A week at the beach? A Caribbean cruise? Europe by train?
If you’re like most Americans, you’ve already begun to daydream about your big summer trip. But before you pack your bags, make sure that you’re getting the most for your money—no matter where you’re planning to go.
To help you plan wisely, we’ve rounded up the major industry changes in hotel rewards, cruises and transportation that will affect summer travel this year—some may have you jumping to book that getaway, while others might make a staycation look better and better.
1. Hotels That Aren’t So Hospitable
If there were a Sad-Trombone Award for summer travel, this year’s first-place prize would go to hotel rewards points. Three major brands—Marriott, Hilton and Starwood—have increased the amount of points needed to book a free hotel room.
Marriott Hotels, which includes Ritz Carlton and Fairfield Inn & Suites, among others, has moved 36% of its properties (more than 1,000 hotels) into higher rewards categories. This means that some hotels that used to require 15,000 points per night to book a free room now require 20,000 points; others that used to require 30,000 points now demand 35,000. What’s more, 13 of the brand’s properties have been placed in Category 9—a new designation requiring 45,000 points for a free room.
If you have points to redeem, and want to get the best deal, book your room now. The changes go into effect on May 15, but all rewards points bookings made before that date will be honored at the price point at which they were booked.
Hilton’s most significant changes come in the form of what they’re calling Seasonal Pricing. Previously, the amount of rewards points needed to book a free room was the same throughout the year, but it now varies based on demand. This is good news for people who want to travel during the shoulder season, when demand for rooms is low, explains public relations executive Matt Kochis. “For example, you had to use the same amount of points to stay in Park City, Utah, in the summer as in the winter,” he says. “With seasonal pricing, members have the opportunity to book at a number of hotels using [fewer] points, depending on the time of year.”
Although this is true, for those traveling during the summer months when demand peaks, seasonal pricing means shelling out significantly more rewards points as was previously required. The changes span the entire brand, including Waldorf Astoria, Doubletree, Hampton Inn and more.
Members of Starwood Hotels and Resort’s loyalty program—including Sheraton, Westin and W Hotels—will notice that 20% to 25% more points and cash are required to book rooms via the brand’s Cash & Points program. For example, before the change, a room in a category 6 hotel, like the W New York in Times Square, would have required 8,000 points, plus $150. Now the same room requires 10,000 points, plus $180. On the upside, the new model lets members use their points for upgraded rooms and suites, an option that wasn’t available before.
Thankfully, not all the news is bad. Last month, Hilton introduced a 5th Night Free benefit for Silver, Gold and Diamond elite members who use their points to book Standard Rooms for five consecutive nights or more. And Starwood and Delta Airlines recently announced a partnership called Crossover Rewards that gives reciprocal benefits to Delta Skymiles Medallion Members and Starwood’s SPG elite members.
For example, an SPG elite member flying to Tokyo would earn SPG points plus SkyMiles—and would enjoy all the benefits a SkyMiles member would, like a free checked bag. Likewise, a Delta SkyMiles member staying at a Starwood property would be treated as an elite SPG member, with priority check-in, late check-out and free in-room Internet. “It’s the first partnership of its kind in hotel-airline history,” says Maire Griffin, who’s in charge of public relations for Starwood’s SPG program.
2. Cruise Control
For the past several years, major cruise lines have lured summer travelers with rock-bottom prices. This year they’re making a different appeal to customers, says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic. “This is something I’ve never seen before,” she explains. “There aren’t a lot of bargain-basement prices, but cruise lines are throwing in a lot more extras, like free cocktails and free gratuities.”
These freebies may sound trivial, but when you consider that it’s easy to pay more for extras than for the cruise itself, they add up to significant savings. “If you do the math, the cruise can actually turn out to be cheaper this way,” Brown says.
You can also score great deals on European cruises this summer. “Cruise lines saw that Europe was becoming more popular with their customers, so they overcommitted ships,” says Brown. Since there are now more cabins than customers, prices have been slashed. European cruises don’t always include airfare, so you have to factor that into the cost. But even with that, says Brown, it can still work out to be an excellent bargain.
Perhaps the greatest deal to be had—this or any summer—is a repositioning cruise. At the end of every season, cruise ships make one-way trips back to their home ports, and they’re always looking for customers to fill the boats. The trips are one way, and they can mean a lot of time at sea because they don’t stop at as many ports as a standard cruise, but the prices can be as low as $30 a day—an unheard-of price for any other type of cruise.
3. Planes, Trains and Automobiles
There’s been a lot of media buzz about the airline industry adopting what it’s calling a New Distribution Capability—a benign way of saying that customers will be charged different amounts for seats depending on whether they’re flying for business or pleasure, where they’re flying from and how often they fly.
The bad news: The rumors are true. The good news: The changes won’t affect travel for summer 2013. “We will begin pilot projects in 2013-2014, but these will not be broad-based trials,” says Perry Flint, head of corporate communications for the International Air Transport Association (IATA). “We anticipate deployment could begin in 2015-2016.”
If you’re hoping to travel Europe by train this summer, choose your Eurail pass carefully. As of this year, the Eurail Select Pass no longer includes train travel within France. To visit that country, you’ll need a Eurail Global pass. On the upside, Turkey became a Eurail pass member this year, and the country is accessible with both the Select and the Global passes.
Road trippers won’t be quite as hard hit as in the past few summers. Gas prices, of course, tend to follow demand, peaking during summer months. This year doesn’t look to be any different, but according to the U.S. Energy Department, the overall predicted median price for 2013 is lower than last year—an estimated $3.56 per gallon versus $3.63 in 2012. Gasbuddy.com’s annual forecast looks promising too. Last year’s predicted summer prices ranged from $3.80 to $3.91, while this summer’s fall between $3.60 and $3.73. A small savings, perhaps, but with hotel rewards points losing value, and airlines threatening to charge more in the future, any silver lining is a welcome one.
By Beth Collins, LearnVest
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