Thanksgiving and Christmas are a long way off, but when it comes to shopping for travel deals, right now may actually be perfect time to shop around. This marks a departure from previous years, when airlines waited until the last minute to put the best fares on sale, and we became a last minute nation for booking our travel. But this year, with reduced capacity (fewer planes, fewer flights), waiting until the last minute probably WON'T land you the best fare. CBS News Travel Editor Peter Greenberg has the inside scoop on everything from the cheapest airfares to the best cruise bargains:
Thanksgiving or Christmas in August? Well, when it comes to searching for reasonable airfares, the time may actually be perfect to do that holiday and winter shopping.
First the bad news: Airlines are now generating revenue from every possible source, and at least two, American and Delta, have already implemented peak-travel surcharges for November 19-29 and December 17-31, excluding Christmas Day.
The deals are certainly not happening like they were in 2009, when the industry was reeling from the recession.
According to Priceline's data on 2009, Thanksgiving fares started to increase after mid-September and didn't look back. Christmas fares spiked in mid-September, then dropped before climbing back up in the beginning of October.
This year, with reduced capacity (fewer planes and flights), waiting until the last minute to purchase your holiday tickets probably won't get you the best fares.
But the good news is that the carriers and other travel providers are trying to lock in travelers by rolling out the deals NOW.
Tip: Most of the time, the best time to travel is when everyone else isn't. And in my opinion, holidays like Thanksgiving are nothing more than an obligatory dysfunctional family get-together. So instead, look for deals that fall around the holidays, but not ON the holidays.
Several airlines have launched fare sales through mid-December.
For example, American Airlines is offering a domestic fare sale from $44 each way through December 15, but you must book by 11:59 p.m. Central Time on August 24. We're talking savings on travel between major cities like Atlanta to Miami from $69 each way, and Dallas to Ft. Lauderdale from $89 each way. link=http://www.aa.com>www.aa.com
Always, always read the fine print before you book: Those advertised prices are for one-way travel, but you're required to purchase a round-trip ticket. Blackout dates apply over Thanksgiving and other peak days (specifically Nov. 20, 23-24, 27, and 29). Advance booking is required, taxes and fees are not included, and for the lowest fare, travel must take place Monday through Thursday and Saturday.
Budget carrier AirTran has a similar deal, but with one twist: no round-trip purchase is required. Book by Aug. 24 for travel by December 15, and prices start from $49 each way. Blackout dates are Nov. 23-24 and 27-29, and of course, the standard advance purchase and weekday travel apply for the lowest fares. (Note that sale dates for certain routes may apply.) www.airtran.com/sale
Delta has also launched a fare sale, from Atlanta and Minneapolis. Same deal here: Book round-trip tickets by Aug. 24 for travel by Dec. 15, with blackout dates Nov. 23-24 and 26-29. If you can deal with the restrictions, you'll be rewarded with fares as low as $44 each way between Minneapolis and Milwaukee, and Atlanta to Chicago from $60 each way.
Or, you can skip seeing your demented uncle and crazy aunt altogether and head to Europe this fall! Delta is offering sales from New York and Atlanta to major European cities from $239 and $339 respectively, each way. www.delta.com/planning_reservations/deals_offers/index.jsp
Continental has a similar sale if you're traveling BusinessFirst to Europe -- and this deal includes holiday dates! Departure must take place Nov. 21 - 27, 2010, returning Nov. 25 - Dec. 1; or depart Dec. 20, 2010 - Jan. 7, 2011, and return Dec. 24 - Jan. 13. This deal is valid on Continental as well as its partners, such as Air Canada, Lufthansa and United. www.continental.com/web/en-us/content/deals/offers/businessfirst.aspx
My advice: There will likely be one more airfare sale that will sneak out on Sept. 8, two days after Labor Day. But after that, my guess is there won't be another major airline sale for the rest of the year that will apply to holiday travel.
Then, there are the deals being rolled out by specific properties, based on the same philosophy that you'll be rewarded if they can lock in your business now.
Several RockResort properties, including The Lodge at Vail, Keystone, The Osprey at Beaver Creek, and Hotel Jerome in Aspen, are offering a free night of lodging during the holidays when you book by Oct. 31, 2010. The Holidays on Us program means you can book two nights and get the third for free on Thanksgiving Day, MLK Day, and Easter Sunday; buy three nights and get the fourth free over Christmas Day, Valentine's Day or President's Day.
