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Here's the Deal: Winter Brings a Buyer's Market : Bargains: As the new year begins, many airlines, cruise companies and resorts are offering major discounts. Frequent fliers stand to save the most.

December 30, 1990|PETER S. GREENBERG

A strange thing happened earlier this month: Airlines announced their January fare wars a month early. Cruise lines began offering hundreds of substantial last-minute discounts. Even upscale resorts and hotels--in some of the more desirable vacation destinations--began to discount.

Suddenly, the winter of the travel industry's discontent has created a buyer's market for holiday deals.

On Dec. 12, Delta Airlines announced to members of its frequent-flier program that it would give a free ticket for passengers flying as few as two round trips. The move was significant in that Delta is an airline that had previously refused to start any kind of fare war or fare discounting.

Actually, it all started in late November, when Continental--then on the verge of bankruptcy--announced a two-for-one deal: Anyone who purchased a round-trip "maxsaver" fare ticket to selected destinations before Nov. 30 could take along a companion for free. Within hours, a number of airlines matched the deal.

Two weeks later came the Delta bombshell.

"Traffic has been soft," admits Delta spokesman Vince Durocher, "and we looked at our advance bookings, which were also down. So we did it to stimulate our passenger loads among those who fly us already. We wanted to spur business travel. "

Predictably, the Delta offer--good until March--has sparked a frequent-flier/air-fare war among rival airlines.

Within hours of Delta's announcement, American, United, Northwest, TWA and Continental had announced their own programs. American's offer: Fly three round trips or eight separate flights, get one free round-trip ticket. Or fly five round trips or 14 separate flights and get two free round trips. And you get three round trips for flying seven round trips or 20 separate flights.

The Northwest program is similar. Fly three round trips or eight separate flights between now and March 25, 1991, and get a free coach-class ticket. Fly five round trips and Northwest gives you a free ticket to Europe. Fly seven round trips and get Hawaii.

United goes one step further: Fly seven round trips between now and March 15 and the airline will give you a free coach ticket anywhere United flies worldwide.

One small catch on these deals: To qualify for the free tickets, each flight must cost a minimum of $50. Surprised? The $50 minimum is in response to a fare war between Los Angeles and the Bay Area that has dropped prices to as low as $29.

Then came the mileage deals. Alaska Airlines reintroduced triple mileage. From now through March 15, travelers will earn triple mileage on every Alaska flight. And TWA announced that members of its frequent-flier program will now earn triple miles for any flight taken between Jan. 7 and Feb. 7.

"In an environment of shrinking market share, I think this was an attempt to hold market share rather than gain it," says Charles Demoney, president and chief executive of MGM Grand Air.

Earlier this year, MGM announced its own two-for-one deal. Between Dec. 17 and Jan. 31, every full-fare passenger flying the upscale airline is entitled to bring along a companion at no cost.

Even the Air France Concorde is offering deals--indirectly. Air France has announced that between Jan. 1 and March 31, American Express card holders using the card to purchase a round-trip, first-class ticket on any Air France flight between New York City and Paris can reserve a free round-trip seat on the Concorde.

The discounting has also extended to the cruise industry, which finds itself awash in empty berths.

World Wide Cruises, a Fort Lauderdale-based cruise agency and consolidator, is offering very attractive deals on unfilled cabin space.

For example: There's a seven-day Caribbean cruise on the Meridian for $799, including air fare, stopping in Antigua, St. Thomas and Nassau. Regular price: $1,095. Or a seven-day Mexican Riviera cruise on the Dawn Princess from Los Angeles, including air fare, for $895. Regular fare is $1,475.

While many resorts and destinations do not officially acknowledge a drop-off in visitors, many are beginning to behave in an uncharistic manner: they're offering deals. Most of the deals and discounts aren't being widely advertised, but they are there for the asking.

For example, the Lodge at Vail is offering discount packages, although they are not advertised as such. One package, which offers six days of unlimited skiing, hotel accommodations for seven nights and buffet breakfasts daily, costs $1,125 ($945 for nonskiers).

In London, the Savoy Group of Hotels has announced that each room reserved for two nights or more by travelers originating from the United States or Canada will include Savoy Group "gift vouchers," amounting to nearly $250. The vouchers can be used at any of the group's restaurants, or to pay for such incidental charges as telephone and fax bills, cocktails, tea or even future room nights.

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