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Tag Archives: tips

6 questions to save you money on vacation

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When it comes to saving money on travel, we all know to check discount sites, follow our favorite airlines on social media, and monitor our frequent flier points. But did you know that you can save big bucks just by opening your mouth? It turns out that some honest-to-goodness, human-to-human interaction can help you win discounts on hotel, cruise and flight bookings. We asked four travel experts—Matt Kepnes of NomadicMatt.com; George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com; Jaime Freedman of TravelZoo.com; and Clem Bason, president of Hotwire.com—for simple questions every traveler should be asking to save money. Their answers, er, questions, are below.

Is there an upgrade available?
Though it may not be in our nature as Americans to haggle or barter for a deal, never feel too shy to request upgrades at airports and hotels. “Just ask all the time,” says Clem Bason, president of Hotwire.com. “Ninety-eight percent of people simply don’t ask. The worst answer you’ll get back is no.” Jaime Freedman of TravelZoo.com says, “I’ve seen instances where at the very last second they had business class available, so they offered it as an up-sell incredibly inexpensively.” George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com, notes that airlines would rather up-sell you a seat in business or first class at a fraction of the cost than be forced to give away those expensive seats for free to members of loyalty programs. US Airways, for example, runs a last-minute program called GoUpgrades; beginning 24 hours before your flight, unsold first-class seats can be purchased for ­between $50 and $500 depending on the length of the flight. When it comes to hotels, the same policy applies: Ask and you (may) receive. “Always say what you’re celebrating,” says Freedman. “Drop that it’s your honeymoon, your birthday. You just never know what kind of little special things a hotel has in store.” If you have kids, she says, ask about a suite upgrade. And if you’re a member of a hotel chain’s loyalty program, Bason recommends asking for waived fees, free parking, kids’ meals, breakfast or Wi-Fi.

Has the price changed for my seat/room?
“Most people don’t realize that there’s a pretty good chance that a hotel booking is going to go down in price between the time you book it and the time you arrive,” says AirfareWatchdog’s George Hobica. Hotel rooms and airline seats fluctuate in price, so once you’ve booked, it (literally) pays to check the price for a ticket or room every day until your vacation. If you see that the price has gone down, call the airline or hotel directly to see what they can do for you. In many cases, you may be able to cancel your reservation and rebook at a lower price. According to a 2011 post by Hobica on AirfareWatchdog.com, airlines like JetBlue, Southwest and Alaska Airlines may offer you a travel voucher for the difference in price. Others, depending on policy, might simply allow you to cancel your flight and rebook at the lower rate. But buyer beware: Change fees can apply to rebooked flights, so be sure your discount is worth it.

Are you running any local deals?
Being savvy with social media can obviously pay off when traveling. Restaurants, spas and museums may use local deal sites—like Groupon or LivingSocial—to offer discounts on admission or services. It’s always a good bet to sign up in advance for such websites to begin tracking where deals are occurring in your vacation destination. “Go where the deal is,” says Freedman. “More and more companies are starting [to offer local deals] as the competition increases.” Don’t know where to start? Ask your friendly neighborhood concierge, says Bason. This especially applies at resort hotels, he says, where the concierge is likely to have or know about promotions and specials that might not be otherwise advertised. The added benefit is that you get to experience your destination like a local. “When [deals] are sourced locally, it means you’re going to places that aren’t designed for tourists,” says Freedman, and are consequently less expensive. Hey, why should locals have all the fun? 

What’s the resident rate?
What you don’t know about booking a cruise can cost you. One hidden savings gem: the resident rate. You may be able to cruise for less if you’re willing to depart from a port in your own state. And with ports of departure now in over a dozen states, you have a better chance than ever before of being able to leave from your home state. If you live reasonably near a cruise port, ask your agent about the rate for in-state residents, which Freedman says cruises offer at a deep discount to increase sales. “It’s wonderful when you can cruise from home. Basically you’re going on a Caribbean vacation with no airfare.” Freedman notes that while discounts for residents can vary, in-staters may be able to save up to 25 percent on a cruise. In addition, when it comes to cruises, negotiate with your travel agent when you cruise, says Hobica. Agents are offered incentives from the cruise line and can pass that along to you. Don’t be afraid to ask for perks like shipboard credits, which will help you save you on amenities. 

