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10 Things Travel Agents Can’t Believe You Don’t Know About Holiday Travel

Before clicking the “purchase” button on that last-minute holiday vacation package, consider these tips from five professional travel agents (all members of ASTA — the American Society of Travel Agents) and an Expedia travel expert.

Business class to Europe is deeply discounted. Business travelers tend to stay home for the holidays, notes Erin Krause, consumer public relations manager for Expedia, and that means that for a few hundred dollars more than what you’d pay for the seats in back, you “can get overseas travel tickets for $1,000 to $2,500 round trip. During peak summer travel season, when most Americans travel to Europe, these seats can be $6,000 to $9,000,” Krause says.

Knowing “dead weeks” can lead to huge savings. Resting peacefully within the frantic Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year’s travel pocket are what industry experts call the “dead weeks,” times when hometown commitments and trip fatigue keep many of us off the road. The “dead weeks” are a good time to take advantage of low air fares and discounts on hotel rooms. Expedia Travel Trendwatch defines the dead weeks as Nov. 28–Dec. 15 and Jan 7–17. However, Expedia and the travel agents interviewed for this story concurred that there’s overlap. One city’s dead week might be another’s peak travel time: December 15–22 is also a potential week for deals, says Mike O’Malley, a travel agent with Diplomat Travel in Chicago. “Traditionally from Thanksgiving Day to right before Christmas, it’s slower, but it also depends on when schools get out, which of course varies from city to city,” O’Malley says.

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Booking a package can save big bucks. Good dead week deals at Expedia over the next few weeks include trips to the Caribbean and Mexico, says Expedia’s Krause. Other holiday sales from the site include an “Escape to Paradise” deal, which bundles airfare and hotel, a strategy she says is worth considering. “The one thing I would say for people going in the next two weeks (Dec 3-15) is book a package,” Krause notes. Purchasing a package that includes at least airfare and hotel — and not just on Expedia — will save on average $200, she says, so during mid-December “or right after New Year’s, you’re going to find some great deals,” she adds.

Holiday cruises are a relative steal. O’Malley also noted that decreased demand leads many cruise lines to lower their rates Dec. 15–22, a time when airfares to popular port states like Florida also drop. And since many cruise packages include entertainment and excursion costs, one of the “best values in family travel is taking a cruise over the holidays,” says Frank Morgan, CFO of AMT American Express Travel in Southern California. If you’re looking for a December deal as well as something novel, consider cruises to the Panama Canal or within the South Pacific, notes Scott Pinheiro, president of NorCal ASTA and a travel agent with Santa Cruz Travel. Many Panama Canal cruises begin and end in California and Florida, making travel costs to ports manageable. And while it’s unlikely you’ll wrangle budget holiday airfares to catch cruises that begin and end in Tahiti and Fiji, you won’t end up spending a lot in the destination. “Once you’re there, the Fijian dollar is very good,” says Pinheiro.

It pays to be persistent. If you’re not a big planner and you’re angling for a last-minute cancellation at a holiday hot spot, “keep calling and pestering the places,” says Blake Fleetwood, a former investigative journalist now a travel agent with Cook Travel in New York. “You call the resorts directly and pester them. You’re not going to get a travel agent to do that kind of work.” Popular places have become accustomed to this brand of persistence and “you have to call them 5-6 times apiece,” Fleetwood adds. “The squeaky wheel gets the room.”

A travel agent might beat your best deal. Brokering and booking deals online is second nature for many travelers, but we don’t necessarily think to pick up the phone and find out if a travel agent might be able to beat a Web deal or suggest off-line alternatives in our destination. Reluctance to incorporate a travel agent into one’s research may be fed by an assumption that there are extra costs attached to engaging an agent’s services, but the only way to find out is to ask: “Will there be an extra fee on top of any of the prices you’re quoting me,” says Kari C. Thomas, an agent with Will Travel, Inc. in Pennsylvania. “Any good agent will have no problem answering that.” Travel agents belonging to ASTA are searchable online and are bound by a code of ethics.

Don’t spoon feed your luggage to thieves. If your carry-on sails through a security checkpoint before you do, you could be susceptible to a scam, O’Malley notes: “One person will get in front of you and slow you down while his buddy will get your bag and take off with it. The TSA does not guarantee the safety of your bag going through the x-ray machine. I won’t put a bag on the belt until I know I can walk straight through.” And along those lines, Morgan advises “never put your address on the outside of your suitcase, because there are people who’ll walk by, figure out that you’re with your whole family, and go to your house.” In an age of effortless reverse phone-number look-ups, your home phone should be kept off the tag as well. Morgan adds that his agency makes tags with just their client’s name and the agency’s 800 number.

Pack with the worst-case-scenario in mind. When traveling with a companion, O’Malley suggests a fiendishly clever strategy for anticipating the horror of a lost bag: “Split both of your wardrobes between two bags in case one gets lost.” During the holiday season, the same logic applies to packing presents. Remember, too, that the TSA still reserves the right to open gift-wrapped packages in checked luggage — all the more reason, concurred several travel agents, to ship your holiday presents ahead to your destination by UPS or Fedex Ground.

Surf the Web before leaving home. You can mitigate some of the anxiety of traveling to your holiday destination by doing a little Web surfing before you leave home. Check the average waiting times at security checkpoints on the TSA Web site. Check in early for your flight on your airline’s site, and Krause suggests, use the Web to find out which terminals at the airport have restaurants, play areas for kids, and other useful services.

There’s always next year. If you failed to book a last-minute holiday cruise, use the disappointment as incentive to book early for next year. The benefits are significant. For those wishing to book a December 2008 cruise, for instance, Pinheiro says to put a deposit down a year in advance — $500 will hold a space, and it’s less risky than paying your full passage in advance. Plus, you’ll have most of the year to change your mind, if you have to. “With 90-days notice you can get it back: you don’t have to worry about being out any money until the latter part of September or early October.” Plus, reserving a year early will reap cruise lovers another reward, says Pinheiro: early booking savings.

Paul Eisenberg

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