The falling price of oil, the rising value of the dollar lay the gridwork for the global map of where travelers should go in 2016, America’s foremost travel experts, Arthur and Pauline Frommer, told an appreciate audience at the New York Times Travel Show at the Javits Center. Cuba has been opened, while Egypt has been closed because of political forces.
It’s been an extremely eventful year for travel, primarily because of economic and political events that occurred outside the world of travel that shape where and how travelers should go this year, Here are their analysis of the most significant developments and tips for travelers for 2016:
The dramatic drop in price of oil. This morning, the price of crude hit $32/barrel as compared to over $100 as recently as 18 months ago – this will obviously mean that family motoring trips to national parks and elsewhere will be cheaper, and motoring will increasingly be used. Also, that airlines will be absolutely unable to raise their ticket prices this coming year, as they obviously would want to do and have done every previous year. There should be public protest to reduce ticket prices this year, since aviation fuel, made out of oil, is one of the airlines’ biggest expenses and the cost has dropped by three-fourths this year.
The surprising and increasing value of US dollar. This has such a major impact on ability to travel, in effect dropping the cost of trips significantly.
The drop of the Japanese yen, now 117 to $1, means that everything in Japan is 50 percent less in cost to us. “Japan, of all places, has become moderately priced destination to visit.”
The Euro, the main currency throughout Europe, is now selling virtually at par to the US dollar – $1.09 per Euro versus much higher rate (as much as $1.40 for a Euro). “We are approaching a situation where $1 will equal 1 euro and all costs in Europe will be similarly reduced.”
Value of Canadian dollar has dropped to unimaginable levels, so that $1 US is 1.40 Canadian (Not long ago, $1 was worth less than 1 Canadian dollar). That means it costs 40 percent less for US travelers to go to Canada. “Though Canada sounds as if would be an obvious destination for us in US, there are quite a lot of us who have not been to the marvelous cities of Vancouver, Banff National Park, Jasper, Lake Louise, the Maritimes, Prince Edward Island, even Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City. You can now go there for 40% less than before.”
“That more or less ends the good developments,” Arthur Frommer said.
Monopolies in the travel industry. One of the frightening developments is the increasing emergence of monopolies in the world of travel, he said. What used to be hotly competitive field, where you could deal with hundreds and hundreds of agencies and tour operators, has been reduced to two major online travel agency (OTA) giants – Priceline and Expedia. Within the last year, Expedia has acquired Travelocity and Orbitz and Priceline gobbled up virtually everything else, “and all the former online travel companies – kayak.com, booking.com, hotels.com – are now lackeys of two giant, sluggish corporations. We now have to deal with a situation in which there is no longer any competition.”
“Digital companies also acquired everyone else,” Arthur Frommer said. “There are exceptions but there is increasing evidence that the way in which consumers can react is to make bookings directly with airline or hotel” (though Pauline Frommer disagreed).
Airline travel developments. “The slight amount of competition that has emerged in the travel field – we should be happy – is that there is now a new budget airline, new to US – Airlines, also known as the Norwegian Air Shuttle (www.norwegian.com). Rich people in the richest country in Europe (from oil wealth) have started major airlines using brand new airplanes and fly the Atlantic for $200-300 less roundtrip than standard airlines.
“We are grateful for at least a Norwegian Airlines, one of the few safety valves against increasing monopolization of the travel industry and the high prices monopolization brings about.”
Norwegian not only flies the Atlantic (to Europe), but now also flies from New York City to Guadeloupe in the French West Indies, “for very little money – hundreds less than standard airlines. Here is a reason to choose winter vacation in wonderful French island – a slight improvement in the travel field, this year.”
There is also a new Icelandic airline, WOW Airlines (https://wowair.com/) which flies from New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Baltimore/Washington DC (BWI), to various cities in Europe, via Reykjavík (though you can’t stay over as on Icelandic Air and immediately have to change planes into Europe). But if price is important, the transatlantic airfare is hundreds less. (I love the way they show a bar graph of the best fare by month to a destination.)
To South America, there is VivaColombia (www.vivacolombia.co/en), a new small airline that flies Miami to Bogota and Medellin in Colombia for $171 roundtrip.
Cruising. “In the world of ocean cruising, there have been only bad events this past year.” said Arthur Frommer, well known to favor “traditional” cruising and to despise the mass-market floating resort megaships that dominate the seas today. “Every one of the cheap mass market cruiselines – Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian –have designed and built their new ships for as many as 4000-6000 passengers per vessel, just destroying the relaxation and atmosphere and tradition we used to enjoy on cruiseships. In the world of cruising, one’s only recourse is to pay more to go on small, upscale premium ships, which continue to offer ocean-going experience we are used to.” (Pauline, for her part, has validated the floating resort experience.)
