Hola, Mexico! Travel deals south of the border
Mexicana Airlines has suspended sales, but Mexican travel bargains abound.
Fliers may see Mexicana Airlines' latest woes as another reason to hesitate on traveling there. Bargain hunters, however, may still be tempted by cheap hotel rates and packages through the winter holidays.
Compañía Mexicana de Aviación (Mexicana Airlines) filed for bankruptcy protection in Mexico and the United States in late July and has since suspended sales. It also has suspended flights on more than a third of its 41 routes, but says it will continue operations, with priority given to homebound passengers.
Separately, the Federal Aviation Administration in late July downgraded Mexico's air safety rating, citing a deficiency in its civil aviation authority and a lack of regulations necessary to oversee air carriers. As a result, U.S. and Mexican airlines can no longer code-share, or jointly sell seats on the same flights. (Mexican and FAA officials have said they are working together to help the country regain its higher safety rating.)
Mexicana's bankruptcy filing and the FAA's downgrade are only the latest factors that are "going to make people tentative about going to Mexico," says Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com, a travel advice site. American travel to Mexico has already been hobbled by the weak economy, reports of gang- and drug-related violence in some areas, and last year's swine flu outbreak, she says.
So why go at all? Travelers can find amazing bargains in safer areas such as Cancun, Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta -- which are also, respectively, the top, fourth and fifth most-booked international destinations of 2010, according to Orbitz.
A seven-night package for two, including airfare and stays at four-star properties in Cancun, costs as little as $1,000, says Tom Parsons, chief executive of travel booking site BestFares.com. Two years ago, a trip of the same length would have cost at least $1,400 for a lesser-quality room. "It's cheaper and you're getting a lot more luxury," he says.
Here's what travelers need to know to come out ahead:
Mexicana ticketholders. Mexicana Airlines said in a recent press release that ticketholders "planning to travel by air in the immediate future" should make alternate arrangements.
Eat any fees involved to cancel tickets and rebook on a different airline, says George Hobica, the founder of deal-tracking site AirfareWatchdog.com. "I don't think Mexicana is going to survive," he says. "They're a goner." Those on canceled flights are entitled to a full refund. Alternately, passengers whose Mexicana tickets were issued by another airline as part of a code-sharing agreement can turn to the issuing airline for accommodation on another flight.
If the airline were to cease operations, tickets would become worthless and consumers would have to get in line behind many other larger creditors in bankruptcy court to get reimbursed. Travelers who paid by credit card can take the matter to their issuer, Hobica says. The Fair Credit Billing Act permits consumers to dispute charges for services paid for but not received, which includes travel arrangements.
U.S. airline ticketholders. Travelers who booked an international flight to Mexico on a U.S. carrier are unlikely to see major changes from the shift in code-sharing. "The re-accommodation is just a plate change," Parsons says. When needed, tickets will be adjusted to reflect that the aircraft is foreign instead of one belonging to, say, American Airlines or Delta. Travelers won't see any differences in their onboard experience or in frequent-flier miles earned.
Still, as with any international flight, it's worth calling the airline that issued the ticket to confirm flight times and details in advance of the trip, Parsons says.
Would-be travelers. With Mexicana out of the ticket-booking market for now, fares could rise, but low-cost competitors such as JetBlue and Spirit are unlikely to let them stay high, Parsons says. (Virgin America is planning to add flights to Mexico next year.)
For lodging, some of the best deals are at all-inclusive resorts, says Jamie Samuels, a spokeswoman for deal site Travelzoo. For example, the Excellence Riviera Cancun has rates starting at $149 per night (a 35% discount) through Dec. 22 if booked by Aug. 31. Some are sweetening the deal with resort credits. The Hilton Cancun Golf & Spa Resort is offering a 50% discount on greens fees and 30% off spa treatments, in addition to room rates as low as $69 per night (a 50% discount).
Not all of the discounts for trips to Mexico will last. Summer is the off-season for travel there, Banas says. Travelers face hot temperatures and, on the eastern coast, hurricane season. Expect deals to dry up somewhat by Thanksgiving as traffic picks up. Consumers may also want to consider purchasing travel insurance on longer trips, she says.
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