Want your vacation savings tied up with a nice shiny bow? Then you may want to go for a so-called “package”. Promotions that combine airfare with a hotel room (and sometimes car rental and tours), packages often allow vacationers to travel at a lower price than they would have had they had to pay for these elements separately. Why the discount? Because with a package, the travel companies involved (hotels, airlines, car rental companies, etc.) can move unsold inventory without “tipping their hands”. With a package, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to tell, which player is offering the biggest mark-down.
But packages aren’t foolproof and they don’t always offer savings. Here’s what you need to know before you bite:
Packagers are easier to find than ever before: A number of the large travel sites whose names you will know (Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline and their kin) today offer air/hotel packages. And the metasearch site Kayak.com now has a nifty tool that compares one package deal to the next. Simply click on “packages” and then key in the name of the cities you’ll be flying to and from, the number of nights you’ll be staying. A list will pop up with options from all the sellers listed above, and a couple more.
In addition, the website TravelZoo.com will often publicize (for a fee paid by the company being covered) handsome package deals to all areas of the globe.
Specialists Sometimes (But Not Always) Have Better Deals: When you’re looking at that Kayak search, keep in mind that it only vets the massive travel agency sites listed above. Sometimes you’ll get a better deal if you go with a company that specializes in a particular location, simply because it works so intensively in just one place that it can score deals others can’t (often by promising to keep a hotel full year round). Case in point: Chinaspree.com currently has a winter offer to Beijing, which combines airfare from San Francisco with six hotel nights (and includes all fees except for baggage and visa fees), breakfasts, a few lunches, and three tours, for just $888 on many dates this winter. The closest the sites searched by Kayak come is $1035 for those same dates, for the air and hotel alone. That being said, Travelocity walloped Europe specialist Go-Today.com on winter packages to London from NYC (coming in at $999 for air and six-nights hotel versus Go Today’s $1297 rate). Bottom line: you better shop around.
Fuggedaboutit if you’re traveling alone: Alas, packages are geared towards twosomes. Solo travelers are inevitably hit with “singles supplements” which almost always wipe out any savings that comes from booking a package. Why? The packager won’t make as much with just one person in the room as they would with two folks sharing it, so they charge solos extra to make up the difference.
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Get ready for a “pillow mill”: Character, comfort and a desirable location are qualities that are often lacking from the hotels that “star” in package deals, at least at the lower end of the price scale. Often the package perennials make their “nut” by working closely with big companies—both tour operators and packagers—rather than trying to appeal to independent tourists (i.e. the folks who will actually stay in the place). If you’re the type of travel who simply wants a place to crash after a long day of sightseeing, this may not be an issue. If you’re a honeymooner, in search of, well, sexy surroundings, you may do better booking the airfare and hotel separately, so you can choose a unique property, the type that doesn’t need to partner with packagers to stay afloat.