Seven Discount Strategies
in the Time of Coronavirus
FRIDAY, MARCH 6, 2020 -- Facing an existential crisis--business travel is drying up, leisure travelers are skittish, entire parts of the globe are off limits--the travel industry is reacting exactly to form.

It cowers in fear, refuses to fight for or promote its business and starts counting the days until it can ask for government bailouts and even more corporate welfare.

Airlines are the worst, of course. Rather than battle for traffic by using the pricing and frequency award levers they control, carriers are grounding aircraft, retreating and bemoaning their fate as unwitting and incapacitated victims of a black swan crisis. Now that flyers are unwilling to line up to fork over money, airlines are paralyzed, incapable of making even the smallest gesture to stimulate demand. Hotels are little better. They stubbornly cling to pre-Coronavirus pricing levels, then moan about the unfairness of it all.

Remember two years ago when American Airlines chief executive Doug Parker absurdly boasted that he couldn't imagine ever losing money again? To misquote Billy Crystal misquoting the actor Edward G. Robinson, where's his bravado now?

And I can't help thinking that the travel business, always so fat and happy and cocky about its marketing prowess during the good times, suddenly reminds me of Ned Flanders' exasperated hippie parents who tried nothing and are all out of ideas. They have not lifted a finger to stimulate travel demand and they don't seem to have a single idea to save themselves.

What's this got to do with you, a bargain-hunting traveler looking for deals in the time of Coronavirus? Just this: You'll have to ferret out the bargains on your own. There won't be any full-page newspaper ads or blinking online banners urging you to come hither and buy a flight or a hotel room. There will be few E-mail marketing campaigns or frequent travel plan promotions, no grand or concerted efforts to entice you to travel.

It's time to hunt, peck, scratch and claw while the travel industry goes into its cocoon of victimhood.

Where do you look? Here are seven strategies that were working this week:

        Check your online credit card accounts. Marriott and Hilton, especially, seem to be offering a slew of statement credits via those come-ons you usually ignore in the Amex Offers & Benefits section of AmericanExpress.com. One example of many: Hilton is offering a $200 statement credit after you spend $1,000 at its Hawaii resorts. Just remember that these discount offers are mass-customized by card and by customer. Make sure to check all of your accounts.
        Search for frequent travel awards. American AAdvantage has suddenly flooded its system with 5,000-miles awards on domestic routes. I even saw what was once extinct: a 57,000-mile one-way, off-peak business class award on American Airlines metal to Europe. Air France Flying Blue even has some 69,000-point nonstop business class awards to and from Amsterdam, Paris and Rome.
        Ask at the airport. As traffic thins, many more frequent flyer status upgrades are clearing. And on-the-spot buy-ups to premium class are available on international flights. Ask--politely, of course--and you never know what you'll receive.
        Ask at the front desk. Hotels aren't as generous with spontaneous suite upgrades as you think--suites are costly and time-consuming to clean--but upgrades to better-category rooms are fairly easy to come by. Ask and you almost surely receive something better.
        Consider Norwegian Air. The discount carrier isn't everyone's cup of flying tea, but Norwegian is quietly giving away seats on many of its flights. I've seen transatlantic coach fares going for as low as $104 one-way and as little as $411 in premium. Just remember: Adjust your expectations. Norwegian's premium cabin is not a full-on business class.
        Check again. If you looked for a bargain airfare, hotel discount or cheap frequent travel awards last week and couldn't find one, look again. Although it is uneven and unpublicized, room rates and airfares are dropping quickly. Adjust your plans by a day or two and you might find some astounding prices. And don't forget the great members-only Aer Lingus name-your-price deal to Ireland, Britain and continental Europe.
        Forget Asia. There really are very few flying deals to Asia. That may sound counter-intuitive, but consider: U.S. airlines have bailed on virtually all routes across the Pacific and Asia-based carriers have slashed operations, too. There just aren't enough seats around to get any eye-popping deals. But if you can get there, Asia hotels are discounting like crazy.

Finally, a warning: I trust this advice as I am writing it in the early hours of Friday morning. Who knows what the weekend will bring? I can't imagine what next week will be like. The only thing to count on is that the travel industry won't serve it up for you.