Agencies struggle to make travel deals
Heavy demand drives up the cost of Sugar Bowl travel
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Finding tickets to this year's Sugar Bowl has been tough for some University of Hawaii fans. Making travel arrangements has been even harder.
Hawaii residents hoping to score tickets were lucky enough last week if they were willing to pay top dollar. Travel packages to New Orleans have risen to $3,499 for a Hawaiian Airlines coach seat, and even those were selling fast.
The more than one-third increase in travel prices this week at Hawaii's largest travel agency is the result of heavy demand to see the Warriors face off against the Georgia Bulldogs on New Year's Day, as well as the extra costs of setting up charter flights and competition from holiday travelers who booked their tickets months ago.
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When Drew Santos learned the University of Hawaii was selected to play in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, he put his name on a waiting list for one of Panda Travel's packages.
That was last Sunday, before the agency started taking reservations. Then he waited, called and waited some more.
By Tuesday, after watching hotel and flight availability dwindle and prices climb, Santos, president of Honolulu's Admor HVAC Products, booked airfare for $1,034 a person through another local travel agency and used Expedia.com to book a hotel room at up to $320 a night for himself, his wife and his daughter.
"If we wouldn't have taken action, we would have been left out," he said.
Even for those who did get Panda package tickets, prices jumped more than a third from Monday morning through Friday afternoon. After commercial flights sold out in hours, Panda booked a total of three charter planes to help satisfy demand, if not bargain hunters.
"Our whole goal is to try to keep the price as reasonable as possible," said Kehau Amorin, Panda's special-projects coordinator. "We are at the mercy of charters."
The steady increase in travel prices this week is the result of heavy demand to see the Warriors face off against the Georgia Bulldogs on New Year's Day, as well as competition from holiday travelers who booked their tickets months ago.
The last available Panda package, which includes airfare, accommodations, a game ticket and escorted transportation, is on a Hawaiian Airlines charter, with seats starting at $3,499. Panda sold 190 non-charter packages on United and Continental airlines, ranging from $2,599 to $2,899, on Monday before turning to charter flight packages.
It booked 350 packages through Omni Air International starting Tuesday, which sold out at $3,299 a piece, and then filled up a Hawaiian Airlines charter at the same price, with more than 200 passengers. On Thursday, Panda opened up a second Hawaiian charter that will carry 250 people.
"I know we are going to have unhappy fans out there," Amorin said. "The demand is incredible because it may never happen in someone else's lifetime."
Panda's more than 100 employees had to contend with thousands of e-mails and hundreds of phone calls inquiring about travel packages. One of its first customers was waiting at the agency's Kapahulu Avenue office at 6:45 a.m. Monday.
Hawaiian spokesman Keoni Wagner said the airline had to hire ground crews in New Orleans as well as pay for hotel rooms for its crew, adding to the price of the charter. The second Hawaiian charter rose in price because it is flying back to Honolulu empty instead of stopping on the West Coast. Another Hawaiian plane, which is flying the UH football team, will remain idle in New Orleans.
"If you look at the prices of just airfare alone on that sector in these dates, it looks like a pretty good deal to me," Wagner said.
Amorin said the agency took time early Monday to arrange packages that catered to Hawaii fans, including booking fans together in the Marriott and Wyndham hotels near the Harrah's New Orleans Casino. She said the agency negotiated with the hotels to keep prices in the $200-a-night range and also booked 25 buses.
"We weren't going to put together a haphazard package," she said. "We are the largest agency in Hawaii, but that means nothing to someone in New Orleans. It's not just us standing in line."
Hawaii fans and travel agents also had to compete with another Superdome sporting event -- the Jan. 7 BCS Championship.
"New Orleans is a destination," Amorin said. "Those major events are all happening simultaneously -- the demand on their city is incredible."
Kevin Kaneshiro, sales and promotions manager for Boyd Gaming Corp.'s Vacations Hawaii unit, said the company chose not to charter a flight because of the high costs.
Vacations Hawaii sold 300 flight and hotel packages starting at $1,999 on Monday morning. It is no longer taking reservations.
The company booked at the Hilton in Kenner, a few miles outside of New Orleans, and used whatever air seats it could get, including routes through Houston.
"It is supply and demand," he said. "New Year's is already sold out. Hotels are full so they don't really have to give any breaks. Airlines count on a no-show factor. They may be taking top dollar for air seats."
Some travelers are taking four flight connections to New Orleans, with one-night stops in each direction, he said.
The last time he remembered this much travel hype was during millennium New Year's celebrations.
"Package prices were doubled and tripled at that time," he said. "People perceive it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Pictures Plus Chief Executive Kent Untermann, who is giving away three pairs of tickets to the game in a company essay contest, said he booked flights to the mainland last Saturday night before the bowl game announcement Sunday afternoon. He snagged $330 round-trip tickets on Hawaiian to Phoenix and back through Los Angeles. Once the game was announced, he purchased connecting flights on Southwest Airlines to Houston, staying from Dec. 27 through Jan. 3.
"We decided to book early," he said. "It was very reasonable."
Untermann, who is a former University of Hawaii tight end, said he booked a room at the Marriott in New Orleans, where the team is staying, for $169 a night on weekdays and $269 for weekends. Total cost for game tickets, flights a hotel room and a rental car for his family of four: $5,000.
"I don't want to say it was easy," he said. "Everybody that I've talked to that really wants to go has found a way. The people who really spent a lot of time seemed to have figured it out."