Is there a tourism card available?
Matt Kepnes of NomadicMatt.com suggests always asking at the tourism office about a city pass. Popular destinations like Paris, London and New York offer passes that include admission to high-profile attractions. Some even include free public transportation or allow you to skip notoriously long lines at tourist hotspots. New York City offers several varieties of passes that allow you to tailor your experience. The CityPass ($89 for adults, $64 for children) gets you admission to six main attractions including the Empire State Building Observatory, the American Museum of Natural History, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. You save 46 percent on combined admission—that’s $76 per adult! 

Where are you going tonight?
Ok, that question may sound a little creepy. But don’t let that stop you from asking tourism board or visitor center staffers for their own personal recommendations—not where they send tourists, but where they go themselves. They’ll know where to find the best off-the-beaten-path venues and cultural events, says Freedman, as well as which ones are running deals. When it comes to sustenance, chances are they won’t point you in the direction of expensive tourist traps. As Kepnes says, “You’re not going to find New Yorkers eating in Times Square.” Eating at local restaurants or buying at markets the locals use will save you a huge mark-up and give you a more authentic taste of the area.

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It’s not too early to book Thanksgiving travel, experts say

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It’s not too early to book Thanksgiving travel, experts say

David J. Phillip / AP

In this photo from the day before Thanksgiving in 2011, airline passengers check in for their flight at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. During last year’s Thanksgiving travel season, AAA predicted 42.5 million Americans would fly, drive or travel on train.

While your barbecue grill hasn’t completely cooled off from heavy use this summer, travel experts say it’s not too early to book your Thanksgiving travel plans.

The holiday, just 55 days away, falls on Nov. 22 this year and always draws tens of millions of Americans to the nation’s airports and roads.

Airfares during the holiday week are slightly higher than last year, FareCompare.com CEO Rick Seaney said in a statement, because airlines assume that demand will be high. Additionally, there have already been a number of domestic airfare hikes this year.


Choosing the right travel days over the holiday week could actually help your wallet. Monday before the holiday (Nov. 19) or Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 22) are the cheapest days to fly, according to FareCompare.com. The travel planning site also says you can save up to 20 percent if you book your return flight for any day other than the Sunday or Monday after Thanksgiving.

George Hobica, CEO of Airfarewatchdog.com, recommends that travelers buy tickets for long-haul routes if a fare is under $400. The same “buy now” advice goes for medium-haul routes under $300 and short-haul routes under $200.

“If you want the flight time you want and the seat you want … it may be worth to even overpay,” Hobica told NBC News.

But there’s no need to panic, he added, because fares can still go down for peak Thanksgiving travel. However, if you buy now and find that the exact same flight price goes down in a few weeks, Hobica said some airlines offer a refund of the difference in a travel voucher.

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Since discount carriers (think Southwest or Allegiant) are not always searchable on popular online travel sites like Travelocity or Expedia, Hobica reminds travelers to check the airlines’ sites separately for deals.

Related: How to pay for your vacation

“You basically have the month of October to pull this together,” said Joe Megibow, Expedia’s vice president and general manager. Travelers can expect more packed planes this year as airlines constrain their capacities, he said.

Holding out “can backfire on you,” Megibow warned, who said 21 to 28 days before travel is a good window to book domestic airfares.

Higher prices for air tickets and gas didn’t stop travelers during last year’s Thanksgiving season, when AAA estimated about 42.5 million people were expected to fly, ride trains or drive 50 miles or more from home.

“It is a holiday focused on visiting family and friends,” said AAA spokesperson Cynthia Brough. “There will always be Americans who prioritize that travel in their household budgets. It’s that important.”

