3 Easy Strategies to Pare Travel Costs
By Christopher Elliott
reprinted with permission from the Microsoft Small Business Center
Pinching pennies is a time-honored tradition among many travelers. But it’s a practice that’s now gaining increasing popularity among an unlikely group: business travelers.
Road warriors long have had rich tastes in travel. Back in the late 1990s, when the economy was white-hot, they routinely bought expensive airline tickets and stayed in pricey hotels while away on business.
But those lavish expenses paid by travelers have since dwindled back toward the mainstream of travel. The average airfare paid by a business traveler was $559 in early 2000 and dropped further to $500 for the same period in 2003, according to Topaz International, an airfare auditing firm in Portland, Ore.
Hotel rates paid likewise are on the decline. The average per-night rate for a full-service hotel in an urban market was $121.02 per night during the first quarter of 2000. Three years later, the average price was $117.55 per night, according to the Hospitality Research Group of PKF Consulting in Atlanta.
Is corporate travel getting cheaper? Or are business travelers becoming miserly?
The answer: Both — but especially the latter. When the economy cooled off, road warriors and their employers became more price-conscious. They refused to pay $2,000 walk-up fares that could be booked for $200 if they agreed to stay over on a Saturday night. This fundamental — and likely permanent — shift in behavior has basically made professional travelers act a lot more like vacationers.
In a 2003 survey of corporate travel managers, the National Business Travel Association found more than half the respondents had implemented cost-cutting measures. Among the favorites: buying cheaper, but more restrictive, airline tickets; booking less expensive cars; and heading to the suburbs for downscale, down-priced hotel rooms.
But you probably already knew that. What about other ways of cutting costs? Here are three tips favored by the travel pros:
1. Hone your fare-search tactics.
Almost anyone with a Web browser knows that if you click on Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity, you’ll get a pretty good look at a reasonably priced hotel, airline ticket or rental car. Many travelers also hedge their travel purchases with sites such as Priceline and Hotwire, which frequently outdo the big three. But wait, there’s more. Did you know about Sidestep, which culls low fares from a variety of travel sites? How about SmarterLiving or Travelzoo — Web sites that list super-discounted airfares that you might not find anywhere else? Ever hear of LastMinuteTravel.com or Site59, which offer distressed travel inventory? The passengers who save big bucks have. Jean Freeland, a Web site editor in Monroe, La., subscribes to "every travel e-mail newsletter I can find" — particularly those related to destinations she visits, because they often contain unpublished deals. "I’ve saved money, especially when I’ve looked for a hotel on the lower end of the price scale," she says. Strategy:
Spend time on the Internet trawling for new fare-search resources when you’re not pressed to make a booking. Only a few minutes of surfing — and bookmarking the results — can make a huge difference the next time you’re buying travel.
2. Master the system.
When business travelers got cheap, so did the airlines, hotels and car rental agencies serving them. Airlines, for example, adopted policies like "no waivers, no favors," designed to keep passengers from manipulating the system. So the truly savvy business traveler got even smarter. The tools: back-to-back tickets and their cousins, the hidden-city and open-jaw ticket. Jessica Gordon, a director for an economic development company in Bradley Beach, N.J., stays flexible so that when an airline overbooks a flight, she can volunteer for a travel voucher. "I always ask if a flight is overbooked," she says. Granted, as a business traveler, you won’t always have the time to wait around for the next flight. But if you do, you could get a free ticket for your time. If you know the system, you’ll know that the vouchers are there for the asking. Strategy: Befriend a travel agent. A competent travel counselor not only will help you plan the more complex trips that are too difficult to do online, but he or she also will happily share all the tips on getting around the system. After the airlines eliminated most travel-agency commissions, it’s the least they would do.
3. Leverage your loyalty.
In a previous business-travel column, I offered seven reasons to stop collecting frequent-flier miles. Some readers agreed with me, but many others thought I’d lost my mind. Well, the good news is, I’m still sane (at least that’s what they tell me). But as a few readers pointed out, loyalty programs are here to stay, too. Although I believe my arguments remain valid, I also think frequent-flier/stayer programs can offer benefits to business travelers that shouldn’t be overlooked. Take airport club access, for example. Ticket agents inside these clubs can often waive rules that front-line ticket agents won’t. Frequent traveler Brighid Wood concentrated her business on one hotel chain, hoping that her loyalty would be rewarded. And it was: She stayed in Hawaii for a week using her points. "I implemented a similar plan for getting cheap airfare," Wood says. "My goal was to keep everything focused. And it worked." Strategy: Single yourself out for preferential treatment. Today’s customer databases are so sophisticated that a hotel clerk or ticket agent can often tell how good a customer you are. But you shouldn’t hesitate to remind them, especially in an era when customer service levels are hitting new lows. This also applies to getting price breaks from a travel company.
Even if you’re a leisure traveler, consider taking some of these tips to heart. Plan ahead like a pro. Invest some time in finding the right travel sites to book your trips. Learn the system, and how to manipulate it. And turn yourself into an important customer, even if it means collecting a few points.
That’s how the experts do it.