Recession vacations: do more with less

Vacation plans are changing. This isn’t exactly a surprise. With layoffs mounting and a careful eye trained on every expense, long vacations are becoming short, and short trips aren’t straying as far from home. For some destinations, this is actually paying off.

A handful of smaller cities are pulling in visitors that normally would set off for grander locales. Charleston, SC and Fort Meyers, FL, for example sustained double-digit growth rates in January 2009 (relative to January 2008), according to American Express Travel bookings. Tuscon, AZ, Palm Springs, CA, and Portland, OR have also seen surges – 12 percent, 13 percent and 38 percent respectively.

Even Philly is on the upswing, which makes sense when you think about all those New Yorkers who need a quick break from the city.

So, why do these numbers look so good? Well, it’s hard to say. Drops in airfare and room rates are obvious drivers. Or, it could be some sort of marketing savvy. When you look at the data, there’s no common thread.

What is universal, it seems, is that everything is getting smaller. Trips are shorter, people are spending less and the destinations aren’t as far from home as they used to be. With the many bargains that are available, we may be able to do more with less, but overall, we’re still doing a hell of a lot less.

Aside from places like Fort Meyers and Tuscon, there are a few silver linings. “Girlfriend getaways” are still going strong, but the ladies are stretching their dollars. Renting one car instead of several, chipping in for a vacation home and picking a day spa over a destination spa are popular cost-cutting measures.

Home port cruises are on the upswing, as well. Guests can drive to the port (instead of flying), cutting down on the total cost of the trip. Like everyone else, these folks are cutting some deals, too.

Pick your corner of the travel and hospitality business, and you’ll find more than a handful of bargains. The decisions we make come down to what travelers can afford – rather than what they want. But, we’re still getting out on the road.


Check out some of these other wacky laws, place names and signs from around the world!

Budget Travel: Hotel deals at Hotwire

How well do you handle the unknown? If you don’t have the stomach for it, avoid Hotwire. Now, if you don’t mind taking a bit of risk, you can save a fortune by using this website to book your next hotel in the United States (or a limited list of international destinations). I’ve used Hotwire several times, and the vast majority of my experiences have been great. The one that wasn’t (only one) had nothing to do with Hotwire; I was just disappointed with the hotel.

Hotwire is one of the many bargain travel websites that is fighting to carve out some turf on the web. Unlike the others, it delivers some amazing prices. You just don’t know where you’re going to stay until you pay for the rooms. Using Hotwire, you enter the city where you want to stay, proximity to neighborhoods or local attractions and the caliber of hotel you prefer. Star ratings are assigned to each property to help you judge quality, and they are based on Hotwire user feedback. As a reference point, the website does tell you the types of property that are commensurate with a particular rating. So, the process isn’t completely blind, but you still don’t know where you’ll hang your hat.

I used Hotwire three times last year to book hotels in Washington, D.C. I stayed at Capital Hilton, Hilton Washington and the Hotel Helix. My experiences were generally positive with all three.

At the Washington Hilton, I had to walk a lot farther than I expected from the subway station, which is apparently a common problem. The staff at the front desk saw my tired, sweaty face and said, “Yeah, most of the websites make the hotel seem a lot closer.” Immediately after that, he ran to get me some moist paper towels to help me cool off. The hotel itself was excellent, particularly at a discount of more than 70 percent. I also booked the Capital Hilton through Hotwire and had no surprises at all. Again, I saved more than 70 percent and was thrilled.

The Hotel Helix was a bit disappointing. In my opinion, it should have been rated a full star lower than it was, and I left feedback on Hotwire to caution future users. Hotwire itself wasn’t the problem. The rate was fantastic, and I was able to save some money on a trip with little lead time. But, I just didn’t like the hotel. Why do I say this? It happens, and you need to know that flexibility is necessary. Sometimes, you won’t be thrilled with your room. That’s just the risk involved with Hotwire.

