Valentine's Day travel outlook
With Valentine's Day falling on President's Day weekend, are travelers booking short holiday trips this year? We checked in with Clem Bason, President of the Hotwire Group, for the skinny. Here are the three themes he has noticed.
Online travel agencies spent much of the Fall and Winter preparing for the expected travel rebound in 2010. Expedia launched a new series of ads in December. Travelocity as well. Ads from Hotels.com are running now. Priceline, too. And Hotwire of course. Together, we have flooded the airwaves and are all trying to attract the leisure traveler. We all thought that we'd be trying to attract more of them this year, but at the moment it feels like the pie has not grown significantly so far in 2010. As I mentioned earlier, however, we feel strongly that Hotwire will have continued success as compared to the competition in 2010, no matter the environment. Hotel occupancies will remain at record lows this year, which allows Hotwire to offer low prices on 4- and 5-star hotels that consumers simply cannot find anywhere else. And we continue to test and add features that our customers ask for—the ability to upgrade to a specific bed type, customer reviews, and new maps.
Last minute bookings
Consumers definitely appear to be waiting until the very last minute to book. We saw hotel bookings down 6 percent versus last year in the week leading up to Martin Luther King, Jr., Day Weekend, but then finished the weekend up 19 percent. We're seeing something similar for Valentine's Day at the moment, with hotel bookings down 7 percent versus the same time last year. We expect them to pick up strongly, however, as we get closer. My suspicion is that with the downturn, consumers have been trained that hotels are unlikely to fill up as they approach the date of travel. So they book at the very last minute, knowing they have little to lose (and even perhaps something to gain in terms of a last minute price drop).
I met with hoteliers at the end of December, and there was a sense that the industry would achieve price stability in 2010. We are not yet seeing this in the data at Hotwire, however. For the Valentine's Day weekend, we are seeing Hotel prices down 5 percent (4-star hotels down 8 percent). Hotwire, however, caters to the value-seeking consumer and so we are seeing demand and bookings increase—our hotel purchases are up almost 20 percent so far this year. As for car rentals, prices are currently up only 3 percent for the Valentines Weekend, but are down nearly 8 percent as compared to last January overall. Rental companies have become more financially stable which has allowed them to increase fleet sizes in some locations for the early months of 2010. This means on Hotwire, consumers have more options in more cities at some of the lowest rates in the market.
Facebook oversharing causes trouble for travelers
Facebook is a super way to connect with friends and family, but it can sometimes be tough on relationships. The main issue for travel lovers: When one person in a couple lives their life online while the other doesn't. For some, it's about safety. It may be deeply unnerving when your sweetheart posts on Facebook about upcoming vacations. A spouse might say, "I don't think it should be public knowledge about when we're out of town." Or, more sarcastically, "Why don't you post a giant sign advertising to robbers the best time to break in to our place?" For others, it's about privacy. Consider this story, reported in the Boston Globe: Jared Wilk, 28, has a girlfriend who loves posting pictures to Facebook, a pastime he doesn't mind, except that it's gotten him into "trouble" with friends and relatives who are surprised to see pictures of him visiting their towns when they had no idea he was in the area. After his girlfriend uploaded a picture of him running the "Rocky" steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art—a lifelong dream—cousins who live in the area, but whom he hadn't contacted, were "a little disappointed." College buddies in Washington, D.C., were likewise unhappy to see photos of him at the Lincoln Memorial when they didn't know he was in town. Posting travel updates and videos to Facebook can also upset people who are shy. Some photos that may be cute when shared with your spouse aren't cute when shown to your co-workers and relatives. Does your Aunt Jean back home really need to see photos of you at a resort drinking at a swim-up bar? Of course, the issues are generational. People under 30 generally post their lives online, while those in their 40s typically don't. What are your thoughts? Feel free to sound off in the comments. MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL Check out Budget Travel's Facebook page Read our story about how one woman visited Istanbul using no guidebooks and no language skills—only social media and mobile apps like Facebook: The Connected Traveler
What happens when the Olympics move on?
