Boo! In a year in which airlines cut flights and imposed fees, hotel rates fluctuated and gas skyrocketed to $4 a gallon, traveling became downright scary. In honor of Halloween, USA TODAY's travel staff share the tricks played on them by the fickle industry — and reveal some surprising treats found on the road.
Trick: Grounded by air-travel realities
I'm an innocent who still marvels at the miracle of flying. I've been blessed over the years by having remarkably few bad experiences, and I even forgive the industry's growing stinginess in charging for blankets, food, extra bags and headphones.
Same thing with security — I get the bigger picture, I go with the flow, and my patience usually has been rewarded. But this year the laws of average caught up with me. In January, a strike by baggage handlers in Buenos Aires meant we never got off the ground in New York.
In February, my flight from Helsinki to New York was rerouted through London because of a security scare elsewhere, causing me to miss a long-planned romantic dinner. In the spring, my jar of precious elderberry preserves was confiscated at security in Canton, Ohio, for being an ounce over the volume limit. In August, I was denied entrance at a security line at JFK because a ticket agent spelled my first name with a 'G' instead of a 'J.'
The final straw came in September when my wife — evacuating from Hurricane Gustav with two Shih-Tzu pups — resorted to tears in Atlanta before ticket agents relented on the one-dog-per-person rule. And on and on. I hated losing my innocence.
Treat: An appetizing deal from Ducasse
Is this the bargain of the year, or an indicator of how desperate things are — and are going to get — in the upscale restaurant industry?
Multi-Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse, who operates some of the priciest eateries in the world, offers a $1 appetizer at his Benoit bistro in New York. The "egg mayo," on the menu since the April opening, resembles a deviled egg and comes with a slice of toasted French bread and a lettuce leaf.
Maybe this tasty morsel is just Ducasse's wry commentary on the state of the economy — all of the other appetizers cost an average of $14. Or it could be that he's pulling out all the stops to keep customers coming through the door of his restaurant, which is located on some of the most expensive real estate in the country.
If it's the latter, he's joining the legions of restaurateurs across the country who are lowering prices, adding low-cost bar menus, offering coupons and two-for-one specials and expanding their open hours to keep traffic flowing. Consumers should take advantage of these deals while they can because the cost of produce and ingredients continues to rise and restaurateurs' rents probably aren't coming down.
Trick: Even the fleas had vacated
Here's what almost $200 a night bought in the way of lodgings last month on a trip to the French Mediterranean island of Corsica: a tiny, grim room with bad carpet, acoustical tile ceiling and threadbare linens. And that was the off-season rate.
I realize the beleaguered dollar is partly to blame for landing many Americans in down-market digs. (The euro was trading at $1.47 during my visit). And I'm always annoyed by U.S. travelers who venture abroad and complain that conditions aren't more like those at home. But surveying that hotel room, as I mentally tallied the tab, had me wishing there were more moderately priced European hotel chains à la those in this country — colorless, maybe, but predictable. And affordable.
On the final night, I was without reservations in a city that was hosting an international road rally, and rooms of any sort were scarce. I finally located one in a run-down fleabag for the rock-bottom rate of $60. I slept in my clothes.
Treat: Get on the bus. Really.
When I was 16, I rode a Greyhound bus from Virginia Beach five hours home to Washington, D.C. I sat in the back near the bathroom, where the door flew open at inopportune times and my seatmate wanted to know if I'd ever used heroin or whether I'd done time. (No and no.)
I'm happy to report times have changed. In March, Greyhound Lines rolled out its BoltBus service, which makes short-haul, low-cost runs between New York and Washington, Boston and Philadelphia. The shiny new buses have extra legroom, plus Wi-Fi and power outlets. And with a graduated fare structure, they're cheaper than driving. (Fares between Washington and New York, for instance, are $1 to $25 each way. The earlier you book, the less you pay).