Now that you know the good and the bad, let’s talk about money. It’s routine to save more than 50 percent of a hotel’s regular rate using this website (at least in my experience). Hotwire is able to do this by finding the unsold inventory at hotels around the country and bargaining for deep discounts. In the hotel industry, a room-night is a perishable commodity. If you don’t fill Room 437 on March 16, you can’t save it for later. Sometimes, it’s better to get something than nothing. Also, the hotels don’t can avoid implicitly devaluing their rooms through the blind process. This is the service that Hotwire provides to hotels … and to you.

The deals vary. If you are looking for a great room during peak season, you’ll probably be disappointed. But, if you have reasonable expectations, they’ll probably be exceeded. On a recent search, I found hotel rooms for under $150 in downtown Boston for mid-March (at a property given 4 ½ stars). I also found sub-$100 rates in Paris (four stars) and London (four stars, as well) for the same period.

After you book one of these great deals, don’t forget that you have an obligation when you get home. Just as you read the reviews before taking your step into the unknown, many will follow you. Help them out as others helped you. Hotwire will send you an e-mail asking for your feedback on your stay. All you have to do is click the link and complete a brief survey.

Do it.

You can go as long or short as you like, but people will read – and rely on – your review. If you have booked a room using Hotwire, you probably will again, and you’ll read the reviews. So, participate in the process. It’s what you want everyone else to do.


Budget Travel: Ride the rails

Travel by train means that you must enjoy “getting there” as much as “being there.” Since it takes a lot longer than flying, you have to make transportation part of the experience. Don’t just think about hopping on a train to get somewhere. Instead, you’re going to the train! And, eventually, it will lead someplace.

Even with fantastic deals on flights right now, travel is still expensive. A long flight followed by a long stay in a hotel adds up quickly. Because the economy is circling the drain right now, a lot of frequent travelers are changing their habits. Vacations that would normally last a few weeks are being pared back to a few days. Trips abroad become trips in the United States. Dreams of Hawaii are confined to the lower 48. Weeks are becoming weekends.

This is where the train can help.

If you’re looking for a weekend getaway, deals by rail abound, and you can replace short flights with reasonable train rides. You’ll pay a fraction of what you would for a flight, enjoy the journey and still have plenty of time at your eventual destination.

Before we even talk about at train fares, let’s look at the hidden cost of flying. I’m not referring to taxes and fees … we all know about that. Instead, reflect on your last trip to the airport. I just flew out of JFK two days ago. It cost me close to $60 to get a town car from my Upper West Side digs. While that sounds like a relatively luxurious way to roll, a taxi would have cost about the same. I could have taken the subway, but that would have required lugging my baggage around for two hours. I’ll have to pay the same amount to get home from the airport next week. Transportation from the airport to my hotel wasn’t as bad, but it’s still another hidden cost.

If you don’t live in a city, you may wind up driving yourself to the airport. Depending on the length of your trip, that could cost at least as much as my town car rides, maybe more. There is no way around it. Expect to add at least $100 to the cost of your airfare to get a real sense of how much your flight is going to cost.Trains are different. I can catch Amtrak from Penn Station, which is a short subway ride ($2), or around $7 by taxi. When I get to my destination – for me, it’s usually Boston or Washington, D.C. – I can do the same. Train stations tend to be in the cities to which you’re traveling, while airports are on the outskirts (at best).

You also save time.

A flight from New York to Boston, for example, takes less than an hour. But, I have to spend 45 minutes in a car en route to the airport. And, I have to spend at least 45 minutes at the airport waiting for my flight. For peak travel times, it’s smart to arrive at least an hour early. Then, depending on traffic, it’s at least another half hour from Logan Airport into Boston. All in, my trip is more than three hours long. By train, it’s 15 minutes to Penn station, three hours on the train and 10 minutes from South Station to the downtown.

Okay, since it’s break-even on time, let’s talk about cost. You can get lucky with prices on these short run flights, but you have to be careful. If you wind up on a peak time for business travelers – who don’t usually shop for bargains – you’re competing for space and paying a premium. This happens with the train, as well, but not to the same extent.