If grandma’s house is full and you have to book a hotel, procrastinators should not fear. The ideal booking window for rooms is actually 15 to 18 days before Thanksgiving, according to Hotels.com spokesperson Taylor Cole. Last year, hotels ended up discounting their rates by 30 to 40 percent for the holiday, she added.

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British Airways tests eliminating online check-in

It’s a familiar process to most air travelers by now: Watch the clock before your trip and log on to a computer within 24 hours of your flight to check in online.

But even that simple routine, which has been a huge improvement over the previous tradition of standing in a long queue at the airport, might go away in the future — something industry watchers say isn’t necessarily a plus.

British Airways is testing a new service that will automatically check in passengers before their flights. Selected travelers flying out of airports in France this month are getting the option of being automatically checked in a day before their flight, assigned a seat and sent an electronic boarding pass.


“Customers have so much to think about prior to a trip, be that finishing up in the office or getting the kids’ suitcases packed. We’re aiming to give them one less thing to think about,” said Frank van der Post, the airline’s managing director of brands and customer experience, in a statement.

“They just need to drop off any bags and make their way to the plane.”

The carrier assures that passengers will always be able to choose whether or not to use automated check-in, and get a chance to change their seat assignment if they’re not happy with the one they’re given during the process. Travelers may eventually be able to store their seat preferences in the system to boost their chances of sitting where they want to.

But while British Airways is touting the new service as a time-saving measure, an airline observer was skeptical whether it could be called a perk.

“Many airlines have recently started charging a fee for confirmed seat assignments at booking … then subsequently releasing ‘free’ seats at the 24-hour check-in mark, causing an avalanche of cranky customers digitally arm wrestling for the remaining scraps of aisle and window seats,” said Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com.

“It appears BA is trying to automate this contrived process.”

Seaney noted that carriers including United and Delta hold back a portion of the most desirable seats for those willing to pay extra, elite-status passengers or passengers paying with branded credit cards. They then release or automatically assign “leftovers” untaken at check-in time, he said.

“What passengers really want is to confirm their seats at the time of booking — without a fee,” Seaney said.

British Airways also allows passengers to choose their seats for free within 24 hours of departure, though it notes that the “choice may be limited.” Reserving a specific seat farther in advance may cost extra, depending on your status with the carrier, ticket type and other factors.

The airline plans to extend the automated check-in trial to a larger group of travelers in the spring. If the testing is a success, the carrier plans to make it an option for all of its passengers by the end of 2013.

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Skip to the front of the line with TSA PreCheck

Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

A TSA agent waits for passengers to use the TSA PreCheck lane Oct. 4, 2011, at Miami International Airport. TSA PreCheck is now available at 25 airports.

Do you want to ease through airport security with your belt and shoes on and without having to dump your laptop into a tray like some of the qualified frequent fliers can?


Now that the expedited screening program, TSA PreCheck, is in place at 25 U.S. airports for Alaska, American, Delta, United and US Airways, you don’t need to feel left out if you aren’t an elite frequent flier and haven’t received one of those coveted email invitations from your most-flown airline.

What else you need to know about skipping to the front of the line

A lot of travelers aren’t aware of it, but you can also qualify for TSA PreCheck if you are a member of one of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Trusted Traveler programs, including Global Entry, NEXUS and SENTRI.

It’s more of a hassle to get in than through an airline invite, but there is no minimum number of trips or miles you need to have logged in order to qualify.

To apply, travelers go to CBP‘s Global Online Enrollment System, fill out an online application, and pay a $100 nonrefundable application fee. Then the CBP reviews your application, and notifies you to schedule an in-person interview at one of its Global Entry Enrollment Centers.

Bring proper ID, such as a passport or valid driver’s license, and if you get approved, they’ll take your photo, scan your fingerprints, and you’ll receive a PASS ID with a unique number to enter when you are making your airline reservations.

If you qualify as a Trusted Traveler, you’ll have that information embedded in the barcode of your boarding pass, and you’ll likely be breezing through airport security lanes very soon.