Moreover, the bus caters to a healthy demographic mix — families, students and solo riders of all ages. The driver was courteous. The restroom functioned. And no one, not once, asked me if I'd ever done time.
Kitty Bean Yancey
Trick: A license to print money?
How much does it cost to print a boarding pass? A few pennies worth of paper; ink and printer wear and tear, maybe.
In the past, this was a service found for free at hotel-lobby computer terminals or from accommodating front desk staffers and concierges. Having a boarding pass in hand saves a stop at the airport check-in area; checking in early also can assure a better seat.
Now more hotels are charging to print that pass, whether in the business center or at kiosks that swallow a credit card before spitting out that precious piece of paper.
In Las Vegas, it cost me $5.99 at a kiosk in the Sahara Hotel & Casino, and the MGM Grand also charged for the service. Hotels elsewhere are doing this, too. And I'm still fuming.
Treat: Hard to trump this hotel deal
As the hotel-condo market continues to slump (folks who can't find financing are even walking away from deposits), rates at some high-end properties have skidded.
In June, I was pleased to score a $199 studio in Las Vegas at Donald Trump's new Trump International Hotel & Tower, a gleaming non-gaming glass tower where every room and suite was designed as an upscale condo. Each boasts built-in bookcases with objets d'art, granite-countered kitchens with stainless-steel appliances, and spacious marble bathrooms decked out with tubs, TVs whose images appear in the mirror and separate glassed-in showers.
Add discreet and deferential service (no "you're fired!" attitude here) for a posh hideaway that defies the bawdy, gaudy, rowdy Sin City stereotype. Talk about hitting a luxury-hotel jackpot.
Trick: Carry me back to the old days
With most U.S. airlines implementing fees for checked bags this year, it was time to review my packing strategy to make sure everything could fit within a reasonably sized carry-on (fanciful footwear, out; monochromatic wardrobe, in). Only it turns out other people had the same idea: on my most recent domestic flights, the overhead luggage bins were stuffed well before most passengers had boarded.
These cramped conditions created a Lord of the Flies effect, where people felt no shame in shoving other suitcases aside to find space for their own overpacked rollies. Although the flight attendants did their best to control the chaos by gate-checking bags, the process backed up boarding for more than 15 minutes — and added stress to an already cranky atmosphere. As one packed bin flew open during takeoff, I couldn't help wondering how much the airlines were compromising safety to boost their bottom line.
Treat: New iPhone goes the extra mile
There are many reasons to rationalize buying the new iPhone, but I made my case after discovering and downloading a myriad of travel applications from the iTunes store. And what a difference they made, for trips both international and domestic. I used a currency tracker to convert dollars into colones in Costa Rica, consulted Yelp.com for restaurant recommendations in Vermont's rural Northeast Kingdom, and learned a couple of crucial French phrases (from a program that even provided pronunciation help) to ask for directions on Quebec's Ile d'Orleans. Plus the iPhone makes it easy to post pictures and update status lines on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. With flexibility like this, I couldn't have a better travel companion.
Trick: And good luck filling the tank
No Cobalt for you! Just as countless car dealerships are stuck with SUVs on their lots as gas prices surge, so too are the nation's car rental firms, prompting many travelers to be hit with the dreaded "involuntary upgrade." So even if you've reserved a frugal Ford Focus, you could easily end up with a behemoth truck at the counter.
Treat: Google Maps: Who needs GPS?
For those who haven't joined the GPS navigation revolution, you may be already holding a partial solution. Download the free mobile version of Google Maps on your smartphone, and you'll have many of the same navigation and travel services as a car-based system.
On a road trip through the busy Northeast Corridor this summer, I downloaded the tool on a BlackBerry. It immediately picked up the embedded GPS chip and helped me determine that an alternate route south would save me from New York City traffic. It then helped me find a non-fast-food restaurant along I-81 in Pennsylvania.
Did you have any unexpected pleasures – or hassles -- this year? Share your travel tricks and treats below.