When is a travel "deal" really a deal? In a tough economy, there's not a particularly easy answer.
Today's economy calls for more budgetary vigilance on the part of people who plan to keep traveling, so here's some advice on navigating your way through the world of promotional offers. It won't prop up your 401(k), but you may feel better about how you spend your travel dollars.
Packages vs. deals: Promotions, specials, discounts. They are all (supposed) deals, offering (supposed) savings to the consumer. A package does not, by definition, have to offer savings. In the tourism world, a package means a set of services, experiences or goods.
Hotel packages: The packaged hotel "experience" may or may not be a deal. At first glance, prices can be deceiving.
Consider these two examples:
A hotel in a major city offers a special "whoop it up on the holiday weekend" rate of $129 a night, which includes a pair of welcome cocktails. Sounds great, right? But check the hotel's Web site, and you can book rooms for that weekend for $99 a night sans the drinks. Those cocktails will cost you 30 bucks, and you'll be paying hotel tax on a higher room rate. No deal.
On the other hand, an East Coast hotel is offering a themed museum package that includes "deluxe" accommodations; museum tickets, a guided walking tour and lunch for two; and a welcome bag of goodies. It's a clever promotion, but will it pencil out with the room rates starting at $485 per room? We try booking a room on the hotel's site on a weekday in October: Yeow, the basic room rate is $440. We try Hotels.com, and it's $440 there too.
Clearly this deal offers value, but how much? We find a comparable guided walking tour and luncheon combination that costs $60 per person; that's $120. Add two museum tickets, $20 total. Figure $30 for the welcome bag. That's $170 in amenities, minus the $45 markup on the room, for a savings of $125. Deal.
I know what you're asking now: Is it worth booking a $440 room for those savings and those amenities? That depends on your priorities: If this is a sold-out museum show, a tough-to-book tour and a luxurious hotel in the perfect location, then it might be.
Tour packages: The packaged tour typically combines air fare, accommodations, land travel, meals and the services of a tour guide; because tour agencies negotiate contracts for blocks of seats and rooms well in advance, these packages often represent savings.
It's fairly easy to check. Just price out the deal as if you were booking it yourself, including the round-trip air fare from whatever city, the accommodations in however-many-star hotels and so on.
The adage about penny-wise and pound-foolish applies here: Never underestimate the value of a seasoned tour guide, guaranteed hotel rooms and hassle-free transfers and bus tours.
Seasonal deals: The Caribbean in January? Pretty pricey. The Caribbean in August? Pretty affordable. The same goes for such toasty destinations as Palm Springs and Las Vegas. They always go on sale in the off-season.
For example, an all-inclusive resort in Barbados is offering a price reduction of 25 percent this fall. The press release is upfront about this being a sale off the "high-season prices." So it's a deal compared with a vacation there in January or February. It may also be a deal considering that all meals, beverages, activities and shopping for two people are included in the nightly rate. Is it a deal compared with other off-season resorts? You'll have to do more due diligence to find out.
Mancation vs. Girlfriend Getaways: Here's a pet peeve. So-called girlfriend getaways rarely offer savings. Mancations sometimes do. What's the difference? Public relations professionals (and they tend to be women) dream up girlfriend getaways that call for up to four women to share one hotel room or suite, "slumber party" style. The fellows on a mancation often each get a room of their own, translating into savings.
Rack rates: Rack rates are like sticker prices on new cars: No one pays (or should pay) the price listed on the vehicle window or on the back of the hotel-room door. In today's marketplace, you can find deals that are based on "best available rates," which refers to the lowest price you can book on the hotel's own Web site. (Hotel consolidator sites and other travel sites may sometimes offer even lower rates.)
The freebies: Hotel packages sometimes tout free breakfast, WiFi or afternoon wine-tasting. Or maybe they say kids can stay and eat free. These may be special amenities for one particular promotion — or these may be amenities the hotel offers on a regular basis to all guests. Check the Web site to be sure.
RATES Per room vs. per person: Most hotels quote rates per room. But many beach and ski resorts quote per person prices. Be clear on the number of guests before you do your pricing. Also, many beach resorts include meals and/or beverages. Many ski packages include lift tickets and transportation to the slopes. Factor those savings in too. Sometimes they can be substantial.
Phone vs. online: Some deals are online-only; some are telephone-only; some may be booked either way. So if the phone agent doesn't know about the deal you are trying to book, try the Web site. And vice versa. If you still have trouble, contact the marketing office of the cruise line, hotel or tour group.
The hassle factor: It's wise to weigh the convenience of a package against any savings of money and time you might achieve by booking parts of a trip separately. And if you aren't particularly proficient doing computer searches, consider letting a travel agent come up with options for you.