For example, at Keystone, a studio condominium rental that falls over Dec. 21-26 will cost about $664.64. When you factor in the one free night, that works out to $119 per night for five nights. Not a bad deal, especially when you consider the package also includes free activities like admission to an ice-skating rink, a snow bike lesson and yoga classes. www.holidaysonus.com
And, going back to the theory that if the going gets tough, the tough go to Europe, Uniworld is offering discounts for early birds. Book a European holiday river cruise by Aug. 31, 2010 and save up to $300 per person. uniworld.com/Destinations/Offers
If you're in the market for cruises, here's what you want to do: Sail in early December.
A quick look on cruise discounter CruiseBrothers.com shows that a seven-night Western Caribbean cruise on Royal Caribbean starts at an ultra-affordable $569, departing in the "dead week" after Thanksgiving, and from from $588 on Dec. 5. However, a holiday cruise departing Dec. 26 doubles to $1,119 per person.
Similarly, a seven-night Mexico cruise on Princess starts from just $499, Dec. 4 and Dec. 11, and jumps up to $799 on Dec. 22 and Dec. 29. If you can swing early December travel (that's what vacation days are for!), then that's the time to get more bang for your buck.
As you might expect, hard-hit Gulf Coast properties are also discounting to attract visitors. Sandestin Resort in Florida is bringing back its popular "Buy Two, Get One Free Night" promotion for winter travel, which gets you a 33 percent savings. In addition, you can sign up for the property's e-mail alerts to be the first to know about its winter 48-hour sales, and expect even deeper discounts during its slower period in late November and early December. www.sandestin.com
New Orleans celebrates all December long with Christmas New Orleans Style, featuring caroling and choirs, cooking demos and restaurant price-fixed menus and, most importantly, hotel discounts. For example, last year The Roosevelt, a Waldorf Astoria property, offered rates from $139 for a deluxe guest room and from $199 for a luxury suit between Dec. 9 - 29, and rates this year are expected to be comparable. Hotel Monteleone is offering as much as 50 percent off normal rates starting from $99 a night, based on availability between Nov. 22 and Dec. 29. www.neworleansonline.com/christmas
In the mood for a Caribbean getaway? Sandals has its popular "Save up to 65 percent" sale in Jamaica: Book before Aug. 26 for a minimum of three nights for travel between Sept. 1 and Dec. 28 (blackout dates Feb. 19-26, 2011 may apply) and save between 55-65 percent. www.sandals.com/promos/hot-sale
Tip: When it comes to booking hotels, don't be afraid to go beyond the quoted price. Pick up the phone and talk to a human being to ask for unadvertised value-added perks. Ask targeted questions like, "Can my kids eat free? Can kids stay free?" If it's an urban hotel, ask for free parking, which can add up to as much as $50 a night in major cities. After all, if you don't ask...
Last, but certainly not least, there are the destinations where the U.S. dollar is gaining strength.
Right now, the exchange rate in Europe is about $1.26 to the euro. Here's hoping that remains the same into winter, when much of Europe is on sale.
For example: Berlin offers exceptional value in the off-season. Although you may have to deal with cold weather, winter in Berlin means Christmas markets, fixed-price restaurant menus as part of the Culinary Wintermagic program, and various festivals, concerts and other cultural events. If that's not enough for you, a recent study from Hotels.com comparing hotel rates paid from January-June 2009 showed that Berlin's average hotel rate of €76 (euros) per night is significantly lower than other major cities: (New York paid an average of €139, while the rate was an average of €108 in London, and €111 in Paris.)
And one of my favorite examples of value for your travel dollars is Argentina, where the dollar continues to be king. At current rates, it's about three-to-one, which means exceptional deals whether you're hanging out in Buenos Aires or heading west to wine country in Mendoza.
• Bing Travel's Farecast to determine if your specific fare is expected to go up, down or stay steady.
• FareCompare.com will track specific routes for you to alert when the price drops.
• Be spontaneous. You can find last-minute and unexpected deals through private-sale sites like Vacationist.com, Jetsetter.com, Kayak.com, and TabletHotels.com offering luxury properties at discounted rates.
• Stay connected to stay on top of the deals. Most airlines have taken to Twitter and Facebook to announce travel deals, and sign up for airline e-mail alerts to be among the first to know what's happening.
For more information and travel news you can use, visit PeterGreenberg.com.