3 things travelers will lose and gain in this recession

Kiss those little bottles of lotion goodbye.

But don’t despair. You stand to gain better things, thanks to the ailing economy. That includes free Wi-Fi in more places, better customer service and of course, many unbelievable bargains.

“The advantages may exceed the losses,” said James Chung, president of market research firm Reach Advisors. The soft economy has already forced travel companies to “focus on what really matters for their customers: value and service,” he said.

We could use a little good news. Travelers are in a dark mood these days, with nearly one in every four Americans canceling a planned vacation, according to a recent Sun Life Financial survey. Older Americans are likelier, by a few percentage points, to call off their planned getaway.

Are we missing out?

Lauren Goldenberg thinks so. She’s a travel agent who specializes in family vacations, and from her perspective, these are the best of times to travel. “I haven’t had any clients return from trips in the past few months complaining about any noticeable decrease in services or amenities,” she told me. On the contrary, they’re raving about the experience, maybe because the crowds have dispersed and the prices are at historic lows.

“I’m sure that the resorts, cruise lines and tour operators are finding ways to lower costs in a variety of ways,” she said. “We shall see what the future may bring.”

Possible losses
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here’s what we’re likely to lose in the recession:

Hotel amenities
One of the first things travelers noticed after the economy headed south was that resort amenities, such as washcloths and little bottles of lotion, had disappeared from their rooms. But that’s only half the story.

“The downside — particularly to a long recession — is that many hotels fall down on both quality of service and product,” said Vijay Dandapani, the president of Apple Core Hotels, a group of budget Manhattan hotels. Renovation programs are reduced or canceled, along with staff training programs. “Other items include diminished variety in breakfast items — if offered free — and lower staffing, resulting in longer wait times.”

Hotels are trying to minimize the effect on guests. Michael Petrone, the director of AAA’s tourism information development, said resorts are ratcheting back “in creative ways,” such as blocking off sections of empty rooms to conserve energy costs or reducing restaurant hours.

Free carry-on luggage
You can blame snarky travel columnists like me who asked — rhetorically, of course — what airlines would think of next when it came to fees. It was almost an invitation to the profit-starved airlines. We might as well have said, “Go on, charge us for our carry-on bags!”

What were we thinking? There’s every indication the airline industry is flying in that direction. For example, US Airways recently reduced the size limit on its carry-on baggage to 44 linear inches from 51 inches, a move that other airlines, including Continental, made last year.

Last summer, after several airlines instituted a $15 fee for the first checked bag, my colleague Ron Goltsch predicted the end to free carry-on bags and there’s almost no evidence that that carriers aren’t seriously considering such a move, now that their no-free-checked-bags scheme is generating tens of millions of dollars in what it euphemistically calls “ancillary” revenue.

An airline
Ever since last spring, when a series of airlines went belly-up in the wake of soaring fuel costs, the airline “deathwatch” has been a favorite sport of airline observers. Technically, Northwest Airlines is the biggest casualty. It officially merged with Delta Air Lines recently, presumably because it couldn’t survive on its own.

Who’s next? No one knows. But you don’t have to be an overpaid airline analyst to be able to read the latest earnings reports and conclude that some American carriers are flying toward their doom. Will it be US Airways, which suffered a $541 million loss in the fourth quarter? Or United Airlines, which had almost identical numbers?

Maybe it’ll be the new Delta/Northwest, which endured an eye-popping $1.44 billion loss for the same quarter. Then again, as the country’s No. 1 airline, it might be too big to fail. No matter: Odds are, one of the legacy airlines will probably go down as a result of the recession.

Likely gains
Cheer up! Here are three things we’ll gain from the current economic malaise:

Free Wi-Fi everywhere
A lousy economy has apparently increased our appetite for access to a free, high-speed wireless network. Travel companies are complying. “Wi-Fi will become more widespread in airplanes, trains and taxis,” predicted Dale Eastlund, a senior director at the travel-consulting firm CWT Solutions.

Take Southwest Airlines, which recently announced that it had equipped one aircraft with Wi-Fi technology and would roll out three additional wireless-enabled aircraft by this spring. I had several exchanges with Yahoo!, which is collaborating with Southwest to create an in-flight homepage for the service, and was told Wi-Fi would be free for the foreseeable future.

