Don't get burned on summer vacation
Seattle Times travel staff
Record-high gas prices. Crummy service on crowded planes. Long, long lines at airport security and Customs. Hotel rooms costing more than ever.
All that could make for a very cranky summer-travel season, which kicks off this Memorial Day weekend.
But there are ways to beat high-season costs and crowds. Here's how.
Where to go
Unless you're feeling flush, this isn't the summer for a Western Europe trip, given the weak U.S. dollar and high airfares. Go in the offseason instead, in late fall or winter, when fares often drop by half or more.
If you're yearning to go abroad, go where the dollar goes much farther — Central America, Southeast Asia or Eastern Europe.
Close to home, Canada isn't the deal it used to be, either, given the strength of the Canadian dollar and the government's recent cancellation of the visitor refund of the 7 percent GST tax on hotel rooms and other purchases.
All this is making a U.S. summer vacation look good. ...
When to go
Holidays, such as this weekend and July 4, are the most congested and expensive times to travel in the U.S. since high demand means airlines and hotels jack up prices.
More than 38.3 million Americans will be traveling this weekend, up 1.7 percent from Memorial Day weekend last year, says the AAA travel club. About 32.1 million of those will drive.
Whenever you travel, try to fly midweek and midday to get cheaper fares (that's when business travelers and weekenders don't go). Shop for tickets on Tuesday or Wednesday, when airlines post many of their last-minute Web deals and airfare sales.
Driving? Friday and Sunday afternoons and evenings are when highways are most crowded (Monday this holiday weekend), as are the border crossings between Washington and British Columbia. On Easter weekend, some drivers endured hours-long waits returning to the U.S. from Canada at Blaine's Peace Arch crossing.
To get traffic/flight updates:
• For highway-traffic information in Washington, call the Department of Transportation at 511 (also in Oregon and some other states), or see www.wsdot.wa.gov.• To check U.S.-Canada border-crossing congestion, see www.wsdot.wa.gov/traffic/border/.
• For Sea-Tac airport, go to www.portseattle.org/seatac for real-time flight information. Double-check parking, too, since the airport garage has been filling up lately. Park in an off-airport lot or get a ride, taxi, shuttle or public transit to beat the crush and parking fees.
• If there's a long security lineup in SeaTac's main terminal, be aware you can use any checkpoint; the concourses connect on the other side.
• If you're returning on an international flight, pack your patience. There may be long waits in airports for incoming passengers since U.S. Customs and Border Protection staffing hasn't kept up with air travel; waits can average 45 minutes, according to the Travel Industry Association.
On the road
Gas is at record-high prices in the U.S., nearly $4 a gallon for premium unleaded in some areas. Take a shorter road trip, go with friends or family who can split the cost or rent or borrow a fuel-efficient car. Estimate a trip's gas cost with the AAA's online calculator, www.fuelcostcalculator.com,and adjust the route to your budget. Americans are still driving en masse this weekend, says the AAA, but on shorter trips.
If you're visiting a city like San Francisco, which is pedestrian-friendly with excellent public transit, don't rent a car right away. Instead, rent just when you want to take side trips out of the city. That saves on rental fees and the high price of downtown hotel parking, sometimes $25 a day.
Just be grateful you're not on a European road trip. In Britain and elsewhere, gas is around $8 per gallon.
Planes are flying fuller than ever, with fewer services and staff since airlines have slashed costs. To find the best fares, shop around.
Check flights to secondary airports (Oakland for San Francisco, Midway for Chicago), which may be cheaper and less congested. Comparison-shop online or through a travel agent, who charges for issuing tickets but can save you money on complicated or overseas itineraries. Check Web sites such as Expedia.com, CheapTickets.com or Orbitz.com. Always check Southwest.com, the budget airline that isn't included on some big ticket-selling Web sites because of contractual wrangles.
Also check flights on Skybus, a budget airline that starts flying Tuesday from Bellingham to Columbus, Ohio, with connections there to many other cities. Modeled on European ultra-budget airlines, every Skybus flight will have at least 10 seats for $10 (it sells online only at Skybus.com).
U.S. hotel rates have increased about 13 percent from a year ago, says the AAA. Some ways to find deals:
• Big cities' business-traveler hotels often offer lower rates on weekends.
• Check hotel rates online and look for AAA, AARP or other discounts if you're eligible. Also phone a hotel directly and ask for the best rate; individual managers may have leeway.
• Look for lower-cost lodging such as B&Bs, hostels and university dorms. In Vancouver, B.C., summer visitors can stay in conference housing or student dorms at the University of British Columbia. While amenities and decor are sparse, you may get more space, kitchenettes and a scenic location for a budget-friendly price: www.ubcconferences.com or 888-822-1030.
Kristin Jackson: email@example.com or 206-464-2271.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company