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Talking travel with luxury-travel-for-less planner and author

Theo Brandt-Sarif is a professional lecturer who gives seminars on booking luxury vacations and business trips. He's also author of Guerrilla Travel Tactics, a tell-all guide on how to get the best deals on flights, hotels, and vacation packages.

Are there shortcuts to getting business or first class air travel at less than street price?

By far the best way is to use frequent flyer miles. And with credit cards offering frequent flier miles in virtually any and every airline's programs, it's easier than ever to accrue a lot of miles, even if you do not fly very often. Go to freetravelreport.com. One of the free reports is titled "Simple Secrets to Getting First Class Airline Upgrades".

How about getting upgraded to a suite, oceanfront, or concierge floor?

One of my favorite hotel upgrade strategies is the "special event" strategy. All you need to do is contact the hotel reservations office 2-3 days ahead of arrival by fax, email or phone, explaining why your forthcoming visit is special. If it's your honeymoon-you are virtually guaranteed an upgrade. But wedding anniversaries, birthdays, graduation gifts, first visit to a country-they all count as "special events".

You will almost always get something you would not otherwise have received-an upgrade, free breakfast each day, champagne and fruit delivered to your room etc. Think about it from the hotel standpoint-it costs them virtually nothing to engender a very loyal customer.

Is there ever a good time to use those airline or hotel chain package

I see six primary reasons to book a package:
  • It can be an ideal way to visit a new exotic destination where independent planning can be complex and/or figuring out the lay of the land once you are in the destination can be challenging because of communication barriers. A good example would be touring China beyond the three major cities (Hong Kong, Shanghai or Beijing).
  • To visit a lot of new cities quickly. Should you want to return to savor those destinations you loved the first time round, making the arrangements on your own will be much easier. A good example is the first timer wanting to get a flavor of Europe-visiting multiple countries. I did that as a student, rushing through nine countries in five weeks!
  • A single traveler seeking a group of companions and security in numbers.
  • A short-of-time traveler who would rather not spend hours planning and coordinating an ideal trip.
  • A cautious traveler who is reluctant to drive or figure out where to go, for whom a deluxe bus package with driver and tour guide holds special appeal.
  • A last-minute traveler who takes advantage of an air/hotel or air/car package that is considerably cheaper than purchasing the flight and hotel/car separately. Online travel agencies are increasingly recognizing the niche for business travelers, and are developing offerings to meet their needs.
In your book, you mention that it's possible to get guaranteed free award seats during peak periods. Seems impossible.

I look forward every year to traveling abroad with my family on a summer vacation. Because I know we will go somewhere each year, planning and booking one year in advance has become a routine activity. Because we plan ahead, we have been able to use awards to fly free within the US, as well as to Hawaii, Australia, Fiji, Europe, Asia, and Africa during peak holiday periods. This summer my family of five is flying business class to the Seychelles (islands off the east coast of Africa) using a combination of British Airways (LA to Nairobi) and Northwest Airlines (Nairobi to Seychelles) frequent flyer miles. We got the exact dates we wanted during the peak summer season simply by booking 11 months in advance.

Planning as far in advance as possible is almost always the best strategy, especially if you want to travel during peak periods, such as around Thanksgiving or the Christmas holidays. Ideally you want to book award air travel around 330 days in advance of your desired travel date-that's the day seats for flights go into most major airlines' computer systems. Leisure travelers can easily book in advance since public holidays and school vacations are known well ahead of time.

What's the best credit card to use while traveling abroad?

Since the 1980s, Visa and MasterCard have charged 1% of the total purchase to convert a foreign currency purchase into US dollars. Unfortunately, in many cases, the fees don't stop here. The majority of banks that issue credit cards now charge 3% or more on top of what Visa and MasterCard charge, which can add a significant and unnecessary expense to purchases. Some of these same credit card companies also charge the "conversion" fees even if a foreign purchase is made in US dollars. There is fortunately one exception--Capital One, which does not add fees to those already charged by Visa or MasterCard for making purchases in foreign countries. In fact they absorb the fee charged by Visa or MasterCard, so the net charge on foreign transactions using a Capital One card is 0%.

What are some of your negotiation tactics to get cheaper rooms, travel packages, even a taxi from the airport?

Conventional wisdom has been that one gets the lowest hotel rates simply by calling a hotel's own reservation department, rather than going online or contacting the central reservations line. That is still true, but only in a few instances, for example, when a hotel has unusually low occupancy rates during the time you intend to visit. You may be able to negotiate a cheaper rate, an upgrade for standard price, get free breakfast or whatever-there is nothing to lose by asking.

The two most common discount hotel opportunities are AAA or AARP rates. If you are a member of either or both organizations, always check out the special rates that may be available. Many hotel web sites now enable you to check these special rates, which typically get a 10-20% discount.