There are no guarantees, though: Even if you qualify, you may be subject to random screening at the airport.

TSA PreCheck currently comes into play for U.S. domestic flights only. The program is on tap to be expanded to an additional 10 airports before the end of the year. 

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Religious pilgrimages spur thriving industry

Gabriel Bouys / AFP – Getty Images

Tourists arrive Sept. 19 at Saint Peter’s Square before Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly general audience.

International religious pilgrimage: the business of devotion and divinity, miracles and mysticism for millions of worshippers. A time of life-affirming contemplation for the faithful … and the lifeblood of the communities surrounding popular shrines.

Global “pilgrimage tourism” encompasses a multitude of businesses from tour operators and shrine administrators, to road-side souvenir stalls and pilgrims’ hostels.

Religious travel generates at least $8 billion a year for shrine-centered economies and provides employment for thousands, according to academics — and being able to measure the celestial and spiritual elements of pilgrimage in monetary terms is far from a modern phenomenon; it’s as ancient as the act of spiritual travel itself.


“Pilgrimage has always been commercial, as has religion,” Manchester University professor Ian Reader told CNBC. “The roots of tourism are in pilgrimage, as the first package tours in Europe were organized by Venetian merchants controlling the Mediterranean. They ran tours to the Christian Holy Land in medieval times.”

Reader is an expert on the economics of pilgrimage. His book, “Pilgrimage in the Marketplace,” will be published in 2013.

“The contributions of pilgrims to local economies cannot be underestimated,” he stressed. “I have seen estimates that in the early 2000s, pilgrimage to San Giovanni Rotondo in Italy [the mystic saint Padre Pio’s pilgrimage site] brought the town some 35 million pounds ($56.8 million) in revenue — and it sustains the local economy.”

Indeed, destinations such as Lourdes or San Giovanni that have built their identity around their shrines, call it religious branding. Entire towns are dedicated to the business of saints. Souvenir stalls, restaurants, hostels and tour operators owe their existence to the 100 million pilgrimages that take place every year.

As with much in the spiritual world, measuring the financial impact of pilgrimage is more art than science. Tourist revenues are subject to seasonal variations, and often the businesses surrounding shrines are reluctant to be seen as mercenaries.

However, tourism scholar S. Vijayanand, author of “Socio Economic Impacts in Pilgrimage Tourism,” published in the “International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research” in January 2012, estimates that pilgrimage tourism is worth up to $8 billion a year globally.

It’s not just spending by tourists generating economic activity. Host countries also benefit from tourist-related infrastructure projects. Saudi Arabia has just approved a development plan costing $16.5 billion to improve transport facilities (including a new rail line dubbed “Mecca Metro”) for the annual 2.5 million pilgrims that visit Mecca on Hajj, the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage duty for all able-bodies Muslims.

In fact, tourist revenues provide much of the cash flow for the Roman Catholic Church.

The Holy See — the church as an economic entity — recorded a budget shortfall of $19 million in 2011. But the Vatican City State — the guardian of the Church’s structures and Museums, including the Sistine Chapel — enjoyed a budget surplus of nearly $22 million, thanks to the fervor of tourists.

The Vatican might be the heartland of Catholicism’s papal leadership, but devotees in search of spiritual succor may opt for Lourdes, the site of a Marian apparition that now boasts one of the biggest shrines in the world.

“The entire economy of towns such as Lourdes is, in effect, based on pilgrimage,” Reader tells CNBC.

Indeed, in 2010 Lourdes’ administrators recorded employment of 30 full-time chaplains, 292 full-time lay employees and a further 120 seasonal employees, accounting for nearly four percent of the area’s total population.

They’re assisted by more than 100,000 volunteers who look after the needs of visitors, many of whom journey to Lourdes in search of miracle recoveries from crippling ailments and disabilities.

Whatever solace pilgrims draw from their sojourn, they return in the way of hard currency. Some 90 percent of Lourdes’ 18 million euro budget is derived from visitor donations.

