9 essential travel strategies for 2009

We’re traveling down an uncertain road this year. Buckle up.

“This kind of reminds me of the old sea maps from the 1300s that showed a coastline with the caption which read, ‘Here be Monsters,’” says Patric Douglas, the chief executive of Shark Diver, a tour operator in San Diego, Calif. “Trying to forecast this thing using any models from the past 20 years will be useless.”

That hasn’t stopped anyone from trying. Take American Express, which delayed publication of its closely-watched business travel forecast by a few weeks this fall to account for Wall Street’s implosion. Amex now predicts the average domestic business trip will cost 2.8 percent more in 2009. But considering the massive cuts in corporate travel and the deflationary pressure of falling fuel prices, its numbers are almost certainly wrong.

What’s going to happen? Nobody really knows. Not for business travel. Not for leisure travel.

Here’s what we do know: Travel will be different next year. Different than it’s ever been. Or ever will be again, probably.

These nine strategies will help you make the most of it:

1. Think outside the travel box
Relying on the same old travel strategies is folly. Think differently in 2009. For example, if you don’t have a lodging budget for your next trip, don’t fret. “Home exchanges have been rising in popularity during the past year,” says Zach Everson, a travel blogger. “I think they’ll see a sharp spike next year.” (He and his wife just bought a house in Louisville, Ky., and they’re looking for ways of making it more attractive for a home swap.)

2. Be a ‘frugalist’ — even if you aren’t one
Almost everyone seems to be cutting back on travel in ’09, and hopping on the cheapskate bandwagon may have its advantages. Guido Adelfio, president of the Bethesda Travel Center, calls these travelers “frugalists” and believes 2009 will be their year. “With deflation, buying-power increases, which is a huge plus for the typical traveler,” he says. “Hotels are all feeling the pressure, as are the airlines.” In other words, buy a pool-view room or an economy class ticket and then wait for the “special offer” to upgrade to business class or get into the suite.

3. Become a price-watcher
When will airfares rise? When will they fall? No one knows for certain, but there are certain people who have a good idea. Like Hugh Crean of Farecast, who says, “Travelers will need to be more savvy at buying at the right time.” With so many dynamics driving prices up and down — such as oil prices, consumer confidence and capacity — Crean expects fares to be more volatile in 2009. Put differently, the deals will come and go faster than perhaps ever.

4. Expect once-in-a-generation sale prices
The bargains in 2009 could be very, very good. Jeffery DalPoggetto, a manager for Tamalpais Travel in Corte Madera, Calif., recently got a preview of what may be in store next year. British Airways offered a four-day sale on its first-class fares during the Thanksgiving holiday. “The usual roundtrip first class fare from San Francisco to London is $20,128,” he says. “They cut it to $4,774 — or about 75 percent off. Incredible.”

5. Other offers to sweeten the deal
Although many travel companies will slash their prices come 2009, others will probably resist. But if you look closely, you’ll find a bargain there, too. Take hotels, for example. “Instead of looking at the cost per room per night, look a little deeper to find the real deals,” says Glenn Haussman, editor of the Hotel Interactive Network, a lodging Web site. “Rather than dropping room rates dramatically, many hoteliers are throwing in all sorts of free goodies to lure business. That means you can get all sorts of deals such as free room nights, complimentary spa treatments and meal credits.”

6. Play it saf(er)
Now perhaps more than ever, travelers are targets. Do I need to mention Mumbai? That’s an area where travelers need to be “more proactive” says Larry Kaminer of Seattle-based Personal Safety Training Group. A good place to start is by registering with the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in the country you are visiting through the State Department’s Web site . Kaminer says travel will probably feel safer in 2009 because of the “inevitable increases in security we usually see after high profile acts of terror.” But that doesn’t mean you should let down your guard.

7. Don’t let the dollar stop you
A rebounding greenback can mean destinations that were off-limits to you last year are now accessible. “The strength of the dollar against the British pound means that this is a superb time to take that trip to London,” says Tom Hall, a travel editor for Lonely Planet in London. By using a value rail services like Eurostar or low-budget airlines like Ryanair and easyJet, you can have a surprisingly affordable European vacation.

8. Drive!
“The cost of fuel has gone down so much that it is now cost efficient to drive instead of paying for expensive flights,” says Leon Logothetis, who hosts a TV show called “The Amazing Adventures of a Nobody.” Indeed, at the rate things are going, the summer of 2009 may be known as the summer of the roadtrip. If enough people decide to take a vacation, that is.

9. Wait until the last minute
In the past, you could count on an airline, car rental company or hotel to discount its rates in advance of your departure. But the travel industry is likely to wait longer, hoping you’ll cave in and book at a higher price. That’s especially true for airlines, says travel blogger and author David Reynolds. “With reduced capacity, airlines will wait until the last minute to give big discounts, hoping the smaller earlier sales will lure enough reservations to not have to discount any further.”

If this column makes you want to stay home next year, just close your eyes and count to nine. The feeling will pass. Kristi Jones, the president of the luxury travel agency consortium Virtuoso, says the successful traveler of 2009 will need equal amounts of patience and flexibility. “The world opens to those who have both,” she adds.

I’m optimistic about travel in 2009, too. I admit, I called it the “year of the ‘naycation’” in a recent column. But that’s exactly the point. With more people staying close to home or refusing to travel at all, it means more opportunities for the rest of us. These strategies can ensure you’ll have an excellent trip without overspending.