Another among my favorite discounts is the Entertainment Directory 50%-off discount rate. While that discount is usually applied to the rack rate-which is the full room price rarely charged except when the hotel has very high occupancy-the savings can be significant. The Entertainment Directory has far more hotels throughout the US and abroad contracted to offer a half-price discount than any other hotel discount program. Discounts will usually apply whenever the hotel occupancy is 80% or less.

When and how should airfare and hotel consolidators be used?

Airfare consolidators are now virtually extinct, since the web has been a perfect vehicle for airlines to get rid of excess inventory without resorting to "middlemen". Stated differently, airlines will now readily offer much lower fares on flights that are selling slowly. One exception to this, however, is if you want to get cheap coach fares to countries that are off-the-beaten-path. Expatriates may know of an agency that negotiates low fares on the less well-known national carrier. Do a Google search on the country you wish to visit with the word "consolidator" to try identify such agencies. Hotel consolidators still exist, but only one impresses me. Quickbook.com contracts lower rates with boutique hotels, and has no cancellation or change fees.

What sites do you use for booking flights? And why?

While entire books have been written about travel web sites, I'll discuss just the key strategies you should pursue when seeking great airfares and hotel rates. No fluff-just the high-yield stuff, a simple approach for time-pressured travelers.....

Here are the results of a real search I did. Assume I want to fly from Hartford to San Diego on July 20, returning July 22. When I perform an airfare search, I start with Orbitz.com to get benchmark pricing. Orbitz.com presents airfares in a matrix, with zero stops, one-stop and two-stops on the left, and all the airlines flying the selected route across the top. There are no non-stops on the Hartford-San Diego route, and I noted one-stop flights from United and Delta having lowest roundtrip fares $477 (including all fees). Two-stop flights offered no savings. Since the majority of low cost carriers do not sell through the major online travel agents, I then checked out some low cost carriers-Southwest.com was offering a one-stop option. Southwest Airline's lowest roundtrip fare-a "wanna get away fare", came in at $510.

Other nifty features at Orbitz.com are its Flex search capabilities; easily activated by clicking on "flexible dates" below the dates you input for your departure and return dates. These enhancements enable you to check out fares for up to three days before and after your ideal date (so called "Bonus Days"); or to search fares over a 30-day window (so called "Flexible Stays"). For travelers who are patient, Orbitz.com also offers Deal Detector whereby you select a threshold price, and Orbitz.com will send an e-mail if your requested price becomes available. Southwest Airlines' web site has added a feature called "Shortcut" that enables you to view fares to your desired destination(s) over an entire month-simply click on Travel Tools to activate.

Next, check out the major airline sites-United.com offered by far the best price for a variety of flights at $319 (the winning fare for my trip!), while Delta.com was $588, higher than Orbitz.com.

"Site scrapers," such as Mobissimo.com, and Kayak.com scan vast numbers of web travel sites to find the best airfares and hotel rates, providing a simple way to compare airfares side by side. Each site has capability to scan different sites, so none is able to access the entire universe. One benefit of accessing these sites is that their searches include fares offered by major discount airlines such as Southwest and JetBlue, which you frequently cannot obtain from Orbitz.com, Expedia.com, or Travelocity.com. If you see an attractive fare, you simply click on a link that takes you directly to the reservations site offering the fare. However, prices are not necessarily the lowest possible, and their technology still has a way to go to be fast, user-friendly, and consistently effective. But give it a try if you have some extra time!

What are the top 3 upscale destinations to go this year that are on the cheap---destinations abroad where the dollar is actually worth something:
  • Argentina: The vibe of Paris at less than half the price. A steak dinner will run you less than $25.
  • Mexico: While most of Mexico is still reasonably priced for tourists coming in from the US, Mexico City is clearly the best deal. The city is booming with new museums, a historical architectural revival, and a vibrant music and arts scene.
  • Costa Rica: Surprisingly, the dollar has gotten stronger against Costa Rica's currency. Whatever your vacation interests; jungle adventure tours, eco-tourism, white water rafting, surfing, scuba diving incredible reefs, canopy tours, golf, or just relaxing on an unspoiled tropical beach, you will find all of that and more in this tropical paradise.
What's the most affordable place--that's not a hellhole--you've been to?

Bali: This island in Indonesia is the most spectacular tropical paradise I ever visited. Luxury hotel rooms go for around $100, half-hour massages cost less than $15.

Let's say I have 3 weeks off this summer, but I'm on a tight budget. Can you give us an itinerary for a trip where we won't have to sleep in hostels and survive on pizzas?

Head for Asia. Spend 10 days in Bali, another five in Vietnam. Your remaining time will be in the connecting city (Hong Kong if you fly Cathay Pacific, Bangkok if you fly Thai airlines etc).

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