Finally, he said, “There is growing realization this year that the rewards of travel are no longer limited by the cultural attractions to which we undertake long flights to enjoy, but also, increasingly include political lessons we can get as a reward.” People used to travel to Europe for cultural reasons, he claimed – museums, art galleries, theaters, famous historical monuments, cuisine. “But increasingly, a trip to Europe also exposes us to different solutions to political problems and issues.”
One of the benefits of travel has always been to expose people to different cultures and broader perspectives. But, Frommer says, you can purposefully seek out experiences to expose yourself to political and social issues even if you don’t necessarily agree, “but to assess pro and con the European response to the same political issues we have in the US.” For example, when you travel to Europe, you can visit the headquarters of the main political parties in cities like London and Paris and they will be happy to discuss their programs and solutions. In virtually every European country, you can visit an institute – like the Swedish Institute in Stockholm – and they will hand you English language brochures outlining and defending the innovative responses they’ve had to political problems.
“And finally, can simply make a point of conversing with Europeans, perfectly willing to tell you and increasingly able to speak English, about their policies concerning education, retirement, health care and the like – pro or con – and decide for yourself whether we should emulate these responses in the United States.”
Motorcoach tours. Thanks to the surging popularity of river cruises, the cost of motorcoach tours has gone down in many segments. “The industry is finding that the people who used to take guided tours are preferring river cruises because of the convenience of unpacking only once, and traveling on rivers that for centuries were the way people got around Europe, floating right into the middle of a city where you get off and take the guided tours that the river cruise operators provide,” Pauline said. River cruises tend to be more expensive than motorcoach tours, but people are paying the premium for luxury and convenience and the enjoyment of the riverboat cruise experience.
As a result, though, the traditional motorcoach tour operators are having to drop their prices in many places around the world. “Particularly if you are a solo traveler and want to avoid the [hefty] solo supplement [that the river cruise operators charge], now is the time to bargain. Look for deals – we are seeing deals all over the place.” Pauline added that “no one will go on record for this, but both Dad and I think the river cruise industry has been saturated – there are just too many boats –and that that river cruising, too, is slowly going to go down in price.”
How to get the best deals on river cruise? Go off season, look for deals happening either right before the cruise departure or many months in advance. Deals include two- for-one pricing, free upgrades, and you can try to negotiate on the single supplement. Pauline also suggests seeking out a “no-name” cruiseline, which may not be as luxurious but may well afford other benefits, such as the opportunity to travel with non-Americans for a more rounded experience. “Look at less famous companies – they are not on every river, but every river in the world that can support river cruising has one – Mississippi, Rhine, Seine. We think there are too many beds, we think prices are plateauing and will drop.”
River cruising tips: try rivercruising.com (an aggregator); try a no-name brand; cruise off season; and book early or late.
Organized tours. Arthur Frommer has famously disparaged organized tours (almost as much as mass-market floating resort ships), but, Pauline says, “There are some tours that are a little less pre-fab (regimented)” and offer more “authentic” and “experiential” programs.
(Organized tours are not just more convenient, they also offer access to attractions and accommodations that may not otherwise be available to independent travelers, and often there is little extra expense compared to what an individual would pay on their own.)
Among Pauline’s favorites: Intrepid Travel, G Adventures (it used to be known as Gap Adventures, now has a partnership with National Geographic Travel), Djoser Tours, Friendly Planet, and Road Scholar (formerly known as Elderhostel, at least one of the traveling party has to be 40 years old). (I would add Trafalgar Tours which incorporated “Insider Experiences,” to give guests an authentic insight into the locals culture of each destination and The Hidden Journeys collection, a new trip style which takes smaller, intimate groups of up to 26 guests to less-visited places, www.trafalgar.com.)
The first four of these operators draw an international audience, which adds to the experience. “I took a family tour with Intrepid Travel to Morocco – I’m of an age where my kids can’t stand to be with me, and I need there to be other teens, tweens as a shield. We went on tour with 12 people (the max on these tours), including a German family (my daughter became beset friends with their daughter), two couples from Britain, our family of 4, and, coincidentally, a family from Avenue A (just blocks from us). It was a different type of tour – we mostly took local transportation, stayed in locally owned guest houses, had a lot of free time so we could explore and the cost was probably 25% less than a standard guided tour.
Road Scholar is known for having intellectual tours, programs at universities where you learn something. They also have wonderful multi-generational tours for grandparents traveling with their grandkids.
How to save money on fares? With the airline monopolies now, four airlines control more than 80% of routes in the US. “If you go into certain hubs, you have no choice whatsoever, so prices stayed flat at a time when they should have been dropping because of the falling cost of oil.”
