Cancún's Zona Hotelera -- which was, after all, created to lure upscale travelers and has attained ever more extravagant heights with post-Wilma development -- can bruise the budget, but it is possible to soften the blow. Booking a package deal that bundles together the costs of airfare and hotel can reduce hotel tabs to manageable proportions, as can traveling in low season.
Cancún is prime territory for packages, and they should be your starting point. Even in the unlikely event that you don't find one that meets your needs -- solo travelers, in particular, usually won't benefit from packages, which are based on double occupancy -- it will give you a point of comparison when shopping for prices. The basic package includes airfare and hotel, with the option of adding rental cars, airport transfers, tours, sports activities, and travel insurance for less than the price of purchasing them separately. Contrary to common wisdom, the percentage of savings over published rates booked separately tends to be greatest during high season. This is when competing airlines add seasonal service and sharply elevated room rates allow for more discounts. And purchasing a package may be the only way to obtain flights and rooms that are otherwise sold out.
Lodging available through travel packages ranges from generic all-inclusives to exclusive luxury resorts, varying by company, season, and availability. Travel agents can book package trips, and they have access to some deals from wholesalers that aren't available to individual travelers. GoGo Worldwide Vacations, for example, sells only through agents and has some exclusive deals with hotels and resorts that aren't available through direct-to-public packagers. For most of the major packagers, though, you'll save money by booking them yourself.
Some packagers consistently offer better savings than others, and within each company some deals are better than others. There's only one way to determine how much of a bargain any particular deal is: Compare the total package price -- including taxes and fees, which often aren't quoted upfront -- with prices available directly through the hotel's and airline's websites. Even when the saving is minimal, you'll benefit from the convenience, access to an agent if something goes wrong when you're on foreign soil, and any extras the company includes, such as airport transfers. For greatest savings, look for last-minute deals and other specials.
Not all packages are created equal. So it's extremely important to read all the fine print and make comparisons before booking. Some suggestions on how to proceed:
1. When looking at different companies online, make sure that you're making an "apples-to-apples" comparison. Go all the way through to the booking page to get the true rate. Prices on the initial search page usually don't include mandatory taxes and fees.
2. To save the most, don't futz around with the package. If you search for a different flight than the one included in the initial offer, it often increases the cost. Upgrading to a better room category certainly will; initial price quotes are always for the most basic rooms.
3. Carefully reread the package inclusions before turning over your credit card number. Some packages include airport transfers or some form of travel insurance at no extra cost, but most don't. An insidious ploy of some packagers is to add these or other extras, along with their additional charges, by default. If you don't want the extras, it's up to you to remove them.
4. Move quickly. The price you're looking at is good only for that instant in time. Because of changes in airfares or hotel occupancy rates, you could see a different price if you go back to the site an hour later; the price might even be updated while you are looking at it. A package can disappear altogether if the hotel has filled up. Since different packages are based on different flights, the best deal one minute can be a runner-up the next. Once you've narrowed down the contenders, run a quick double-check -- then grab it.
Vacation packages are available from specialized vacation companies, airlines and the Big Three (Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity) online booking agencies. The listings that follow are all established, reputable firms, and their deals run the gamut from great values to overpriced. They appear in order of average savings per night for a couple, based on my research of air/hotel packages offered from New York in spring and fall, compared with the cost of booking the same flights and rooms separately on airline and hotel websites.
BookIt.com (tel. 888/782-9722; www.bookit.com) came out on top with an average saving for a couple of $121 per night over separate direct bookings. The average doesn't tell the whole story, though. For spring trips booked less than a month in advance, the average saving was a whopping $244 per night; in effect, the hotel room was usually free. On the other hand, deals for low-season stays booked 6 months ahead averaged out to about the same cost as separate direct bookings with the airlines and hotels. The website is quick and easy to use, and ample property details on the search page reduce the clicking around required to decide which to select for further investigation. This site offers the widest range of choices for all-inclusive resorts, which dominate the listings.
Expedia (tel. 800/397-3342; www.expedia.com), with an average savings of $92, did the best of the Big Three online travel agencies. Flights bundled with the hotels were among the least expensive available from any of the packagers, resulting in lower total package prices. The site strong-arms you into disabling all your browser's privacy filters, which is annoying. Once you comply, though, it runs smoothly and allows you to sort search results in a variety of ways, including previous travelers' ratings.
Mexicana Vacations (tel. 800/380-8781; www.mexicanavacations.com), which turned up average savings of $89 a night per couple, is the best of the airline vacation sites, which generally are hobbled by a limited pool of hotels and the sometimes tortuous itineraries required to get you to your destination on their routes. The Mexican carrier's packages offer good flight schedules and plenty of hotel choices across the whole price spectrum.
Aeromexico Getaways (tel. 800/676-0820; www.aeromexico.com) offers a similar lineup of packages -- in fact, it uses the same booking engine -- but with a few exceptions, its prices are higher.
American Airlines Vacations (tel. 800/321-2121; www.aavacations.com) did almost as well, saving an average of $74 a night. As the U.S. airline with the greatest number of flights to Latin America, it comes up with reasonable itineraries and has nearly as many hotels to choose from as Mexicana. Fewer of American's choices fall into in the budget category, though.
Orbitz (tel. 800/504-3248; www.orbitz.com), whose packages also saved an average of $74, offers more choices than the airlines do, both in flight schedules and hotels. Its packages include a couple of inexpensive downtown hotels that most U.S. packagers don't offer. The website has a nifty feature that allows you to enter a hotel name on the initial search form if you are interested in a specific property. Orbitz sporadically tacks on its own special offers, such as 25% early-booking discounts or 10% to 20% off food and beverages.