Deals come as companies cut back on travel

It’s no secret that studios have taken a scythe to entertainment and travel budgets — especially when some execs forced to fly business are moaning like martyrs. And with cutbacks ever looming and expense accounts on a diet, finding a great travel deal is almost as important as scoring an original script. However, the airlines are bleeding, too, and the tray tables have turned for the executive business traveler.

“It’s an amazing time to get great deals and upgrades on flights and hotels,” says Lois Mitchell, a VP of ProTravel Intl. who handles corporate jet setting for the entertainment industry. “I’ve been in the business for 35 years and have never seen anything like this.”

Neither has the airline industry. The Air Transport Assn. of America reports that premium-class travel revenue has nosedived almost 19% from February 2008 to early 2009. Hence, deals galore. Case in point: Virgin Atlantic was offering a premium business class-rate of $4,420 for a round-trip L.A-to-London ticket recently. A year ago, that ticket would have cost about 35% more, or almost $6,000.

On the hotel front, overall occupancy is down to 54%, and rates have dropped about 7% overall. The Four Seasons, for example, is touting third- and fourth-night free offers at many properties, including its Hawaii hotels. One travel insider reveals that a $2,700-per-night villa at Hotel del Coronado was going for $400 per night.

Back in the air, another boon for globetrotters is the boost in performance. Like a bad ex looking to reunite, the airlines are suddenly on better behavior. The Dept. of Transportation’s Air Travel Consumer Report issued in January notes that domestic flight cancellations are down 1.2% in February, from 3.6% just a year ago. Complaints are down 38.5% from last year, and even mishandled baggage incidents are down by almost half.

And then there are the upgrade wars. For instance, American and United are battling for the premium traveler. Both are offering 50,000 bonus miles on rounditrip service in first or business class to or from London through June, according to FareCompare.com. Delta and Continental, as well as American and United, are also wooing fliers with double elite-qualifying miles.

But don’t expect caviar and Dom Perignon on demand or cashmere throws in the more exclusive cabins. “Right now, it’s about price, not perks,” says Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com. About two years ago, when fares were at an all-time peak, many domestic carriers had to offer more and revamped their premium service with lie-flat seats and better entertainment systems in business cabins. “There’s really minimal difference between first and business class now,” adds Seaney.

Despite the good deals for travelers, the airline industry is still operating in the red. “There are going to be less and less direct flights and more connecting flights,” says Janet Libert, editor-in-chief of Executive Travel Magazine. “That means less opportunities to get upgraded because the direct flights are more crowded. International carriers will be cutting back on their flights, too.”

Unfortunately, some of the more plush international carriers will be downgrading their fleets due to low capacity, too, adds Libert. For example, Emirates no longer flies from New York to Dubai on the luxury Airbus 380, with its private suites and shower spas. And when it comes to those far-flung film festivals like Cannes and Venice, don’t expect to reel in a deal.

“If there’s a big event like a film festival, the airlines already know about it and they won’t discount,” says Seaney. “They’re not dummies.”

How to score an upgrade

  • Beat the bean counters: Travelers in the know book “Y-Up” fares. Basically, these tickets are booked as “first class” but show the economy code. FareCompare.com offers a tool that will track down a Y-Up for you. Or ask a travel agent specifically to look for these fares.

  • Act loyal: Joining a hotel reward program is the quickest way to get ahead — even if you haven’t yet started amassing points. Right now, Starwood allows members to exchange hotel points for airfare, and many hotels are offering double or quadruple points for extended stays. At PointMaven.com, you can compare deals.

  • Be creative: Asking for a room with a better view is a given. But you may have better luck — and garner even more appreciation — asking for a free round of golf or spa treatment. Agents say that high-end properties like Starwood and Four Seasons are willing to add value by comping guests on certain services.

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