They sound too good to be true: $10 flights, $93-a-night hotels in Miami (including a free night's stay), $9.99 a day weekend car rentals and half-off trips to Australia. Believe it or not, these were all recently available -- but only if you knew where to look.
If you haven't yet gotten involved with social media, now's the time to start. Savvy travelers have been looking to Facebook, Twitter, Loopt, Foursquare and other social media sites to find the latest available bargains from airlines, tour providers, cruise lines, hotels and restaurants. Even convention and visitors' bureaus have gotten in on the action, publicizing deals and promotions through their respective Facebook and Twitter feeds. Travel providers are using these sites to unload last-minute airfares, hotel rooms and other unsold inventory.
Where to Look
Virtually every major player in the travel industry has a presence on Facebook and Twitter. If you haven't set up accounts on these social media giants, do so. Once you're a member, search for your favorite travel companies' pages, and "like" (for Facebook) and follow (for Twitter). Similar to e-mail alerts, companies will now notify you through their Facebook and Twitter feeds about the latest company happenings, including new sales, ultra-limited-time offers, extra perks and more.
JetBlue, for example, is highly active on Twitter; AirTran often announces short-term sales exclusively on Facebook.
You may also want to follow key industry players. Columnist Eileen Ogintz tweets about family vacation deals and other family travel news; Rick Seaney covers the latest in air travel; and Pauline Frommer discusses all things travel.
If you have favorite travel columnists or publications, there's a high likelihood they're tweeting about their picks and pans within the industry. If you're wary about following a bunch of companies (e.g., don't want a ton of alerts in your daily feeds), keeping abreast of a few experts can be as close to one-stop shopping as you can get using social media.
When to Look for Travel Deals
Once you've been tracking your favorite providers for awhile, you may start to notice several patterns. For example, JetBlue releases its "Cheeps" fares (ultra-cheap, ultra-last-minute) on Tuesday mornings around 10 a.m. EST. Flights tend to start around $10 each way and are available for travel on select days within the coming week. With other providers, you may find no pattern at all; some deals are catch-as-catch-can, and it's best to monitor on a regular basis. AirTran, Frontier, United, and Virgin America, for example, offer unsold inventory at rock-bottom prices over Twitter, but with no set schedule, fares or amount of seats -- the deals truly are first-come, first-served, and once the low fares are sold, they're gone.
Even if you miss a sale deadline, though, sometimes you might still get lucky. We've occasionally found Cheeps in the evening, well after the sale has been removed from the JetBlue site. This may be the exception to the rule, however, and booking once you find a good price for your budget is still the best strategy.
The get-it-before-it's-gone mentality also reigns supreme at hotels. It's not unusual for individual city hotels to have their own Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, with updates on events, sales, and more. For example, the Hotel Carlton in San Francisco recently tweeted a 24-hour sale; the Hilton Milwaukee publicized a special promotion for the city's Wine and Dine Wisconsin weekend; and the Venetian Las Vegas posted a gaming-perks and discounted suite package. Be sure to check the social media feeds from your favorite properties and brands to get the latest deals and updates.
Social Media Travel Perks
Beyond deals, social media sites are becoming effective tools for customer service. Delta uses its Twitter feed to provide real-time customer service assistance, as does Hyatt with its HyattConcierge Twitter account.
"Without question it's been very helpful [for customer service]," says Pete Myers, co-owner of EuroCheapo, in regard to his company's presence on Twitter. "We can receive direct questions and comments about how our site works, and we can answer directly. Frequently we'll have people following, asking us for advice on hotels and we can have an ongoing conversation with them. They benefit from it, we love it, and then others who aren't directly involved with that conversation can still view it and see some helpful tips and feedback."
Perhaps the biggest benefit, though, is the fast response time that Twitter affords. Unlike calling in to a customer service number, where you could lose a lot of time on hold waiting for a human representative, Twitter broadcasts your message to staff waiting to interact with you.
"There's never a question that's too small or large," says Myers. "One of the biggest benefits of these social media sites is the ability for travelers to get in contact with real people at these companies. It's a chance to receive feedback quickly through these new channels, and people should take advantage of it."
When you consider the broadcast nature of Twitter, its one-to-many form of communication, the value of a speedy response becomes evident—especially if you have a negative comment, experience, or complaint. Companies know that addressing your issue quickly will score points both with you, the customer, and other potential customers seeing your feedback.
Sarah Pascarella is a Senior Editor for Smarter Travel and writes the Sarah's Travel Tips column. She shares the best advice for travelers on issues including booking, planning, comfort, safety, and convenience. SmarterTravel provides expert, unbiased information on timely travel deals, the best value destinations, and money-saving travel tips.