Putting the deal in package deal

Updated: May 31 2009, 06:30am hrs
Good deals come in travel packages this summer. With airplane trips, car rentals and hotel rooms all selling sluggishly, travel vendors are bundling them into package deals priced so low that some trips cost little more than if you had booked the flight alone. A rare few cost even less. Pleasant Holidays is offering trips to Honolulu from $379 a person, including round-trip flights on United from Los Angeles and three nights at the Castle Maile Sky Court Hotel. The flight alone, for that trip departing on August 24 and returning August 27, came to $522.20 a person in a recent search on United.com. A broader airfare search turned up a $289 fare on Continental, but it required an overnight flight on the way back, and when the hotel was factored in at $75 a night an internet special the total trip was still $45 more than the Pleasant Holidays package.

A two-night trip to New Orleans from Birmingham, in July with rooms at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside was $437.90 from Southwest Vacations in a recent search. By contrast, booking the same hotel and flights at Hilton.com and Southwest.com separately was $575.94, or $138.04 more enough for a three-course dinner and drinks for two at Bayona in the French Quarter.

The goody bag

Package deals have long offered customers some savings because travel companies are often more willing to cut rates when other travel components, like airfare, are wrapped in. That way hotels, airlines and car rental agencies dont have to divulge exactly how much theyre undercutting their listed rates. But even a year ago, travellers could be forgiven for dismissing such deals. Since there was little need for airlines or hotels to discount when travel was booming, the difference between a vacation package and booking la carte was less significant. Not anymore. Customers who book flight and hotel packages at Expedia.com rather than buying the trip components separately are receiving an average discount of 17%, versus 8.5% last year, according to the site.

At Travelocity.com, customers who book vacation packages are saving an average of $315, versus $240 last year. The range of offers has also improved, with 35% more hotels participating in Travelocity packages this April than in April 2008.

Easy on the wallet

The deals are meant to appeal to increasingly budget-conscious travellers who want to know their total vacation cost or at least most of it upfront. Its about marketing value: You can come to Vegas for $300 and thats all its going to cost, said Rob Torres, travel industry director at Google, which has seen an increase of approximately 25% in searches for the terms package deals and flight packages.

In an effort to assure travellers that they wont be hit with unexpected charges once they arrive, hotels have begun to add meals, parking and other extras into the trip rate. Hotel Maya, a new Joie de Vivre property in Long Beach, California, opening in July, is offering an all-inclusive resort-style Mayan Journey package that includes breakfast, a three-course dinner, daily sangria tasting and parking for $149 a person a night, based on double occupancy a saving of roughly $90 a night over the cost if booked la carte.

Such all-inclusive deals, normally the purview of sprawling Caribbean resorts, are starting to pop up at luxury hotels in major cities like Las Vegas, New York and Miami. Earlier this month, Ritz-Carlton Hotels introduced a Peace of Mind package across its properties, designed to take away the worry of added charges according to a statement. The deal wraps services like daily breakfast, internet access, local phone calls and overnight parking into nightly rates at city hotels and offers five nights for the price of three or seven nights for the price of four. For seven nights in mid-June at the Ritz-Carlton New York, Battery Park, for example, guests pay $1,960 with the package, compared with $3,430 normally at $355 a night plus $60 a night for parking, $15 for internet access and local calls and $60 for breakfast. At resort locations the deal is even better, with three nights offered for the price of two and entry to Ritz Kids club included.

Vail Resorts is pushing the package concept further with new three-and six-night all-inclusive Epic Summer vacations at its four mountain resorts in Colorado from June 26 to September 6. More akin to group tours than typical all-inclusive deals, the packages offer daily guided excursions like white-water rafting in the Rockies and horseback trail rides as well as all meals and transportation. Three-night packages are $695 a person for adults and $545 for children 6 to 12. Six-nights are $1,195 for adults and $895 for children.

In a sea of discounts this summer, the packages are meant to set the resorts apart with a unique offering at one low price, said Rob Katz, Chief Executive of Vail Resorts.

Penny wise, pound wiser

But make sure you understand exactly whats included and whats not before booking. The Imperial Palace in Las Vegas has been offering an All-In package for $95 for single occupancy, including unlimited dining and drinks. But dining is available only at the Emperors Buffet or the Teahouse two out of six hotel restaurants, as VegasTripping.com, a casino blog recently pointed out. Considering that the hotel has been offering rates as low as $27 a night, you will have to eat/drink your way through $58 of stuff per day to make this deal pay, the site states.

Online travel agencies like Travelocity and Orbitz make it easy to search for basic itineraries like a round-trip flight between two major cities, a hotel and a rental car. Expedia allows package searches for itineraries involving up to two destinations. But anything more complex like flying into one city, driving to the next and departing from there is nearly impossible to book online. There is no hard and fast rule for who is offering the best bargains. But good travel agents can often quickly uncover the best deals in their particular markets. Pam Edwartoski at Travel Leaders in Troy, Michigan, said Northwest Vacations is, hard to beat in her area. To prove her point she uncovered a weeklong trip to Los Angeles from Detroit in late July including a car and a standard room at the Renaissance Hollywood for $2,756.48 on Northwest Vacations, compared with $3,102.56 at Expedia.com.

But it can still pay to shop around, especially if youre flexible about where to stay or when to go. Expedia, which negotiates low rates with hotels, said it didnt currently have a promotional rate with the Renaissance Hollywood. But a publicist pointed out that it offered a similar package for less: $1,985.21.

NY Times / Michelle Higgins