But there are ways to save money – based on exhaustive research by her colleague:
Book 57 days before travel for domestic tickets
Book 171 days before travel for least expensive international fares
There were savings of 19% for those who booked on a Sunday (two years ago, the best savings were on Tuesday, but that has shifted)
The savings averaged $300 on international fares and $110 less on domestic fares
Saturday, Tuesday and Wednesday flights are cheapest
Best websites for airfares: Skyscanner.net, Momondo.com (a small company out of Copenhagen, Denmark) (both are independent of the giants, Expedia and Priceline, that have gobbled up most of the online booking engines).
“Reed [Bramblett of reidsguides.com, Travel Beyond Vacations] spent a week looking at every combination, New York-Denver, Denver-Taipei, Chicago-Los Angeles. Did direct, nondirect, international, etc. and found that skyscanner.net and momondo.com walloped the competition. The worst was Orbitz, which did not come in with the lowest fare once (possibly because it was up for sale at the time).”
“Skyscanner is good, generally, but not so good on direct flights, is better when you connect, but almost always came in first for other types of flights. It has a nifty feature where, if you don’t know where want to go, just type in “everywhere” and it will generate cheapest flights from where you are – great for a ‘kismet trip,’ where don’t know where you want to go,” Pauline Frommer said.
“Momondo, operated by a small Danish company, may be better. It doesn’t have the bells, whistles, and number of filters, but it came up with the cheapest fare in every search.
It gives a nice grid which shows the prices on each day of the week, so if you are flexible, you can take advantage. It does multiple destination searches if you are flying to several places in a single trip.”
She warns that a new class of “basic fares” are on the horizon. Delta, for one, is bringing in new class of basic fares in order to compete, at least on paper, with Spirit and Frontier. But boy these are so basic. You will not ever be able to choose your seat – not even at the airport. The seat will be assigned; it will be in the middle. And worse, if something happens, you can’t change the ticket, not even for a change fee; you will lose the cost of ticket and have to get new one. It makes it a difficult fare to recommend, but if you know definitely where and when you are going, don’t mind middle seat, these will be at same price as Spirit and Frontier charge.
Here are more tips to save on airfares:
Non-direct flights may be cheaper
Two one-ways may be cheaper
Be flexible (on airports and times/dates)
Use a local travel agency (who often are clued in to deals, consolidators, net fares, and route combinations at lower fares and booking tricks that you wouldn’t know about and aren’t published on the web)
Don’t pay for premium unless it’s really premium
Follow your favorite airline on twitter, facebook or on their websites (because they frequently have deals they offer through social media they don’t publish elsewhere).
“Local travel agents often know tricks that others don’t know and aren’t on web,” she said. “In Japan, I went to a local travel agency who knew if I booked with Mastercard, I would get $75 off per ticket for the lowest price ticket. That is a big savings for a family of 4. You couldn’t get the deal on the web, but only through Mastercard in Japan.”
Also, “Don’t pay premium unless it is really premium. A lot of airlines try to upsell you to sit in front, get on first, or other perks that aren’t worth paying for. And sometimes can still find good deals on twitter, Facebook and on airline websites.”
Saving money on hotels. For hotels, Reed researched an article on the best/worst hotel search engines. He found that the best search sites were Hotelscombined.com (#1) followed by Trivago.
“But sometimes it is better to book direct with a hotel because you also get points.”
The best OTAs (online travel agencies), he found, were Booking.com and the Asia specialist, Agoda.com.
If you are willing to “book blind,” you can get great deals on priceline.com, hotwire.com, BiddingTraveler.com, and TheBiddingTraveler.com, Pauline said.
“With the Priceline Express deal, they give you the price but not the name of the hotel, but they provide so many details, that if you go to a regular hotel booking site and put in all the details, the hotel will come up so you know what you are actually booking.”
She noted that the same hotels tend to come up through these services over and over. “Sometimes they are incredible deals” because they may be very large resorts with lots of rooms to fill.
Pauline added that while she likes priceline.com and hotwire.com for hotels, “I don’t recommend them for flights – you will be put on a really ugly itinerary often, like 24 hours in the air to get to Cleveland.”
Frommer also pointed to another major development of last year: the resurgence of the printed travel guidebook. When Arthur and Pauline Frommer re-acquired the ownership of the Frommer Travel Guides three years ago, people were really dubious, predicting printed books would be rendered obsolete by online guides. “A travel news website referred to me as ‘delusional’ because guidebooks were passe.” The Frommers republished their guides from scratch, such as Pauline’s “Frommer’s Easy Guide to New York City 2016” and now, he said, the traditional guidebooks have been selling well.
Pauline Frommer also has a new radio show, with Jason Cochran on WABC on Saturdays at 3 pm.
See more from the Frommers at Frommers.com.
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