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9 essential travel strategies for 2009

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  • Watch prices because deals may come and go faster than ever
  • The cost of fuel may make driving more cost-effective than flying
  • Many companies will wait longer to discount, so look for last-minute deals
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By Christopher Elliott
Tribune Media Services
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(Tribune Media Services) -- We're traveling down an uncertain road next year. Buckle up.

"This kind of reminds me of the old sea maps from the 1300s that showed a coastline with the caption which read, 'Here be Monsters,'" says Patrick Douglas, the chief executive of Shark Diver, a tour operator in San Diego, California. "Trying to forecast this thing using any models from the past 20 years will be useless."

That hasn't stopped anyone from trying. Take American Express, which delayed publication of its closely watched business travel forecast by a few weeks this fall to account for Wall Street's implosion. Amex now predicts the average domestic business trip will cost 2.8 percent more in 2009. But considering the massive cuts in corporate travel and the deflationary pressure of falling fuel prices, its numbers are almost certainly wrong.

What's going to happen? Nobody really knows. Not for business travel. Not for leisure travel.

Here's what we do know: Travel will be different next year. Different than it's ever been. Or ever will be again, probably.

These nine strategies will help you make the most of it:

Think outside the travel box

Relying on the same old travel strategies is folly. Think differently in 2009. For example, if you don't have a lodging budget for your next trip, don't fret. "Home exchanges have been rising in popularity during the past year," says Zach Everson, a travel blogger. "I think they'll see a sharp spike next year." (He and his wife just bought a house in Louisville, Kentucky, and they're looking for ways of making it more attractive for a home swap.)

Be a 'frugalist' -- even if you aren't one

Almost everyone seems to be cutting back on travel in '09, and hopping on the cheapskate bandwagon may have its advantages. Guido Adelfio, president of the Bethesda Travel Center, calls these travelers "frugalists" and believes 2009 will be their year. "With deflation, buying-power increases, which is a huge plus for the typical traveler," he says. "Hotels are all feeling the pressure, as are the airlines." In other words, buy a pool-view room or an economy-class ticket and then wait for the "special offer" to upgrade to business class or get into the suite.

Become a price watcher

When will airfares rise? When will they fall? No one knows for certain, but there are certain people who have a good idea. Like Hugh Crean of Farecast, who says, "Travelers will need to be more savvy at buying at the right time." With so many dynamics driving prices up and down -- such as oil prices, consumer confidence and capacity -- Crean expects fares to be more volatile in 2009. Put differently, the deals will come and go faster than perhaps ever.

Expect once-in-a-generation sale prices

The bargains in 2009 could be very, very good. Jeffery DalPoggetto, a manager for Tamalpais Travel in Corte Madera, California, recently got a preview of what may be in store next year. British Airways offered a four-day sale on its first-class fares during the Thanksgiving holiday. "The usual round-trip, first class fare from San Francisco to London is $20,128," he says. "They cut it to $4,774 -- or about 75 percent off. Incredible."

Other offers to sweeten the deal

Although many travel companies will slash their prices in 2009, others will probably resist. But if you look closely, you'll find a bargain there, too. Take hotels, for example. "Instead of looking at the cost per room per night, look a little deeper to find the real deals," says Glenn Haussman, editor of the Hotel Interactive Network, a lodging Web site. "Rather than dropping room rates dramatically, many hoteliers are throwing in all sorts of free goodies to lure business. That means you can get all sorts of deals, such as free room nights, complimentary spa treatments and meal credits."

Play is saf(er)

Now perhaps more than ever, travelers are targets. Do I need to mention Mumbai? That's an area where travelers need to be "more proactive" says Larry Kaminer of Seattle-based Personal Safety Training Group. A good place to start is by registering with the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in the country you are visiting through the State Department's Web site. Kaminer says travel will probably feel safer in 2009 because of the "inevitable increases in security we usually see after high-profile acts of terror." But that doesn't mean you should let down your guard.

Don't let the dollar stop you

A rebounding greenback can mean destinations that were off-limits to you last year are now accessible. "The strength of the dollar against the British pound means that this is a superb time to take that trip to London," says Tom Hall, a travel editor for Lonely Planet in London. By using value rail services like Eurostar or low-budget airlines like Ryanair and EasyJet, you can have a surprisingly affordable European vacation.

Drive!

"The cost of fuel has gone down so much that it is now cost efficient to drive instead of paying for expensive flights," says Leon Logothetis, who hosts a TV show called "The Amazing Adventures of a Nobody." Indeed, at the rate things are going, the summer of 2009 may be known as the summer of the road trip. If enough people decide to take a vacation, that is.

Wait until the last minute

In the past, you could count on an airline, car rental company or hotel to discount its rates in advance of your departure. But the travel industry is likely to wait longer, hoping you'll cave in and book at a higher price. That's especially true for airlines, says travel blogger and author David Reynolds. "With reduced capacity, airlines will wait until the last minute to give big discounts, hoping the smaller earlier sales will lure enough reservations to not have to discount any further."

If this column makes you want to stay home next year, just close your eyes and count to nine. The feeling will pass. Kristi Jones, the president of the luxury travel agency consortium Virtuoso, says the successful traveler of 2009 will need equal amounts of patience and flexibility. "The world opens to those who have both," she adds.

I'm optimistic about travel in 2009, too. I admit I called it the "year of the 'naycation'" in a recent column. But that's exactly the point. With more people staying close to home or refusing to travel at all, it means more opportunities for the rest of us. These strategies can ensure you'll have an excellent trip without overspending.

Come to think of it, maybe 2009 will be your year to vacation.

(Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. This column originally appeared on MSNBC.com. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org).

© 2009 CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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