London's cheaper, but summer fares are rising
Since November, the value of a U.S. dollar in Britain has gotten 22 percent stronger, meaning that London is historically cheap for American visitors. Unfortunately, plane tickets have been getting pricier. What gives? And how can you find cheap(er) fares?
Round-trip tickets may be roughly $200 more expensive now than two summers ago (before the financial crisis hit full swing). One reason: British Airways cut its capacity (meaning, its planes and routes) by 23 percent in the past year. By cutting supply, BA can charge higher ticket prices. Other airlines have done the same.
The airlines lost a lot of money during the Icelandic volcano crisis. Airlines will try to try to make up the lost income. They'll hike the average roundtrip ticket between London and New York $40 this year, and up to $80 by 2012. Airlines will slowly bump up fares until they've recovered all of their lost money.
Airport taxes are another problem, says George Hobica, founder of bargain-hunting site Airfare Watchdog. "Britain continues to heap tax increases on London's airports, with a series of hikes in the past few years. And it looks like the taxes will go up again by the end of year."
So what to do? Hobica recommends you book a vacation package. Tour operators buy blocks of seats on planes up to a year in advance, and a year ago tickets were a lot cheaper than they are now. So tour operators can afford to discount the seats and pass along the savings to travelers in lower air-plus-hotel-plus-rental car packages.
Keep an eye out for "fare glitches" and last-minute sales are another thing to watch out for. Set up electronic sale alerts on Airfarewatchdog, tracks those periodic sale fares that only are available for a few hours or days. Be ready to pounce when any fare sales appear.
If you can't decide whether to book tickets today or wait a few days, check out the "buy-now-or wait" predictions on Bing.com/travel, a free service that takes out some of the guesswork. It'll give you a forecast on whether to buy today or later this week. Its crystal ball is historical airfare data. It looks at the past several years of airfare trends to deduce whether prices will rise or fall on any given route.
Last tip: Fly on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, which tend to be much cheaper days to fly than weekends.
Paris's first Restaurant Week may be a bust for tourists
Following behind New York, London, and other hotbeds of gastronomy, the city of Paris has launched its very own Restaurant Week. More than 120 restaurants will be participating in Tous au Restaurant ("everybody in the restaurant") from June 7–13. The celebration promises specially priced menus—€20.10 ($25.56) at lunch and no more than €35 ($44.50) at dinner—and the ability to make reservations online. Sounds tempting, but is this really a good bet for travelers? Not really. Reason number one: these special prices aren't actually very special. Most of the participating restaurants, including several that I really recommend (le Bistrot Paul Bert, Aux Lyonnais, Au Petit Marguery, l'Assiette) have everyday prices that are lower than the restaurant week offer. Reason number two: the online reservation system doesn't work. When I tried (several times) to book a table, I was asked to provide personal information and enrolled in a newsletter before receiving an email that contained—get this—the restaurant's phone number. It doesn't help that the website is only in French. For those who are able to reserve a table by phone, there are really only two good value options to consider booking: Gaya and La Table de Joël Robuchon. Among the 120-plus participating restaurants, these are the only places where you'll snag significant savings during restaurant week. A single dish at world-renowned chef Pierre Gagnaire's Gaya restaurant can run as much as €47, so the multi-course restaurant week menu represents a real steal. Ditto for Robuchon's formal restaurant in the 16th arrondissement, where diners usually spend well over €100. So what do BT readers think? Does Paris Restaurant Week sound like a steal or a waste of time?
Ask Trip Coach: Volunteer vacations
We're here to help you do good and have a good time—all at the same time. Send us your questions on voluntourism, a.k.a. volunteer vacations, in which travelers spend their days working for the benefit of others. Why? Because while every trip has its rewards, helping others can be rewarding on an entirely different level. Voluntourism opportunities are literally available all over the world, and volunteers might spend their time teaching, building, painting, or helping kids or animals. They can work in cities, villages, rural areas, or totally out in the woods. Some travelers want volunteer work to occupy their entire vacation, while others are more interested in a little altruism on the side, offering their services for a day or two during their stint away from home. With so many possibilities, questions are bound to arise, such as: What are the best resources for finding volunteer vacation opportunities? How do you figure out which volunteer trip is right for you? How much should you expect to pay? (Volunteer vacations are generally not free, and can sometimes be pricey.) How can you make sure that your time and energy will have the most impact? Please send us your questions regarding volunteer vacations and we'll answer the best ones in an upcoming issue of Budget Travel.
