Making your money go a long way Save: Airfare and accommodations are likely to be more expensive this year, but savvy tourists can still find bargains if they know where to look.

February 04, 1996|By Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds,LOS ANGELES TIMES

The authorities agree: As post-recession demand outpaces supply, airfares, hotel rooms, restaurants and rental cars in 1996 are likely to cost 2 percent to 6 percent more than they did in 1995. But there are a few simple investments and strategies, which, if you haven't come upon them yet, could save you hundreds or even thousands of traveling dollars.

These ideas are not secrets, and they're not particularly sexy. But they add up. Here are five:

The right agent

If you don't have the time to compare airfares and dicker with hotels yourself, find a travel agent you trust.

The right travel agent can save you hundreds of dollars, even if you're only taking a one-week domestic trip. But finding that right agent is hard.

Although travel agents are trying to professionalize their industry and there are many top-notch agents out there, there are also thousands of others who know remarkably little about geography, or who devote most of their attention to planning their own deeply discounted "familiarization" trips, or who spend much of their time tracking which cruise lines, airlines and hotels will pay the highest commissions when business is sent their way.

Most reliable agents are accredited by the Airline Reporting Corp., or ARC, and belong to the American Society of Travel Agents, or ASTA, and many of the most professionally committed agents have taken courses to become certified travel counselors, or CTC, through the Institute of Certified Travel Agents.

But there is no easy way of separating an adequate agent from a top-notch one. As with dentists and mechanics, the best way to find a good travel agent is to ask among your friends, co-workers and relatives until you find a happy customer.

Mention AAA

Don't just join AAA; remind every hotel clerk you meet that you're a member. If you use the association's free towing or jump-start service just once (you get four free service calls a year), you've probably covered your investment. But AAA also has negotiated member discounts of 5 percent to 25 percent at thousands of hotels nationwide, and many travelers, even if they are &r cardholders, forget to mention AAA when they settle on a room rate.

Consumer Reports

Read the "Consumer Reports Travel Buying Guide."

Consumer Reports, a subsidiary of the veteran New York-based nonprofit agency Consumers Union, updates this publication every year, filling it with rewritten articles from Consumer Reports magazine and the Consumer Reports Travel Letter.

Last year's edition covered 314 pages, cost $8.99, and explained most of the travel industry in layman's terms, from cruises to condo rentals, with plenty of toll-free phone numbers, prices, comparison tables and concrete examples.

The 1996 edition is expected in bookstores by this month.

Discount books

Buy and use a half-off hotel and restaurant membership discount book.

Probably the most popular of these are those sold by Entertainment Publications ([800] 374-4464). The company's National Hotel Directory, which comes with a card, runs $27.95, and lists more than 2,500 U.S. hotels where cardholders often can get discounts of 10 percent to 50 percent off rack rates -- usually substantially deeper discounts than auto club cards get you. (The Entertainment Europe edition runs $43 and features about 800 hotels.)

Advance purchase

Book cruises six to nine months in advance.

In the old days -- say, three years ago -- many cruise lines were routinely offering deep last-minute discounts, and last-minute travelers reaped big benefits. Now the cruise lines have changed strategies, and it's the early bookers who usually get the best deals.

Most lines announce their schedules 12 to 24 months before the departure date, offer discounts of 15 percent to 40 percent to those who book earliest (depending on the line and itinerary), then gradually raise prices as the sailing date draws near.

To get the deepest advance-purchase discounts at some cruise companies, passengers have to put down deposits a year before sailing. But six to nine months is a good rule of thumb on cruises of a week or more, especially if you're looking for a particular departure date, a particular cabin or even a particular seating time for dinner.

There are still last-minute sales on undersold cruises.

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