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There are basically two kinds of hotel deals: One is all about the money you'll save, the other about money you won't spend. Confuse the two, and you could end up wondering how your supposedly affordable family vacation ended up costing so much.

Is cutting vacation costs a top priority? Then look for discounts and freebies on components that are essential to your stay. A hotel deal that slices 30% off your room rate or gives you a fourth night free saves you money. For active vacations, packages that include free skiing or golf also slice your overall costs, since you would have undoubtedly had to buy lift tickets or greens fees anyway.

On the other hand, a complimentary room upgrade is a perk. It may add value to your stay, but it does not bring down the price of your vacation. Ditto for an in-room movie rental or gift bag for your child containing a free souvenir tee-shirt and a coloring book.

Spotting the best money-saving hotel deal when comparison shopping isn't always easy. Hotels would usually rather dangle a value-added perk than offer a price-cutting discount, and some perks can be extremely tempting. We recently compared two special offers available from Starwood Hawaii Hotels & Resorts that should make families feel spoiled for choice, since both deliver over $500 in value on a three-night stay. Yet if your motivation is to save money, one deal is a standout winner. We toted up both deals for a three-night stay for a family of four.

The "Sunsational Hawaii" offer caught our eye because, while not marketed specifically to families, it delivers some juicy savings and a perk that families can certainly appreciate. Book a stay at one of 11 Starwood properties (including Sheraton, Westin, Luxury Collection, and St. Regis) in Hawaii and you'll get:

  • Third night free (33% discount on a three-night stay; can be worth $425 or more)
  • One-category room upgrade (a better view can be worth $35/night x 3 nights = $105)
  • Either free buffet breakfast daily for two adults (neighboring islands) or $75 dining credit per stay (Oahu only)
  • Kids 5 and under eat free from kids' menu; Kids 6-12 get 50% discount on meals from the regular menu (let's say it's worth $63/day for two kids x 3 days = $189)

We like all that, but only one of the elements included in this package actually saves you money. For a family of four on a three-night visit, this deal breaks down as about $689 saved on accommodation and meals (because you would otherwise have been billed for them), plus the room upgrade, which is a value-added perk worth about $105. Think of the room upgrade as money not spent, since it's nice to have but you might not have been willing to pay extra for it. Book online or call tel. 866/716-8140 and mention promo code JRY.

Then there's the "Family Fun Package," available at three of Starwood's Hawaiian properties, including the Westin Maui Resort & Spa. Here's what you get:

  • Special check-in area and orientation with a member of the Fun Team
  • Single room, guaranteed connecting rooms or a suite
  • $100 resort credit per day, to spend on the kid's club, spa, golf or another activity (worth $300 on a three-day stay)
  • Refillable kid's cup with unlimited soft drinks, milk, and juice daily at pool bar (worth, say, $60 for two thirsty kids on a three-day stay)
  • Kids 12 and under eat free off of the kids' menu (let's say $36/day x 2 kids x 3 days = $216)
  • "Guilt free" dining: Kids get a separate, supervised dining room
  • Evening ritual
  • Age-appropriate amenity for each child in the room upon arrival
  • Complimentary crib and/or rollaway bed in room upon arrival if needed

While there are some fun amenities and a nice perk thrown in here, let's focus on just the three elements that add significant value: The $100-per-day in resort credits, "kids eat free" program, and unlimited poolside drinks for kids. For a family of four on a three-night stay, we estimate that this deal adds about $576 in value, of which $276 is money saved on kids' food and drinks, because you would have had to spend that money otherwise. Meanwhile, the $300 resort credit is money not spent because, had it not been for the package, you might not have chosen to spend $300 on fee-based activities during your stay. For this deal, ask for promo code FML.

Verdict: Both deals offer impressive value, without question. But the "Sunsational" offer packs the biggest Hawaiian punch of savings.

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