This Friday brings Vancouver's turn in the spotlight as the host of the Winter Olympics. But back in August 2008, all eyes were on Beijing for a dazzling opening ceremony that captured China's grand-scale ambitions—and that will be hard to top. We tracked the buildup to the Beijing games and published a slide show documenting the capital's frenzied construction of cutting-edge stadiums, subways, and high-rises. With the athletes and spectators long gone, these stadiums have been left lonely and waiting for new purposes. I was intrigued by a story and photos in the NYT this weekend that captured scenes like a guard dozing off at an empty underpass at the Olympic Green and locals sledding on artificial snow at the Bird's Nest. It now doubles as an amusement park with the goofy name of Happy Ice and Snow Season. The NYT reports that the Bird's Nest may or may not host a celebrity rock concert in April and might become the site of a shopping center. The Water Cube—where swimmer Michael Phelps broke one record after another—went on to stage light shows and a Russian performance of "Swan Lake" before its current, more in-character role as an indoor water park. Every host city has to grapple with repurposing these kinds of venues, and some have run into more trouble than Beijing. Athens, whose Olympics construction was plagued by delays and cost overruns, let 21 of its 22 stadiums fall into disrepair. There were even reports of squatter camps in the fields by Faliro Bay Complex back in fall 2008. Closer to home, Atlanta successfully converted its main Olympic stadium into Turner Field for the Braves baseball team, while Georgia Tech oversees the aquatic center and uses the Olympic Village for student housing. Lake Placid, a two-time host, turned the athletes' village into a correctional facility, but opened the bobsled and luge facilities to the public. You can take to the ice yourself at the outdoor speed-skating rink at Lake Placid's Olympic Center, where would-be medalists still train. If you're feeling inspired, consider this Real Deal that includes tickets to the Olympic Center, a stay at the Mirror Lake Inn, and lift tickets to Whiteface Mountain.
Hawaii: Answers to 5 common travel questions
Here's an interview with Rachel Klein, editor of Fodor's Hawaii 2010. Klein is also the Hawaii expert for Fodor's 80 degrees, a Web tool that lets you find a warm-weather escape best suited for your personality based on 20 criteria. 1. Which island should I go to? Oahu is sometimes referred to as "one stop Hawaii" because it offers visitors a sampling of experiences and activities that can be found on all the other islands. Those interested in history won't want to miss Pearl Harbor and the Bishop Museum. Maui is a popular pick for honeymooners, as its beaches are considered some of Hawaii's most beautiful and the resorts of West and South Maui are spectacular. The breathtaking views on Maui's Road to Hana are sure to inspire romance. Kauai offers a more secluded, slower-paced island vacation on its splendid, lush Napali Coast, sunny South Shore beaches, and the sleepy quaint town of Hanalei. The Big Island is a good choice for families, as there are tons of active adventures with a scientific spin, including visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and taking a trip to the top of Mauna Kea to see some of the world's largest telescopes at the Keck Observatory. Molokai and Lanai are your best bets are for those truly looking to get away from it all. 2. What's the weather like? There isn't a bad time to visit Hawaii when it comes to warm weather, as temperatures hover around 80 degrees Fahrenheit year-round on all the islands. However, the change in seasons can bring more or less rain; in winter, some beaches become unsafe for swimming due to currents and tides, and hiking trails tend to become flooded. Also, each island has its own unique weather patterns based on elevation and other factors, meaning that you may find rain in one spot and brilliant sunshine just a short distance away—something to consider if you plan to rent a convertible. 3. What are some special Hawaiian activities for kids? Aside from water activities—snorkeling and body-boarding being two popular choices—and outdoor adventures such as zip-lining and mountain tubing that are available around the islands, most of the larger Hawaiian resorts have cultural programs for kids. Everything from storytelling about Hawaiian mythology to native craft-making is often part of the experience. There are also luaus to attend on every island, some more authentic and others more of a show, but most are very kid-friendly. 