some suggestions in Do it, see it and visit for free).

Give travel as a gift (to yourself and your loved ones). You don’t have to have a set of tickets under the tree — make a commitment for you and your partner, family member or friend to set aside a sum of money each month and use that cash for a trip later in the year, whether it’s a luxurious weekend away or a budget travel getaway.

And it doesn’t have to be big — a trip to a nearby museum or attraction with the kids or grandkids will be a memorable experience. Gift cards or certificates for train or bus travel are a great idea for students living on a tight budget too.

Keep an eye on the dollar. Many of the deals you hear about in the media are great — for Americans. With the Canadian dollar being at par or near par with the US dollar for so long, we may need to recalibrate our internal calculators.

Invest in travel insurance. Try to find trip cancellation or interruption insurance with a “cancel for any reason” clause to protect your money if you can’t go after all.

Should you stay home or travel? Ultimately that’s between you and your budget. Ignore the media spin and pressure to spend and do a little research before you say “yes” or “no” to a vacation this year.

For other tips on reducing stress (that don’t involve travel) see Economic stress could make you sick.

Additional sources:

MSNBC: Travelling in a troubled economy

MSNBC: 6 reasons we love to travel now

Photo © Trevor Fisher


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