Come to think of it, maybe 2009 will be your year to vacation.

9 reasons ’09 will be the year of the naycation

If 2008 was the year of the staycation, then ’09 is bound to be the year of the naycation.

As in, nay — we’re not vacationing.

The conventional wisdom about travel is that it will slip by just a few percentage points next year. But the unconventional wisdom — supported by several troubling surveys — points to a much bigger drop.

A recent Allstate poll found nearly half of all Americans plan to cut back on travel in 2009. An International SOS survey says slightly fewer of us — about 4 out of 10 Americans — are reducing their international trips next year. And a Zagat survey says at least 20 percent of us will travel less in ’09.

But that’s just the half of it. I’ve been talking with people in the industry, who tell me — direct quote here — that travel is poised to “drop off a cliff” in January. In other words, people are telling pollsters one thing but making other plans.

Specifically, they’re making no plans.

Here are nine reasons why 2009 will probably be known as the year of the “naycation” — and what it means for you.

The economy sucks
Andrea Funk, the owner of an apparel company in Olivet, Mich., has canceled her travel plans for 2009. “I think we need to see the stock market stabilize and the economy get better before we go anywhere,” she says. At a time of great economic uncertainty, she and her family believe a vacation is a bad idea. “We’re hoping none of use lose our jobs,” she says. However, on the upside, a bad economy often translates into vacation bargains.

Vacation budgets are history
Daniel Senie, a network consultant in Bolton, Mass., used to travel to the Caribbean a few times a year to go diving. “We stopped a few years ago to save funds for a kitchen remodel,” he says. He never looked back. “For me, avoiding air travel is my response to the lousy service by the airlines and TSA mock-security. The airlines have provided worse and worse service in an attempt to hold down prices, in a race to the bottom. Airplanes are dirty, amenities have been cut, and employees are upset all the time.” What does that mean for those of us who still want to vacation? That any vacation budget (even a small one) might take you far next year.

We’re tired of being lied to

People are forfeiting the great American vacation because they can’t stomach the travel industry’s lies anymore. Take the airlines, which earlier this year imposed a series of new surcharges in response, they said, to higher fuel costs. When fuel prices fell, what happened to the fees? They stuck around. “Jet fuel prices have gone from over $140 per barrel in August to under $50 in November, but airfares in October were actually up 10 percent,” says Chicke Fitzgerald, the chief executive of roadescapes.com, a site for road trips. “Americans are definitely voting on that trend with their wallets.” How so? By either vacationing close to home, or just staying home altogether.

We’re a little uncertain about 2009.
With the economy slowing down, uncertainty is keeping a lot of would-be vacationers at home. Melanie Heywood, a Web developer in Sunrise, Fla., says her business has slowed down, and she also recently learned she was pregnant. “We really need to save our money as much as possible,” she says. She’s hardly alone. Consumer confidence fell to its lowest level in history in October before rebounding slightly last month. If you don’t fear 2009, though, you might be able to snag a low price on a vacation.

This year’s staycations were boring
No two ways about it, staying close to home and “exploring” the local attractions can be dull, dull, dull. (Unless you live in a place where people like to vacation.) Might as well stay at work. Or take a long weekend and just chill out at home. Which is exactly what more Americans are doing.

The deals are good — but not good enough
I spoke at a travel marketing conference last month, and heard the same refrain over and over again about “rate integrity.” The idea is that if you cut your rates, people will not value your product. Instead, travel companies are offering other enticements, such as two-for-one deals or free room nights. But travelers are holding out for better bargains. “Looking to 2009, it’s likely that we’ll see all kinds of hotel deals to draw consumers in — discounts and special packages,” says Joe McInerney, the chief executive of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, a trade group for hotels. Yes, but when? McInerney believes the deals won’t fully materialize until after the holidays.

People just don’t feel like traveling anymore
Maybe it’s a little vacation fatigue, but there’s a sizeable group of people out there who just don’t want to travel. “I don’t feel any need to go anywhere,” says Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, a communications consultant in San Diego. “Even if someone dumped $50,000 into my bank account, I’d find better things to do with it.” This indifference to vacationing — particularly to traveling far away — can be traced back to the hassle and high prices of travel during the last few years. Simply put, it’s payback time.

The travel industry still doesn’t get it
Some industry segments, such as tour operators, obviously understand that customers want a reasonable price and good service. The most reputable operators, led by the U.S. Tour Operators Association, are offering incentives such financing plans and guaranteed rates. On the other hand, airlines are responding to the lousy economy by boosting fees and surcharges and raising fares instead of raising their customer service levels. That’s going to keep a lot of travelers home in 2009.

We’ve made vacation plans — for 2010
Already, 2009 is being called the “lost year.” That’s what many travelers are treating it like, too. “We have decided to put off our travel,” says writer Brenda Della Casa. “We fully intend to head back to Mexico or Europe — in 2010. Hopefully, things will be more stable.” For the contrarians among us, “discovering” 2009 may mean uncovering a lot of opportunities to see destinations you could have never otherwise afforded.

So how does this affect your next vacation? If you’re brave enough to take one, expect lots of too-good-to-be true deals. Even the smallest vacation budget might be rewarded with a wonderful experience.

Put differently, 2009 may be the year of the “naycation” for everyone else — but for you, it could be the year you take your best vacation ever.