But doesn't this happen every year, as fall approaches? No. Not like this.
When I talk to travelers who are making plans this autumn, I hear about dramatic, unexpected bargains. Connect the dots with what I'm hearing from travel companies, who are telling me that some rates will be on par with last year's record-low prices, and you might reasonably conclude that things are about to get interesting.
And then there's this: The feeling that the worst is yet to come. Know what I'm talking about? It's like the pit in your stomach right after the first drop on the rollercoaster, that premonition that you're about to go freefalling off a precipice. I don't know why I feel that way, other than the fact that the pundits have been talking about a double-dip recession for the last few weeks.
It wasn't supposed to happen like this. Airfares, car rental rates, cruise prices and hotel rates should be recovering from their record lows in 2010. And for a while, it looked as if that was happening. But one ash cloud, an oil spill and a wobbly recovery later, room rates are basically on a par with last summer's record low rates and air fares, which are up slightly now, are already starting to head south for the fall in selected markets.
Exceptions? Yes, they exist. Car rental rates are rising across the board -- at least for now -- says Jonathan Weinberg, who founded a site called AutoSlash. "We're tracking prices for hundreds of upcoming reservations over the next six months or so. The general trend we are seeing is that they are rising -- sometimes substantially."
Same thing for cruise prices. I heard from several cruise travel agents who say there are no bargains to be had this fall. (Priceline ran a few numbers and begged to differ; it found several late-fall Caribbean cruises starting at $399 for seven days, which is ridiculously cheap.)
But if the bottom falls out of the economy -- and folks, I really hope this doesn't happen -- then all bets are off.
There'd be a silver lining, though: The balance of 2010 could be a buyer's market for travel once again. So if you missed all the deals last year, here's your second chance.
But you have to shop smart. Here's where you'll find the steals:
With a stronger dollar, Europe has become more of a bargain in 2010, including this summer. Remove most of the tourists, and the deals multiply. Candi Kruse, who works for a software company in Emmaus, Pa., says the deals in Bavaria, where she's headed this fall, are "phenomenal." She found hotel rates for under $100 a night in September, roughly half what they were during the summer. "I'd definitely encourage people to think about traveling (to Europe) in the fall," she told me.
These aren't the best of times for amusement parks, whether it's the mom-and-pop arcade on the boardwalk or the destination theme park. Fall is typically a slow time, and with the rest of the travel industry looking at a possible downturn, some parks are already getting aggressive with their pricing. Lynn Cuda found a 50 percent-off rate at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, one of her favorite properties. (She says her rates were limited to Florida residents only.) Cuda, a nurse, lives in nearby Jacksonville, Fla. "It's a very appealing rate," she says. Without a doubt.
"I almost fell out of my chair," says Steven Scholnick, a software engineer from Pittsburgh. He was trying to find a low rate for a resort hotel near the Las Vegas Strip, and did he ever. The MGM Grand was practically giving away rooms for as little as $55 a night. And not just any room: His quarters were in the Grand Tower, "larger than the average Las Vegas room," according to the property's description. Plus, they were around the Thanksgiving holiday. "It was a phenomenal deal," he says.
Look closely at the price quotes, because they may be a lot better than they first appear. Rates at the swanky Breakers resort in Palm Beach start at around $400 a night at this time of year. But Phyllis Cheung, an entrepreneur who lives in San Diego, found a deal for just about half that -- around $249 a night -- but it included kids' meals, activities, unlimited tennis, continental breakfast and valet parking. "Those kinds of perks are not typically included," she says. No, they aren't. And certainly not at a place like The Breakers. Like some of the other Florida resorts, they're not waiting for summer to end. According to their site, these rates are already available, and the deals continue into fall.
If there's a difference between this year and last, it's that the bargains aren't going to fall in your lap. You may have to find them, or be patient.
For example, some airfares to Europe are outrageous. That's because airlines are playing that game they always play with us at this time of year, which is to keep the prices high until they start to panic.
Trust me, they will panic.
Kirsten Dial, a former college classmate who now lives in Los Angeles, told me about her plans to visit her sister and her fiance in London this fall. The fares are currently an outrageous $1,200 in economy class. "To say I was shocked at the flight prices is an understatement," she told me.
I can't imagine them staying that high, so to anyone who sees a fare that's completely unaffordable, I recommend a site like Yapta, which lets you track the price and buy when the time is right. Also, check out Bing Travel, which actually projects the direction the fares will go. (It recommends waiting, although prices have already come down by about $200 for fall flights).
I kind of hope I'm wrong about the bottom falling out of the travel industry this time around. But if it does, you can't say you weren't warned.