Most of Amtrak’s hot deals are on the East Cost right now, where a roundtrip ticket almost anywhere seems to cost less than $50 for a weekend getaway. Out west, there are plenty of low-priced tickets, as well, including a round trip between San Diego and San Francisco for less than $150.

If you need some peace for the weekend, the train may be the best option you never thought about. There aren’t many good flights for under $100, even for the short runs that you could cover by train. And, you’ll avoid the hidden costs of air travel. The best part? There’s no flight attendant galley for Uma Thurman to disrupt!

Budget Travel: Hop on a bus

Depending upon the time frame you have to go from one point to the next, bus travel is a worthy option when looking for a bargain. Last summer, I opted for Greyhound as a way to get back from New York City to Columbus with my son. It was a perfect trip with few kinks. At the time, the bus fare was much cheaper than a flight, and I didn’t want to drive myself.

A few years back, I made a similar trip (from Cleveland to New York City) with my daughter when she was five with equally favorable results. And, well before that, I traveled with a friend for three months across the United States, criss-crossing from Kentucky to California–mostly by bus.

Here is a look at bus options in addition to Greyhound as a way to save money. Plus, a bus gives you the opportunity to watch the scenery glide by and hear songs like Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” playing in your head. [The photo posted by bobster1985 is of the Greyhound bus terminal circa 1936.]

First up, Greyhound: With a network that stretches across the United States to 2,300 different destinations, Greyhound is more likely to get you closer to the places you might want to go. If you’re heading to a major city, golden. If you have a small town in mind or a national park, lots of luck.

When my friend and I were mapping out our trip, we nixed several places because getting there was impossible, or too inconvenient. We also found out that the further west we went, the later a bus departed–or the earlier it arrived. However, we spent a whole day Salt Lake City and Denver without staying overnight by arriving early in the morning and leaving after midnight. Granted, it’s not a picnic at a bus stop in the middle of the night, but it’s not awful.

Because a Greyhound bus tickets can be purchased the day of a trip at the station, you can build flexibility into a vacation. When we bought our tickets, we figured out the route we wanted to take and the stops we could make in order to maximize our tickets. One leg went between Lexington, Kentucky to Racine, Wisconsin with stops in Louisville and Chicago.

For bigger savings, Greyhound has several budget options. Book ahead and on-line for up to a 20% discount. Right now, you can purchase a ticket 14-days in advance and get anywhere in the U.S. for no more than $99 one-way if you’re traveling on Monday through Thursday. At other times, a 14-days in advance purchase can get you a 35 % discount, and 7-days in advance can save 20%.

Unlike air travel, children, senior citizens and students also get discounts. Children under 2 can travel for free. Children ages 2-11 can get a ticket for 40% an adult rate. Seniors can get a 5 % discount. If you’re a student, with a Student Advantage Discount Card, you can save 15%.

Find out if you can get a Family & Friends companion fare. It’s still listed on the Greyhound website. If you’re traveling with another person, one person pays full fare, and the other person pays 50%. For a parent traveling with two children, each child pays 50%.

About Trailways and Peter Pan: Trailways is included in the Greyhound network. In many cases, you may be on Trailways bus for part of the trip and then switch to Greyhound. Greyhound specializes in coast to coast travel, while Trailways service is focused within distinct regions. A Trailways issued ticket is good on a Greyhound bus.

Peter Pan bus line operates in New England and is one way to get to smaller cities and towns. I’ve taken Peter Pan to Wooster, MA. Booking on-line offers cheaper ticket options. Like Trailways, Peter Pan dovetails with Greyhound.

Megabus: When Josh wrote about Megabus last October, a couple of people left comments giving a thumbs up to their experience. Touted as having bus fares as low as $1, bus fares go up as seats sell. As of last May, the company had served 1,000,000 passengers. The company now offers service to seventeen Midwest cities, seven West Coast cities, eight East Coast cities, and into Canada, however buses have very specific routes, so the reach may not be as wide as you need. You can also hop on a Megabus in Great Britain.