TripAdvisor plays it a little too straight
Is it just me, or could TripAdvisor do more to court gay and lesbian travelers? The giant of user-generated hotel reviews doesn't let you filter reviews by sexual preference—to zero in on reviewers like yourself—the way it allows users to filter reviews by special categories like business, family, couples, friends getaways, and solo travel. The site also seems to shy away from officially acknowledging the presence of the LGBT community. It goes without saying that gays and lesbians travel for business, with families, and so forth—so many of TripAdvisor's filters have broad appeal. But LGBT travelers have unique concerns. When we're picking hotels, for instance, we often wonder whether the front-desk clerks are well trained and well mannered. If they aren't, they'll make a silly mistake when a same-sex couple asks for a single king bed: They'll act weird about it. And weirdness is exactly what I want TripAdvisor to help me avoid. I've also noticed that the U.S. division of TripAdvisor has never put out a press release or marketing campaign acknowledging gays and lesbians. A month ago, its U.K. branch produced its first list of the Top 10 Gay & Lesbian-Friendly Hotels in Europe, and I hope this anticipates a formal acknowledgement of the crowd here in the States, too. How about a simple Top 10 List of Gay-Friendly Hotels in America? All I wish is for the Internet's leading hotel review site to do as much to welcome LGBT travelers as nearly every airline, hotel chain, and major destination does. Online travel site Orbitz has a microsite for gay travelers, as does Travelocity. Major airlines have LGBT marketing, such as American Airlines' aa.com/rainbow. Nearly every major U.S. and European city seems to have a webpage or a brick-and-mortar kisok dispensing LGBT travel information, such as Seattle's and London's gay-tourism portals. In fact, the U.S. travel industry as a whole has a proven track record of being much better about courting the gay customer than other industries. To its credit, TripAdvisor allows its users to post info about LGBT travel on its site, particularly in its Gay Travel Forum. Users have posted travel guides ranging from the best LGBT-friendly lodging in New Hampshire to the most LGBT-friendly neighborhoods in Paris. For instance, guides on Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Dublin, Ireland, have lots of helpful info. But allowing your users to ask each other trip-planning questions on your Travel Board is nothing special. What's more: While thousands have participated in TripAdvisor's forums, I bet most TripAdvisor users aren't even aware the forums exist. The site could do more to promote these forums. As of today, on the homepage for TripAdvisor's forums, the Gay Travel Forum isn't listed. (Though things like "Rugby World Cup 2010" are listed.) You have to click "see all" to find it. Some people might say, you can't measure "gay-friendliness," but there are proven proxies for estimating it. Reviews are one way. If TripAdvisor started collecting user-information on how gay-friendly a hotel is, it could build a powerful database. It could add a checkbox on the review form giving a reviewer a chance to mention their interest in LGBT friendly hotels. Another way to judge a hotel is by how it treats its staff because that affects how the staff treats the guests. Will the housekeepers give a same-sex couple second looks? They probably won't if the hotel makes a policy of not discriminating against LGBT staff. TripAdvisor could add a little tag to the listing for any hotel that has been TAG Approved, namely a hotel vetted by an independent organization for its employment policies, services, and support returned to the LGBT community (and not for pay-for-placement deals). At the end of the day, this is a missed business opportunity for TripAdvisor—gay travelers seem to travel more than the average American and should be a growth market for the site. Parent company Expedia was the first major travel site to offer specific content for the gay and lesbian travel market back in 2001, which leads me to think its TripAdvisor division is simply making an oversight. What do you think? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill?
This month: Daily travel deals
The U.S. Travel Association and American Express have teamed up with almost 50 travel destinations and brands to offer a month of daily travel deals, called Discover America Daily Getaways. Every weekday at 10 a.m. until June 4, a set of discounts—on everything from hotel stays and car rentals to attractions and travel packages—will go live at dailygetaways.com, offering up to 50 percent off the price of selected getaways from that day's travel partner. Among the companies represented are Marriott, Hertz, and Universal Studios. One great thing about the site is that it shows how many of each getaway is for sale and highlights exactly how much you're saving. For example, Friday's partner, Carlson, is offering one night at any Country Inns & Suites hotel in the U.S. for $50, a savings of $35 (517 are available), and one night at any U.S. Radisson hotel or resort for $80, cutting a third off the normal price of $120 (50 are available). Another perk: If you find a deal you like, just click "View Details" and it tells you exactly what you're getting and how long you have to use it (most deals are valid at least through the end of the year). You can set up an e-mail alert to remind you when a certain offer goes live, or sign up for daily e-mails to keep track of all the getaways. The Daily Getaways promotion also features an auction component that allows American Express cardholders to bid on once-in-a-lifetime packages to cities across the country (similar to what you'd get if you took one of Budget Travel's Dream Trips for 2010 domestically). Starting bids range from $300 for the two-night Grand Canyon Experience package to $5,500 for the four-night Celebrity Las Vegas, which includes tickets to four shows, a $2,500 shopping spree, and a celebrity makeover, among other perks. A new auction goes live each weekday at 10 a.m., with bids accepted until 10 p.m. MORE Real Deals: Every day, Budget Travel editors handpick the best vacation packages