If Southwest imposes no Wi-Fi charges, then it would set an interesting precedent for the airline industry. Free Wi-Fi is practically a standard in the lodging business. Nearly nine out of every 10 hotels in the United States offer Wi-Fi, but only 16 percent charge for an Internet connection, according to a recent American Hotel & Lodging Association survey. If that happened on planes too — now that would be something.

Upgraded customer service
“Competition is fierce,” said Tom Kelley, a managing partner for Concept Branding Group, a hospitality-consulting firm. “Hotel and restaurant service staff knows their jobs depend on getting and keeping business.”

Travel experts aren’t unanimous on this point. Andrea Stokes, the vice president of travel and leisure at the market research firm Synovate, believes the opposite will happen — that as travel companies lay off workers, they can “expect service to decline.”

I think both are correct. At some companies, and certainly in the short term, it’s possible that customer service will go in the toilet. But at others — and hopefully in the long term — the tanking economy will make travel companies appreciate their customers. There’s no downside to that.

Lots and lots of bargains!
No two ways about it: As the economy reels, we should expect to find deals on everything from airfares to all-inclusive resort stays. Greg Walton, a cruise ship design specialist at the architecture firm RTKL Associates, told me bargain hunters will have an opportunity to upgrade to a lifestyle they might otherwise never afford, particularly at sea.

“Some travelers will be able to experience more luxurious travel arrangements than they have been able to afford in the past,” he said. Add in the fact that most cruises are all-inclusive — meaning that meals are part of the price — and your vacation may cost less than your apartment rent.

As a matter of fact, the entire travel industry is on sale now. Everywhere you look there’s a hotel offering a free night, a car rental company with an upgrade offer, or a restaurant with a two-for-one special. As I pointed out in a recent column, these bargains aren’t always legit. But there’s only one way to find out.

Bottom line: The recession will be good for travelers. “We have almost nothing to lose and everything to gain,” said Daniel Levine, the executive director of guidebook publisher Avant-Guide Institute.

Remember, when the economy bounces back, all bets are off. So take advantage of this while you can.

Spring broke: 6 secrets for traveling free

The promise of a free vacation used to be such a predictable come-on from a shady timeshare salesman or a questionable travel club, that all but the most gullible travelers ignored it.

Not anymore.

Free isn’t just a legitimate goal for your next trip. It might be a realistic one, too.

Sure, the criminals pushing useless fractional ownerships and pyramid schemes are still out there, and you still have to beware of them. But Shannon Huffman Polson discovered that in a recessionary economy, you can score a free vacation, or something close to it.

For an upcoming trip to New Zealand with her husband, Polson is cashing in 80,000 airline miles (a free ticket) staying with friends (free accommodations) and hiking in the great outdoors (also free). When they aren’t staying in someone’s home, they’ll be camping (free). Polson, a former marketing executive who lives in Seattle, figures they’ll have to spring for a few nights at a hotel, so the trip won’t be totally free. “But we’ll be saving money while seeing the country,” she told me.

Polson is hardly alone. Travelers are no longer content with a bargain. Now they want everything free.

The travel industry knows it. The major American destinations didn’t wait for the National Bureau of Economic Research to declare the U.S. economy in a recession before releasing their lists of free things to do around town. Did you know, for example, that the Port of Houston Authority offers a free 90-minute cruise along the Houston Ship Channel? Or that The Indianapolis Museum of Art, one of the top art museums in the country, always offers free admission?

Can travel companies do better? They’re trying. It all depends what your definition of “free” is. There’s an abundance of two-for-one offers, but they require that you spend money. For instance, as I write this, the Rosen Shingle Creek here in Orlando has an offer that lets you book four nights and stay an additional three nights for “free.” Likewise, the Orlando World Center Marriott offers the fourth night free when you book four nights.

If your concept of “free” is a little more flexible — and the travel industry thanks you in advance for that — then you can always burn some of those hard-earned award miles for your next vacation. You paid a lot of money to earn those points, of course. I asked my friends over at Expertflyer.com, who track mileage redemptions, if they’ve seen any uptick in the rates at which passengers are cashing in miles for award tickets and upgrades, and was told there’s “a definite interest” although it’s still too early to call it a full-fledged trend.