Some commentators on Catholicism, such as New York Times journalist Jason Horowitz, have bemoaned the commercialism of popular shrines and souvenir stalls, describing the rows of plastic saints or cigarette lighters emblazoned with a benevolent and beatific face as belonging to a “souvenir circus.”

But Reader of Manchester University disagrees. “Souvenirs are an intrinsic part of the pilgrimage market — without them there would be fewer pilgrims, and pilgrim places would be less lively. My studies show a livelier place attracts more pilgrims.”

Related: Wacky souvenirs probably best left unbought

The United Nation’s World Travel Organization reckoned in 2007 that religious tourism, albeit a loose category, was the “fastest growing part of the travel business.”

Indeed in 2007, the Vatican’s pilgrimage office, the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, was so keen to encourage the laity to visit shrines that it struck a five-year contract with Italian cargo airline Mistral Air and started pilgrimage charter flights around the globe under the slogan, “I’m searching for your face, Lord.”

Branding and advertising may be a very modern way of reaching today’s pilgrims but the faithful have taken to the road seeking salvation since the Crusades, said Reader.

Fast-forward a millennium, however, and the competition for pilgrims is heating up with hundreds of pilgrimage tours operating online vying to entice millions of would-be pilgrims to undertake a religious journey.

Priests or other religious scholars often oversee the tours, adding a sense of depth and veracity to the journey. However, one priest told the National Catholic Reporter that the religious experience might be diluted by modernity and indeed, the travel.

Modern pilgrims are keener on capturing the moment on their smartphones than quietly savoring the spiritual experience, said Friar Caesar Atuire lamenting the“kind of absenteeism that’s becoming very pronounced even in our pilgrimages.”

Atheists welcome
Which points to a whole new target group for tourist operators marketing shrine-related packages. If devotees are perhaps becoming less devout, as it were, perhaps their more secular brethren could come to see the cultural attraction of many religious sites.

The European Commission (EC) has recently issued a report that seeks to promote pilgrimage routes as “Cultural Routes”: journeys for everyone, adherent or atheist.

Penelope Denu, administrator of the EC’s “Cultural Routes,” told CNBC that these pilgrimage routes are not only the preserve of the ardent devotee. “More and more people are now doing these routes that have no religious connection,” she said.

Secular and cultural use of pilgrimage routes such as of the Camino de Compostela in Spain means that hundreds of thousands of visitors no longer carry the symbols of a religious pilgrim, such as a “pilgrim’s passport” or oyster shell (a symbol synonymous with Santiago-St. James-of Compostela, to whom the route is dedicated) along the journey.

Business is booming for hostel and business that line the 780-kilometer (485 mile) route — an economic success that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Eurovia, an association for the establishment of European pilgrimage routes, or the Italian State, which has funded a relaunch for an Italian pilgrimage route with a 10 million euro ($12.9 million) grant.

The association is attempting to promote the lesser-traveled Via Francigena, an ancient 2000-kilometer pilgrimage route from Britain to Rome that it believes could rival Spain’s Camino.

Georg Kerschbaum, president of Eurovia, told CNBC that the route is becoming more and more popular, spurring the development of infrastructure, such as sleeping accommodation, along the route.

“The Via Francigena would definitely benefit the local economy — you will get people passing through villages that would never usually be visited,” he said. “Little shops can then survive as pilgrims use the route. It’s amazing for the economy.”

Kershbaum adds that even though the Via Francigena is still not so well known, even if only 500 people a year walked it, “that would be 500 more tourists than there were before.”

Professor Reader notes that “commerce has been intrinsic in pilgrimage from the outset.”

Indeed, from the relics of religion traded for over 2000 years to the modern souvenir stalls of Lourdes or the shrine of “Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico,” the booming business of pilgrimage looks set to stay.

“One should not think that there is a distinct separation of ‘religion/pilgrimage’ and ‘money’ …. Religion and pilgrimage and money go hand in hand.”

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