New York City Tour Packages: The Best, The Worst, and How to Find Them
Planning an affordable vacation in New York City is no easy trick. Booking your own accommodation comes at a cost: Gotham’s hotel rooms are the priciest not just in the United States, but also in its entire hemisphere, and apartment rentals of fewer than 30 days are usually illegal in the Big Apple. It’s those problems that might make buying a package a smart financial move. Booking air-hotel packages—where one price combines airfare and your hotel stay at a discount—is hugely popular in beachy destinations like Hawaii, the Caribbean, and Mexico. But do they work in New York? And if so, which companies offer the best options?
I'm the author of Frommer's guide book to New York City, so I know the territory intimately. I looked at various scenarios: last-minute travel, holiday travel, luxury vacations, budget escapes, low- and high-season travel, plus airfares from all corners of the United States. I did not include car rentals in the mix because renting a car in New York City is more of a burden than a benefit—public transportation is easy, traffic is insane, and parking prices are outrageous. When I could, I compared packages that were identical—same hotels, same flavor of airfare (direct or indirect, economy or business class). That wasn’t always possible since the smaller package companies don’t work with as many hotels as the larger ones. But I did my best to compare like to like given my deep knowledge of the city's offerings. Then I worked out whether it would have been more expensive to book the components separately. Here are the results, counting down from the least impressive choices to the ones that get you the most bang for the buck.
This specialist is a giant in beach vacations, but it simply doesn’t compete when it comes to vacations with Gotham. Not only does Pleasant Holidays have a list of fewer than 60 hotels (out of hundreds of options in town), but its cheaper options are also almost all out near the airport, which would mean a hellish commute. Plus, it only allows travelers to search airfares by airport, rather than looking for the best price in the entire area and telling them where those are, meaning it's easy to miss cheaper flights by forgetting to search all the airports (New York City has three, with a few more located about an hour out of town).
Even more damning: in my test, Pleasant Holidays always charged the highest overall costs for its packages. Its best showing, for a 3-night stay in a Midtown hotel with roundtrip airfare from Chicago, was still $120 higher than the lowest rate found elsewhere (on Priceline, in that instance). At its worst, people who booked a NYC package through Pleasant Holidays paid 40% more than other packagers were charging.
BookIt works with roughly twice as many hotels as Pleasant Holidays, but that’s still only a fraction of the inventory in town, much of which is offered by the other packagers I checked. Even more problematic for travelers: It often surfaced hotels in its New York City search that were well outside the city, like a hotel in Stamford, Connecticut (an hour away) and another in Lake Placid (a four-to-five hour drive away!).
But when it did work, its prices were still better than Pleasant Holidays', and every once in a while, were just a few dollars above the lowest packaged price from the other companies in my survey. Most often, however, its rates were 25% higher than its competitors.
I can't in good conscience recommend any of the vacation packaging arms of any of the airlines. In test after test, Southwest Airlines Vacations, Delta Vacations, American Airlines Vacations, JetBlue Vacations and United Vacations returned prices that were far higher than the standard booking engines did (profiled coming up), and many of them had websites that were annoying to use. For example, both Delta and JetBlue fly into two NYC airports, but their vacation sites only allow users to search for one at a time. JetBlue gets points off, too, for only offering 200 hotels, many of which aren't in the city proper but in New Jersey and Connecticut (I will give it a "cheers," though, for offering a free drink to all of its package customers). Delta, too, came up short for hotels, and Southwest had a booking window that was several weeks shorter than its competition.
Orbitz is also now part of the Expedia family, so, like Travelocity, it often showed airfare picks and prices that were nearly identical to its overlord. But not always. With the exception of one really bad rate on a high season trip, it was usually a few dollars cheaper than Travelocity, and usually far cheaper than either BookIt or Pleasant Holidays. Consider Orbitz a middle-of-the-road vendor.
The big kahuna of travel booking had a decent showing in this test, never once posting the highest package price, and showing the lowest package price (or coming within $10) about 20% of the time. And when Expedia did post the cheapest rate, its savings were significant. Most often, though, its prices and airline choices were close to those posted by its corporate siblings Orbitz and Travelocity.
Coming in with wins or with ties for the lowest package price some 40% of the time, Priceline does an impressive job, especially on the packages that unexpectedly popped up with the title "Express Deals". On these, the consumer has to purchase the vacation before finding out which airline will be used, but since the airline will always be one of the usual suspects we fly anyway, that's not much of a gamble. On one week-long package to a luxury hotel, the Priceline quote beat its nearest competitor by $200, and was $900 cheaper than the competitor with the worst prices.
The only downside to Priceline? Unlike its competition, it doesn't allow travelers to filter for business-class or first class seats with its packages.
After looking at the prices from all of the packagers listed in this article, I then went about researching what I would pay booking the airfare and hotel separately. And a surprising pattern emerged: I realized that for 60% of the vacations I researched, I could either match or improve upon the package price by booking the key elements of lodging and transportation separately. In one case, a three-night vacation cost $90 less when I didn't use a packager. More frequently, the book-your-own price essentially tied the lowest package rate, or it came in only $5 to $10 cheaper.
Package deals are tricky. They have a lot of moving parts, and many travelers forget that costs are per person and not per room (and thus don’t calculate correct comparisons when looking at hotel prices). It’s also important to remember that all package companies I surveyed currently exclude resort fees (also known as “facility fees”). That means an air/hotel deal that looks like the best value at first glance may wind up costing far more than other options when the $20-$40 per night resort fee is factored in.
To find the best price, look at all the fees before booking. And don’t ever book a package to New York City without checking to see whether you can do better booking the same pieces on your own. Don’t believe the hype on these companies' websites that claim “you’ve just saved $X by buying this package!” I found those numbers rarely jibed with reality.