But let’s keep our old school definition of “free” for the purposes of this story. How do you travel without paying?

1. Reset your expectations
If you think you’ll visit a theme park, luxury hotel or cruise ship and not pay a dime, you might be disappointed. As a result, a lot of travelers have changed their vacation expectations, says travel expert Pauline Frommer. “There seems to be a different mindset governing the entire enterprise,” she told me. “People seem to be more interested in the destination — its cultural aspects, its attractions, its history — than obsessing over their hotel rooms, the hottest clubs or meal choices.” Of course, culture is relatively inexpensive when compared with indulgences like a spa visit or a gourmet meal. Some of it is even free.

2. Network with other freeloaders

The Internet is buzzing with forums and blogs dedicated to free travel opportunities. Those include sites such as Couchsurfing, which connects locals and travelers, and Global Freeloaders which helps you find free accommodations. “People on these sites open their homes to travelers who want to not only stay for free, but who also want to make connections in the places they are visiting,” says Susanna Zaraysky, author of the upcoming book “Travel Happy, Budget Low.” “It’s a great way to meet new people.” Zaraysky says she’s “couchsurfed” in Los Angeles, Chicago, Berlin, Frankfurt and is about to stay at a farmhouse in the countryside for nine days at zero cost.

3. Get a travel job
There are lots of jobs that let you travel without paying. You could join the legions of whiny business travelers, who have just about managed to suck all the fun out of traveling. Or you could become a whiny travel writer like me. My colleagues and I happily finish the job the road warriors started, and yes, some of them often don’t pay a dime. You could become a courier, a travel agent or a flight attendant, too. If none of those sound appealing — and I wouldn’t blame you if you said “no” to all of the above — then you might just organize a large group of people who want to travel. All you need is 30 people for a cruise or tour, and you travel free, according to Sharon Emerson, who by way of full disclosure is a travel agent but seems to like it.

4. Go to the park
You’d expect any story about “free” travel to include at least a mention of a state or national park. I don’t want to disappoint you. While it’s a fact that some parks are free, most aren’t. For example, last weekend we visited Canaveral National Seashore, one of the most pristine beaches on Florida’s east coast, and we paid $6 to drive in. It costs nothing to walk. But it was well worth the money, especially when compared to a theme park or a resort hotel. Plus, it made for some terrific snapshots of the kids. If you live in a state with many parks, you might consider investing in an annual pass. For just $43, I can buy a year of unlimited access to every Florida State Park, which is considerably less than what a lot of theme parks charge for a one-day admission.

5. Get a smarter phone
One of the biggest controllable travel expenses, particularly for anyone like me who obsessively checks his Facebook, Twitter and e-mail account, is the mobile phone. Add in overseas roaming charges, and you’re looking at taking out a second mortgage when you come home. It’s difficult to turn off your phone in an always-on world, but until the wireless companies are forced to stop charging usurious roaming fees, it’s best to power down your beloved handset. There are better ways to stay in touch. For example, Truphone is an application that allows you to make calls to other landlines, cell phones and send text messages to other phones using a Wi-Fi network. (There’s a charge for those calls, but calls to phones with Truphone accounts are free.) Or you can use a service like Skype to make free Internet-based phone calls from your computer.

6. Be creative
Francesca McLin’s cruises, from Puget Sound to the Chesapeake Bay to Bermuda, have been on the house — or, in this particular case, the boat. How so? She signed up as a crewmember. “In terms of travel costs, chartering a sailboat in most parts of the world will cost more than $3,000 week, and $6,000 if you hire a captain,” says McLin, who runs a blog about free travel. “My trips as crew cost me less than $200 each, which went toward shared food expenses while onboard and fare back home.” Now, this kind of adventure is definitely not for someone like me who turns green on a seesaw. But McLin’s experience makes an important point to the bargain-finders among us. If we want something free, we have to look beyond the ads in the Sunday travel section.

You probably think I’ll wrap up this column by saying something cute about the best things in life being free. Except that’s not true for travel. You’ll still have to pay something to get there, and unless you eat at a soup kitchen, you’ll need to fork over a few bucks for food as well.

But it is true that our new focus on traveling for less has freed us from our enslavement to meaningless creature comforts and mindless amusements. And we may have a better vacation because of it.