March 15, 2009 -- Business travel is often a casualty in an economic downturn, as corporations tighten spending. This makes it all the more important to stretch your travel dollars as much as possible. Fortunately, many travel suppliers are offering incentives to entice consumers and compete for a larger slice of the shrinking business travel pie. In this buyer's market, it's a great time to renegotiate corporate travel contracts and search for deals. Here are my top ten suggestions to business travelers for weathering the recession.
1. Waiting may pay. In normal times, purchasing travel as early as possible is the best way to lock in the lowest rates. Travel suppliers generally raise prices as unsold inventory depletes. But in an economic crisis, suppliers are more likely to be forced to eat unsold inventory and may offer the best bargains at the last minute as they desperately try to fill unoccupied rooms, seats or vehicles. Hotels and rental cars are most vulnerable, as they cannot easily eliminate capacity to match demand as airlines can by simply grounding flights.
2. Consider booking directly with the supplier. If you aren't locked into a corporate travel program with a specific travel agency, booking directly on supplier websites can often be a cost saver. Many discount airlines like Southwest in the USA, WestJet in Canada, or Ryanair or easyJet in Europe don't sell their seats through all travel agencies or third party websites. You may have to book with these airlines directly. In addition, many hoteliers offer their best rates on their own websites.
3. Re-check prices after purchase. Prices can often drop after you've purchased or locked in a rate. These days it pays to re-check prices numerous times after booking and before your trip. Many suppliers will allow you to rebook at the lower rate if the price drops after booking. Most corporate travel agencies monitor price fluctuations constantly to determine if their clients are eligible for a credit.
Many online travel retailers offer a "best price" guarantee alerting customers when prices fall. Some automatically reclaim refunds or credits on behalf of their customers. Some airlines charge change or rebooking fees, but many do not. With no change fees on Southwest Airlines, I often book flights immediately and then monitor fares on both Southwest and other airlines. If a lower fare appears, it is easy to cancel and rebook at the lower rate. If another airline offers that lower fare, I book it, knowing the funds from the original Southwest ticket may be applied to a future Southwest flight booked within a year of the original purchase.
4. Traditional booking rules may not apply. Airlines have trained travelers to stay over a Saturday night or fly all segments on the same trip on a single airline for the lowest price, but these rules may no longer apply. Many discount airlines, like Southwest, price all flights as one-way segments with no incentive for round-trip purchase. In many cases, other airlines will follow those rules to remain competitive. Booking two one-way tickets on different airlines may allow you to obtain the lowest price (or optimal scheduling) on each segment and split your ticket among multiple airlines if necessary.
5. Consider alternative airports. Airfares and car rental prices may vary wildly between airports across town or an hour or two apart by car. I've saved considerable sums flying into Newark instead of La Guardia, Chicago Midway instead of O'Hare, or Fort Lauderdale instead of Miami and vice versa, depending on local market conditions at any given time. It is always wise to check prices at all airports in the area.
6. Day trips vs. extended trips. With travel budgets under scrutiny, some corporations are encouraging travelers to take more one day trips, eliminating overnight hotel stays. Others are asking travelers to consolidate multiple stops, visits or meetings on a single trip to minimize airfare. Either option can be sound strategy, depending on the airfares and hotel rates in each situation.
7. Suite and extended stay hotels. Whenever possible, I try to stay in suite or extended-stay hotels, such as Marriott's Residence Inns or Hilton's Embassy Suites. These properties generally offer free breakfast, parking, and Internet access, and provide kitchens where you can store and cook your own food. Avoiding the costs of room service and other amenities offered by full-service hotels can offer tremendous savings.
8. Business- and first-class bargains. With many corporations trimming travel budgets and some companies downgrading travelers from first or business class to coach, this is an excellent time to locate bargains in the forward cabins as airlines struggle to fill those premium seats. It is also wise to shop across multiple airlines as first- and business-class fares may vary greatly on the same route. An increasing number of airlines now deploy yield management tactics in business and first class as they've done in coach for years, making it often less expensive to fly business/first class if purchased in advance or if you're willing to add a stop or connection en route. In many cases, airlines allow full-fare coach travelers to upgrade to business or first class for a modest fee, so it's always wise to inquire about this option as well.
9. Stronger dollar for cheaper travel abroad. One benefit of the dismal economic downturn is a strengthening U.S. dollar, making foreign travel less expensive than in previous years. In the last year, the U.S. dollar gained 25 percent against the Euro, 32 percent against the Canadian dollar, and a whopping 43 percent against the British Pound. If you have international business abroad, now is the time to go.
% These days travel suppliers increasingly harness the Internet to unload unsold inventory. In tough times, websites of all kinds abound with bargains and prices that might be lower than negotiated corporate rates. If you aren't locked into negotiated rates this is the time to scour the Internet for travel deals. Good travel deals may be found on hundreds of online travel retailer websites or directly on suppliers' sites. A free subscription to online newsletters offered by many travel suppliers and travel retailers will assure timely delivery of the latest Internet specials direct to your e-mail box as soon as they are available for purchase.
Travelers, are we missing any saving strategies? Please share your cost-saving tips below.
Send David your feedback: David Grossman is a veteran business traveler and former airline industry executive. He writes a column every other week on topics of interest and concern to business travelers. E-mail him at email@example.com.