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Finding travel deals could take some hunting this fall

By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / August 9, 2009

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Fall is a good time for frugal travelers: Airfare is generally cheaper and the weather is still balmy in many places. But vacationers looking for deep fare discounts this autumn may be disappointed.

As Americans retrench on travel spending because of the recession, airlines have cut airfares 9 percent for the first six months of this year, according to the US Travel Association. But carriers also are flying fewer and smaller planes, cutting domestic seat capacity by a projected 12 percent during the fourth quarter of this year compared to two years ago, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

For passengers, that means fall fare deals likely won’t be as good as you might expect in a sluggish economy. “The airfares don’t seem significantly down,’’ said Jeanenne Tornatore of the travel booking site Orbitz.

Not that there aren’t any fare deals at all this fall. Indeed, a number of carriers are offering deep discounts to sunny California, for one. Virgin America launched a sale - ending Tuesday - on flights from Boston to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego for as low as $238 round-trip. AirTran Airways is also offering tickets to Los Angeles and San Francisco for $238. And American Airlines has $198 fares to Burbank and Ontario and $238 to Santa Barbara.

Abby Lunardini, a Virgin America spokeswoman, said the sale doesn’t reflect the airline’s outlook on travel this fall. “We’re cautiously optimistic about fall travel, and we’re seeing some good trends in terms of booking,’’ Lunardini said.

Deals in Hawaii abound, too. Gabe Saglie, senior editor of travel deal site Travelzoo, said a $754 fare to Honolulu and a $776 fare to Maui - both on American - as some of the better Boston deals he’s seen. “The fares that are really raising eyebrows are to California - especially smaller, regional airports - and even Hawaii - two hot destinations,’’ said Saglie.

If you’re longing to get out of the country in September, the Caribbean also has some deals. American has a $413 fare from Boston to Aruba, Continental Airlines is flying from Boston to Cancun for $296, and British Airways is offering a $545 ticket to Madrid.

But travelers beware: Holding out for the best deals may not be the best plan. The deals that are out there may be fleeting, they say. That’s partly because major US airlines, which according to the International Air Transport Association have posted a combined loss of $373 million in the second quarter, may need to further reduce capacity in the fall. That means fares could head north again.

“The really, really cheap stuff, it looks like it’s beginning to dry up,’’ said Graeme Wallace of FareCompare.com, a travel website.

Translation: If you see a great deal, snag it or it might disappear. For instance, on social media website Twitter, JetBlue Airways on Monday offered a $59 “Cheep’’ fare sale on the site from Palm Beach, Fla., to New York City that lasted eight hours. On Tuesday, United rolled out a two-hour Tware (twitter-only fare) to Orlando. (It was over so quickly we didn’t get a chance to check it out.)

“A lot of travel providers are offering short booking windows for fall,’’ said Anne Banas, the executive editor of the Charlestown-based travel website SmarterTravel.com.

There are a few deals that travel analysts say will sweeten later in the season. If you can hold out longer, prices to Europe generally fall after Nov. 1. As for Thanksgiving travel, Banas said, September should be a good time to book.

And for travelers who want to wait on domestic travel, Christopher Elliott, who writes a weekly travel column on msnbc.com, says there’s hope. “Hang in there. When it comes to bargains, the best may be yet to come,’’ he wrote in a recent blog entry.

Once travelers book airfare, there’s a bright spot for those looking for deep discounts - lodging. Hotels across the country are hurting, with a 19 percent decline in revenue per available room in the first six months of 2009 compared with a year ago, according to hospitality research firm PKF Consulting. To attract guests, they’ve dropped rates by 7 percent during that same period, according to the US Travel Association, an trade group.

Hotels also are adding a lot of what those in the industry call “value adds.’’ Hotels in Orlando, and Chicago are offering free parking and free Wi-Fi, and if you book any Las Vegas hotel through Orbitz (by Aug. 24 for travel by Sept. 30), you get $500 worth of coupons for, among other things, a discounted gondola ride, a $50 slot credit at the Venetian, and 25 percent off at Wolfgang Puck’s.

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com