Cheap Tickets, But at What Price?

Thanks to the lousy economy, there are plenty of travel deals to be had for foreign travel. But before you partake, here are a few tips to shed the old Ugly American stereotype.

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“If you are paying over $300 for a domestic ticket this year,” says Gerri Willismily: Times New Roman; color: #000000;"> of CNN, “you are paying too much.” The folks at FareCompare.com seem to agree, and they go as far as saying that now is the best time in a decade to fly. According to the site, even round-trip international flights can be had for a song this spring. Tickets for April travel to the Caribbean averaged under $350, while May tickets to Europe are maxing out at about $500. Meanwhile, hotels are following suit, offering up to 70 percent discounts on rooms and package deals.

Of course, for those who have faced unemployment and foreclosure this year, these reports only add insult to injury. But if you have already been considering a domestic or international vacation, this is welcome news. What’s more, if you’re worried about buying today and seeing prices fall even further tomorrow, airlines and travel companies have got you covered: Many are willing to issue refunds or vouchers if your fare drops post-purchase.

Before you book, however, there is one important thing to keep in mind: The recession has had a global impact. While things are certainly bad here, they are far worse in some other corners of the globe. And some people are not afraid to tell the world where to point fingers.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum earlier this year, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao blamed a “lack of self-discipline” among U.S. financial institutions, while Brazil’s president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, went even further, remarking that “white, blue-eyed” bankers have brought the world economy to its knees. Although clearly oversimplifying a complex situation, Silva makes a good point. The expression “when the U.S. sneezes, the world catches a cold” has never been more accurate than in the past year. According to the International Monetary Fund, for instance, low-income countries such as those in sub-Saharan Africa have been hit especially hard by the global economic turndown.

Several factors have converged to create increasingly troubling conditions. To name just a few: Immigrants working in the U.S. are often the first to be fired, which has drastically reduced the amount of money they can send home in the form of remittances. On a larger scale, inflation is on the rise in the developing world. While Zimbabwe is the most stunning example, with its now-worthless currency, other African countries are also faring badly, even without the help of parasitic dictators. Moreover, China, one of the major investors in the region, has been backing out of deals throughout the continent at a staggering pace. From Guinea to Congo and nearly everywhere in between, China is reversing course and abandoning much-needed projects to build infrastructure.

Economic instability, as we know, comes with a host of other problems. John Kerry warned his colleagues in the Senate last week that the U.S. will soon have to confront political instability abroad. "And these problems are not confined to traditionally unstable corners of the globe,” Kerry said. “Europe too is in deep financial trouble, and Turkey, Indonesia and Pakistan, three of our most important partners in the Muslim world, today face acute balance of payments crises.”

This might not spoil a vacation to London, where the pound is falling against the dollar and chaos has not yet descended. But I do wonder what this new global economic climate will mean for American tourists in general, and for my own travel habits in particular. Should we avoid the “first world” altogether and take our dollars only to developing countries? Or will our presence there just make things worse, implying to our hosts that they are the only ones having a hard time? Do we let guilt overtake us all, forcing us to eschew international travel altogether, and would that make things better, necessarily? After all, many economies around the world rely heavily on the tourism industry.

There are no pat answers. But perhaps we can all do our part to turn awareness into opportunities. Instead of taking advantage of travel deals to upgrade your flight class or hotel options, why not keep things simple and funnel the money you save toward a local charity in your host country? Or, while you’re planning destination activities, consider researching organizations that can use volunteers. Even small gestures, like eating in a local restaurant rather than at a resort or hotel or packing extra clothes and toiletries to donate, could make a difference.

Whatever you do, know that if you are lucky enough to travel in this economic climate, you are one of the luckiest people in the world.

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