The map on the website shows the bus routes, and a drop down menu lets you know which destinations are connected to each other. For example, from Columbus, I can only go to Chicago, Cincinnati or Indianapolis on one ticket. From Chicago I can head to Minneapolis. In order to get to Memphis or Kansas City, other destinations, I’d have to go to Chicago first. If the price is right, why not? Otherwise take Greyhound.

When booking a Megabus ticket, you can block out several return date options if you want flexibility. As a point to be aware of, you can only bring one checked bag that doesn’t exceed 50 pounds, and one small carry-on bag. Greyhound allows for more.

Unlike Greyhound that operates out of bus stations, Megabus has specific bus stops that may or may not be near a bus station, but stops are clearly marked. Although most of Megabus’s business is done on-line, you can make reservations by calling their telephone reservation line.

I’ve never ridden a Megabus, but from the the description, they remind me of the more deluxe buses that went between Hsinchu, Taiwan where I used to live and Taipei–roomier than Greyhound and quicker because there are less pick-up points in between.

BoltBus: Grant took a BoltBus from Washington, D.C. to New York City last March and was generally pleased. Similar to Megabus, BoltBus offers an inexpensive option for going between Boston, NYC, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Ticket prices start as low as $1. Like Megabus, Boltbus also offers Wi-Fi access and plug-ins. Grant, though said that the Wi-Fi wasn’t working for him.

To buy a ticket, go to to purchase on-line. For the best deal, it’s recommended that you purchase tickets a couple weeks in advance. You can buy a ticket buy showing up the day of departure, but you’ll pay more and may not get a seat.

If you do buy a BoltBus ticket, be sure of your travel date because tickets are non-refundable. (Megabus allows you to change for a fee) Like on Greyhound and Megabus, children under the age of two can travel for free with an adult.

Chinatown Bus: Last year I found out about the “Chinese Bus” that leaves Columbus for New York City, every night (I think). Since then, I’ve discovered a vast network of buses that connect various cities to Chinatown. If you choose this option, book early on-line to make sure you get a seat, but be prepared that you may have to wait for another bus since buses fill up.

Like Boltbus, you can only buy a ticket on-line. Unlike Megabus, you must have a printed out boarding pass in order to get on the bus. Also, like Boltbus, tickets are non-refundable. (For more answers to questions you might have, click here.)

Departure cities range from Mobile, Alabama to Syracuse, New York and Spartanburg, South Carolina. This company also offers vacation package tours. There’s a three-day tour from NYC to Toronto that takes in Niagara Falls and Thousand Islands, for example. Excluding meals and admission fees, the tour costs $190 per person for a double occupancy room. If you buy two, the third person goes for free.

For a look at what traveling on a Chinatown Bus may be like, click here. One detail to know beforehand is that before you hop on one of these buses, make sure you are getting on the right one. Several leave from the same stop. Now, that really does sound like Taiwan.

An advantage of this bus over Greyhound is that it makes less stops so you can arrive at your destination more quickly. However, like Greyhound, departure times are hit and miss. The schedule, in a way, is a suggestion of when a bus might leave. Still, don’t arrive late or you might be out of luck.

Within the Chinatown bus offerings, The Fung-Wah Bus only travels between New York and Boston. You can either buy a ticket on-line or at the ticket office at 138 Canal Street.

Another company with the same service is Lucky Star. Currently, there is a promotion where you can pay $1 for a one-way fare, but this is first come, first serve.

For other bus company options, check out RK Chin, a journey through Chinatown. There are a few more you may want to consider.

Gadling Take FIVE: Jan. 10– Jan. 16

First, where ever you are, I hope you’re toasty warm. Man, is it cold in Ohio!

Hopefully, you’ve been inspired to travel by our budget travel series this month. There are two more weeks to go. Thanks to Jeremy’s post, I’ve hooked into the idea of checking out Puerto Rico, a place I haven’t been. In regards to those cities where I have traveled, I have a stash of new ideas.

For more budget travel ideas, here are five more posts. Two are about people who have unconventional methods for seeing the world.