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The beaches of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, are within reach for the frugal traveller who flies out in the middle of the week. (David Stanley)
The beaches of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, are within reach for the frugal traveller who flies out in the middle of the week. (David Stanley)

SMALL CHANGE

How to prevent the sinking dollar from grounding your vacation Add to ...

Small Change is a series of stories that show how consumers can save money by making minor or incremental changes to their lifestyle.

With the dollar so weak, many snowbirds and March Break travellers may reason that a blessed vacation in the Caribbean or southern United States this winter is out of the question.

Then another Arctic blast will hit, reason will fly out the window, and hordes will make their annual pilgrimage to warmer lands despite the extra costs. But many this year will undoubtedly be looking for more ways to counter the added expense of the low loonie.

Tip No. 1, the obvious first step: Try alternate airports and midweek fares.

For clients of Nancy Scrutton at Allison’s Travel Agency in Windsor, Ont., the routine has been to fly out of neighbouring Detroit’s airport, a convenient hub for Delta Air Lines with all its many routes and choices on offer.

Yet U.S. flights are now less enticing. “Easily 80 per cent of my people travel out of Detroit. So that has had an impact on March Break travel,” she said, although industry analysts note that Canadian airlines are going through a period of high capacity, and they need to fill their empty seats.

An alternative to vacation packages departing from Detroit are sun-destination flights from Windsor with Canadian discount carriers Sunwing Airlines and Air Transat, but Ms. Scrutton finds they are often scheduled during the week, prohibitive to some clients. “I have some teachers, and I’ve been looking for things for them, but they can only go Saturday or Sunday.”

But as Brittany Dietz, editor of cheapflights.ca, noted, midweek flights, particularly on Tuesday and Wednesday, are usually where the deals are. Regular, busy routes tend not to swing wildly in price, but some bargains can still be found on off-peak days and times. Airline fare pricing can seem hopelessly arcane, but the simple maxim of travelling when other people aren’t often works well, Ms. Dietz said.

But tip No. 2: Remember that alternative travel choices can incur other costs.

“With the teachers I was telling you about,” said Ms. Scrutton, the travel agent, “I had a rate of $2,900 from Detroit non-stop to Puerto Vallarta, [Mexico], for a week, all inclusive. Now that’s a really good price.”

She added that even factoring in the extra expense of the fallen Canadian dollar, they were still good deals, even compared with seemingly lower fares from Toronto.

“It’s still better than driving to Toronto for four hours, probably in a snow storm, staying overnight. You know, that kind of thing. So, you have to weigh all the options.” The trick is not to be too enticed by the upfront price, without having a sense of other extraneous expenses.

Tip No. 3: Ask travel agents about exclusive vacation deals.

Some travel companies have specially contracted deals with hotels and vacation-package providers. Because these deals are offered at a set price over a period of time, they effectively freeze the exchange rate.

“Once a year, basically what happens is we sit down and contract all these different deals with different companies. When that’s done, it’s contracted for the course of the year,” said Gavin Miller, vice-president of leisure at travel agency Flight Centre.

So, the exchange rate is locked in for those few months, possibly making those vacation packages more competitively priced, rather than packages that fluctuate in price according to daily exchange rates, Mr. Miller said. Currently, many of Flight Centre’s contracts have had the Canadian dollar locked in at around 80 cents (U.S.), more advantageous than the dollar’s recent lows.

The downside is that the contracts that a travel agency has with numerous vacation providers vary widely. So you still have to shop around. Yet the reason for an inexpensive vacation package may be because of the contracted interest rate. Mr. Miller said that the next round of contracts will likely have the dollar pegged closer to the more current level of about 70 cents.

Tip No. 4: Consider countries where the loonie isn’t as weak.

“Even with the exchange rate, most of Latin America is still incredibly reasonable,” Mr. Miller said. “But where we see no change whatsoever is Australia and New Zealand.” The Australian dollar is roughly at par with the loonie.

As a result, “the South Pacific, Fiji, all of those places are an incredibly good value right now. There are more airlines flying to Asia and Australia from North America than there ever have been, so they have to fill those seats,” he said.

And Australians and New Zealanders are also feeling the pinch of the U.S. dollar. “Therefore, traffic has dropped a little bit. So you have incredibly good deals – the best we’ve ever seen,” Mr. Miller said.

Tip No. 5: A deal at one company can spark even better deals with competitors.

It can pay to notice fares with airlines or even destinations you might not initially have considered. Mr. Miller noted how Air France-KLM recently lowered its fares to Cape Town, South Africa, from Toronto. Air Canada and others quickly responded with their own seat sales for that route. Airfares can change so quickly that a seat sale at one carrier can trigger reductions from competitors.

And No. 6: Factor in the cost of living at vacation destinations.

This is the particular saving grace for perennial snowbirds, the kind who regularly travel to the Caribbean or the U.S. South and stay at a timeshare or other, longer-term accommodations. After the price of travelling is taken care of, the cost of living is often markedly cheaper than staying back home in Canada, even with the low loonie.

Everyday living expenses are about 30 to 40 per cent cheaper in Scottsdale, Ariz., for instance, said Rob Pederson, a realtor in Regina who also helps run Canada To Arizona, a business aimed at assisting Canadian travellers and Arizona businesses. “There’s a misconception that it’s equal living costs, and that simply is not the case,” he said.

Deals at other destinations heavily dependent on Canadian snowbirds are also being announced, such as discounts of 30 per cent or more at resorts in Myrtle Beach, S.C., for customers travelling with a valid Canadian passport, as announced by the Myrtle Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Jeff Thompson, a contractor in Regina and a regular snowbird, didn’t see many discounts during his last trip to Arizona for a month in December, “but it’s just because the cost of living there is so much cheaper than here to begin with,” he said.

“I guess it would have an influence on me, if the dollar continued to fade and we were down to 60 cents for the long term. I’d probably reconsider it at some point. But once you get there, everything’s cheaper, your groceries, and your beer, and your golf and everything, than it is at home,” he said.

But even if the loonie stays low, there’s a tone among some travellers and travel companies that it ultimately doesn’t matter. Even if it means wading through the tips and options, Canadians will keep looking to escape winter.

“There are always going to be Canadians going there,” said Mr. Pederson of Canada To Arizona. “I don’t care if the dollar is 20 cents. If it’s minus-40 in Regina, and you’ve got a connection to Arizona, you’re going.”

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