Opportunities In Travel Slowdown

Barbara Mandrell
AP Photo
The first full week of fighting in Iraq caused sharp declines in springtime travel bookings. Now industry officials are crossing their fingers, hoping for a quick end to the war so the slowdown does not carry over into what is traditionally the busiest time of year for leisure travel.

Travel & Leisure associate editor Heidi Mitchell says since the war summit in the Azores on March 16, there has been a decline as sharp as the days following Sept. 11. "A drop of 10 percent in overall air travel, 7 percent of which is domestic travel. It's pretty significant. We've seen 10,000 jobs lost in the airlines. And we're going to see more of that happening, obviously, as they sort of figure out how to deal with this crisis," she says.

Domestic air travel bookings for the next 60 to 90 days have fallen by 20 percent, and international bookings for the same period are down by 40 percent, according to the Air Transport Association, a Washington-based trade group.

"Airlines over the next year, the American Transport Association is predicting 70,000 more jobs could go and 2,200 routes could go," Mitchell said.

The people who are canceling their travel plans are mostly group tours on big trips abroad, Mitchell said, which adds to the 3.5 percent decrease in business travel that has taken place over the past year.

For those who are still traveling, she recommends caution when booking their flights. "Make sure that your information is up to date, so that the airline can call you and say your flight's been canceled."

The law requires carriers to put you in another flight if yours has been canceled and you have already purchased your ticket. "It shouldn't cost more than $25 to you and that's just a tax. So they've got to put you on another plane."

The current trend is for passengers to plan trips closer to their departure. Airlines are waving change fees on flights purchased before March 31.

"Usually you pay $50 to $200 to change your departure date, and they've completely waived that, especially for flights that initiate within the next 60 to 90 days. So they're encouraging people to still book, and then it's sort of like having a voucher. You can use that money towards any flight," Mitchell.

According to Air Transport Association, on most airlines, flights departing through May apply, but it varies from airline to airline. In most cases, if your ticket price goes up, you pay the difference; if it goes down, you receive a credit towards another flight.

The positive side of all the change and uncertainty is that prices have really come down. Mitchell said she flew to Tokyo for $489 plus tax last week on United. You cannot negotiate prices, but, says Mitchell, you can wait up until the very last second for prices to go down, which they tend to do.

"As far as hotels, you can actually negotiate. You can they're canceling, they're waiving cancellation fees and also you can say I saw a better rate at another hotel. What can you do for me?" Mitchell said.