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Best Rates! Earthshaking Fares! Well, Could Be

Even in these bleak times for the industry, not all ballyhooed bargains are for real. Here's how to cull the best vacation deals.


You've seen the ads--$100 cross-country air fares, $199 cruises, $49-per-night hotel rooms. But how much is Barnum & Bailey hype and how much is the real McCoy, true bargains in a time of confusion and contraction in the travel industry? If there are bargains, how can the average consumer separate the real deals from the hype with relative convenience and confidence?

"What we are finding is, yes, there are deals that are available, but not at the rock-bottom pricing people are expecting," says Steve Loucks, a spokesman for Carlson-Wagonlit Travel, a Minneapolis-based network of 1,000 travel agency offices.

You may find air fare deals; National Airlines did have $100 coast-to-coast flights, but the other airlines have not matched them because it doesn't make financial sense, Loucks says.

Fare wars in the airline industry break out regularly, and many fares were already being cut before Sept. 11 in reaction to the slowing economy. Although there are still some deals to specific markets, you'll need to hunt for them. Recent leisure fares were back to about the same price levels as last year at this time, according to data from Harrell Associates in New York, which has followed leisure travel air fares since 1998.

But in the cruise industry, pricing cuts have been consistent.

"There probably has never been a better time for the cruise option," Loucks says. Besides slashing prices, "some lines have eliminated the single supplement."

The deals are not limited to either end of the price spectrum.

"There are some fantastically inexpensive deals in the lower price categories," says Miriam Rand of Rand-Fields Travel Service in Beverly Hills.

"The papers are full of them, but we specialize in the luxury market, and there are some very good deals in this category."

There are bargains beyond cruises, but it may take some shopping to find them.

"Consumers are expecting those deals to translate to the holidays and high season, and it doesn't," says Filomena Andre of the Leisure Travel Group, a co-op of 185 independent travel agencies, mostly in California.

The chaos in the industry can leave consumers confused, says Ron Archer of Archer Travel in Montrose. "There is so much change that the travel agent is becoming a consultant and pathfinder."

His advice for the average consumer trying to sort it all out and get the best deal: "One, check the Internet to compare price; two, contact a travel agent to compare those prices again, since the travel agent has access to things that aren't on the Internet; and three, check traditional newspaper advertising for deals."

One caveat: Make sure deals really are deals. I received an e-mail from Starwood, which has various properties, offering 35% off rack rates for Starwood Preferred Guests. For the Westin La Paloma Resort and Spa in Tucson, Ariz., I was quoted a rate of $273, using the 35%-off promotion code by Internet; without it, also by Internet, I got a "Best Rate--Fully Prepaid/Non-Refundable" deal of $209.

Culling from the Internet, the ads and experts, here is a sample of deals available at the Travel section's press time Tuesday:

* Internet ski trip: On Expedia I found a four-day ski vacation to Lake Tahoe that included round-trip air fare from Los Angeles to Reno on American Airlines, a midsize rental car and four nights' lodging at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe on the Nevada side for $485.39 per person, based on double occupancy. (The Hyatt quotes a basic rate of $436 for four nights' lodging.) This does not include lift tickets--a three-day pass is $147 per person--or taxes and surcharges on the rental car. For information, (800) 766-6658;

* Weekend getaway: Checking the newspaper, I found an ad for a "Wake Up to the Wine Country" deal at the Santa Maria Inn. For $75 a couple, you get bed and breakfast at this Central Coast landmark built in 1917. (Regular room-only rates start at $139, which doesn't include breakfast.) The hotel is at the gateway to the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, and it's a short drive to Solvang and Santa Barbara to the south and San Luis Obispo, Hearst Castle and the Big Sur coast to the north. Restrictions apply. 801 S. Broadway, Santa Maria 93454; (800) 462-4276,

* Mexican Riviera cruise: Filomena Andre, Leisure Travel Group, (310) 574-0883, recommends a seven-day Mexican Riviera Cruise on Princess line, starting at $499 per person. The 1,950-passenger Sea Princess sails round trip from Los Angeles on Feb. 2 or 9, stopping at Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas. Price is based on cruise only, double occupancy, and includes port charges. "Unheard-of quality for this price," says Andre.

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