Bad news, short notice: How to travel smart

When “travel” means “vacation,” planning can be a pleasure and occur at a leisurely pace. Our decisions fulfill dreams, strengthen relationships, emphasize adventure or rest. We learn as we explore and are energized by a temporary escape from time clocks, housework, care giving.

But when travel happens in response to bad news, logistics likely complicate an already troubling situation. Panic or heartache might trump logic, muddying decisions that must be made quickly – sometimes with significant expense.

Here are resources that I found helpful when an elderly relative’s tenuous situation took me to Manhattan on short notice recently.

Airfare – I almost discarded an airline’s invitation to fly anywhere in the continental U.S. for $250 because I had no travel plans before the promotion’s expiration date. Or so I thought.

Before booking, I compared rates at www.kayak.com, a search engine that sifts through the data of hundreds of travel websites. I also checked Southwest and Jet Blue airfares, because the two discount airlines aren’t screened through Kayak.com and routinely offer short-notice rates that are significantly lower than those of competitors.

Although some airlines offer consideration when the serious illness or death of a relative can be documented, these discounts tend to come off of the highest unrestricted fare. So asking for a “bereavement fare” is not necessarily your best bet and may eat up precious time and energy.

Transportation – Can you use public transportation, to avoid renting a car? Can you avoid taxi fare, by using a shared ride service at the airport? The right answers will depend upon your location, and your need to maneuver between multiple locations.

When travel involves air transportation, use the official website for the destination airport as a springboard. Look for “ground transportation” to better understand your options, before you leave home.

Lodging – Rate comparisons are easy, thanks to a plethora of online search engines – including Kayak.com, but sometimes it pays to weigh other alternatives, especially if you will need to be away for a while.

An airline’s list of “vacation packages” led me to a $100 per night apartment rental on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a five-minute walk from where I needed to spend most of my time. Although spring rates are as high as $165 at 254 East Vacation, a tidy and roomy brownstone in an agreeable neighborhood, that’s still a good deal. The kitchenette cut dining costs, and rates drop when renting for a month or longer.

Just don’t expect a Midwest ambiance: Memorize the building access code, use those triple deadbolt locks, and don’t expect an innkeeper to be at your disposal. For more: www.254eastvacation.com, 212-879-8324.

Other options: Ask for an extended-stay rate from a bed and breakfast operator, see if your faith community has a home-stay network or consider booking a private room at a hostel (barebones lodging, but less expensive than a hotel – see www.hiusa.org).

Food – Having access to a kitchen cuts the need to eat out. Asking locals where they go for a good meal moves you from “tourist” to “insider.” Noticing “early bird” specials advertised on the windows of busy restaurants also helps, as does crossing paths with a good deli.

I also head to www.restaurants.com, especially when the website advertises deeper-the-usual discounts. Taken to Manhattan were two $25 restaurant certificates, each of which cost me only $2, and that’s how I ended up at Session 73 (www.session73.com) for some of the thinnest and best pizza I’ve ever eaten. Celebrities reportedly breeze in during the wee hours, but I pretty much had the place to myself around 6 p.m. on a weekday.

Read the fine print: A $25 Restaurant.com certificate typically requires a food order of at least $35 and doesn’t cover alcohol. I declined to use my second certificate because the menu seemed unappealing in price and scope.

Resources – When time away requires problem solving, I pack a laptop and seek free, convenient Internet access. I got it at 254 East Vacation, although that meant sitting on a stairway to get a connection.

So I sought more comfortable surroundings at the main branch of the New York Public Library, a National Historic Landmark since 1965. It was a joy to visit, Internet access was free and librarians were eager to assist. Free and helpful service is what I’ve encountered elsewhere, too, no matter what the size of town. For more: www.nypl.org, 917-275-6975.