4. What are some of the best one-day itineraries I can take on each island? On Oahu: You'll be up at dawn due to the time change and dead on your feet by afternoon due to jet lag. Have a sunrise swim, change into walking gear, and head to Diamond Head for a hike. The climb is fairly strenuous—think lots of stairs—but it affords spectacular views of Honolulu, Waikiki, and the ocean. After lunch, nap in the shade, do some shopping, or visit the nearby East Honolulu neighborhoods of Mo'ili'ili and Kaimuki, rife with small shops and good, little restaurants. End the day with an early, interesting, and inexpensive dinner at one of these neighborhood spots. On Maui: If you don't plan to spend an entire day hiking in the volcanic crater at Haleakala National Park, this itinerary will at least allow you to take a peek at it. Get up early and head straight for the summit of Haleakala (if you're jet-lagged and waking up in the middle of the night, you may want to get there in time for sunrise). Bring water, sunscreen, and warm clothing; it's freezing at sunrise. Plan to spend a couple of hours exploring the various lookout points in the park. On your way down the mountain, turn right on Makawao Avenue, and head into the little town of Makawao. You can have lunch here, or make a left on Baldwin Avenue and head downhill to the North Shore town of Paia, which has a number of great lunch spots and shops to explore. Spend the rest of your afternoon at Pa'ia's main strip of sand, Ho'okipa Beach. On the Big Island: Take a day to enjoy the splendors of the Hamakua Coast, or any gorge you see on the road is an indication of a waterfall waiting to be explored. For a sure bet, head to beautiful Waipi'o Valley. Book a horseback, hiking, or 4WD tour or walk on in by yourself (just keep in mind that it's an arduous hike back up, with a 25 percent grade for a little over a mile). Once in the valley, take your first right to get to the black-sand beach. Take a moment to sit here: The ancient Hawaiians believed this was where souls crossed over to the afterlife. Whether you believe that or not, there's something unmistakably special about this place. Waterfalls abound in the valley, depending on the amount of recent rainfall. Your best bet is to follow the river from the beach to the back of the valley, where a waterfall and its lovely pool await. On Kauai: Start your day before sunrise and head west to Port Allen Marina. Check in with one of the tour-boat operators—who will provide you with plenty of coffee to jump-start your day—and cruise the iconic Napali Coast. Slather up with sunscreen and be prepared for a long—and sometimes big—day on the water; you can enjoy a couple of mai tais on the return trip. Something about the sun and the salt air conspires to induce a powerful sense of fatigue—so don't plan anything in the evening. The trip also helps build a huge appetite, so stop at Grinds in Hanapepe on the way home. 5. What are some Hawaiian "street foods" I must try? For something easy, inexpensive, and very local, try a "plate lunch," which usually consists of a main entrée (often meat-based), a scoop of macaroni salad, and two scoops of rice. Also cheap and filling is Spam musubi, a Hawaii-only version with the canned ham topping the traditional Japanese rectangular seaweed-wrapped rice snack. Everyone will love "shave ice" (note: not "shaved ice," which if uttered will immediately let people know you're a tourist), a plastic cone filled with extremely finely-shaven ice, sweetened with food coloring and often topped with a scoop of ice cream plus a dusting of tart li hing power, made from dried plum. Also don't miss the great fresh fruits, baked goods, at roadside stands and weekly farmers markets. REAL DEALS! See Budget Travel's hand-picked vacation package deals for Hawaii Earlier: Reader tips on where to eat and sleep in Hawaii
Click fast: 99-hour sales in the Caribbean & Mexico
It's high season in Mexico and the Caribbean, which means people are flocking to the warm sand and sun down south—doesn't that sound nice, especially with this huge snowstorm moving across the country? The good news is that deals don't disappear during the high season—sometimes, you just have to dig a little to find them. One strategy is to sign up for online newsletters, which often offer exclusive savings on packages and hotel stays. If you're looking for deals just in the Mexico and Caribbean, try signing up for CheapCaribbean.com's newsletter. CheapCaribbean.com has these 99-hour sales that happen so fast, even we have trouble keeping up with them. The sales happen weekly, starting on Mondays at 9 p.m. Eastern and ending Friday at midnight. You can save up to 70 percent on vacation packages in the Bahamas, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Riviera Maya in Mexico, and plenty more. And now, if you sign up for the CheapCaribbean.com free newsletter, they'll release the sale to you in advance. So you get a few hours' head start on all the other people hoping to book. Currently, the "Groundhog Day" 99-hour sale features packages like a 7-night stay with airfare to the Barcelo Maya Caribe and Beach resort in the Riviera Maya, starting at $799 per person. Next week's theme is Valentine's Day, followed by Mardi Gras. Not sure where to go? Our Nonstop Caribbean tool shows all the nonstop flights to the Caribbean from major U.S. cities, so you can get to the beach faster. And for more trip ideas, check out our Real Deals section, currently with 148 deals to destinations around the world, from $24 a night.