ONLINE travel agencies have long promoted vacation packages as a means to big savings: “Book Flight + Hotel”
Enlarge This Image More Practical Traveler Columns But many travelers are skeptical, particularly those who learned the hard way that big savings might require tradeoffs like a flight at the crack of dawn, a dingy hotel or multiple flight connections. Now, online travel agencies are hoping to prove those savings exist for a vacation you’d actually want to take.
Travelocity, for instance, is trying to entice customers with a redesigned package search that uses cleaner, bolder navigation, making it easier to shop for alternative flights if the cheapest option isn’t what you want. And last summer Orbitz began listing real-life examples of savings. A recent search for flights from New York to Miami, for instance, brought up a list of package purchases, including: “1 hour ago Alice saved “$373 by booking a flight + this hotel” (South Seas Hotel).
Expedia, believing that the term “package” has a lot to do with customer skepticism, is running a contest on Facebook to rename its bundled vacations. The prize: a trip worth up to $10,000. The problem with the word “package,” said Tim MacDonald, general manager of Expedia.com, is that it sounds inflexible, conjuring up thoughts of a preset, take-it-or-leave-it deal. “You think you basically have to live with whatever they’ve got,” he said, adding that many travelers don’t believe they can get a better deal this way. “But if the hotel doesn’t have to show their price and the airlines don’t have to show their price, both are willing to give lower prices not available otherwise.”
The push to demystify the package comes as airlines and hotels are looking for ways to get consumers to buy directly from their own Web sites through lowest-price guarantees, and changing how and where their rates are listed — as in the case of American Airlines, which is not listed on Expedia or Orbitz. Online agencies are also competing with airlines that are creating their own packages. Just last month, JetBlue began offering a best-price guarantee and additional frequent flier points on packages offered across the airline’s 36 destinations.
So with spring break around the corner, I tested three sites — Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz — by searching for packages for two people for three vacation scenarios — a long weekend in Washington, D.C.; a weeklong getaway to a resort in Cancún; and a week at a luxury resort in Scottsdale, Ariz. — all with nonstop flights leaving the New York area at reasonable times.
For comparison, I shopped for hotels and airfares separately at the suppliers’ own booking sites, then searched across the three online agencies to see if they could beat those rates. I also took a close look at the agencies’ results when searching by price alone. No site consistently offered the best deal, though some were better than others. But the exercise revealed some basic lessons for online shoppers.
DON’T BE SEDUCED BY PRICE ALONE. When filtering results for the cheapest package for the Washington trip, Expedia had the best price, but with drawbacks: $400 for round-trip flights paired with the Garden Inn in Laurel, Md., 22 miles from Washington. Travelocity offered the Travelodge Fredericksburg, about 50 miles south of Washington, for $414. Orbitz had the most viable option: the Courtyard by Marriott Dunn Loring Fairfax in Vienna, Va., a 40-minute Metro ride from Washington, for $527. Still, none of these were what I really wanted — an upscale hotel in the heart of the city.
CHECK OUT THE SITES’ TOP PICKS. Given what I wanted, I was better served by not filtering for price, but instead relying on the default choices listed first (on the Expedia site, these are called Expedia Picks). The options here were more expensive, but also more convenient. Travelocity, for instance, had a good deal on a stay at the upscale Palomar Washington, a Kimpton hotel in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, with nonstop flights on JetBlue, departing New York at 7:30 a.m. and returning at 9:50 a.m. The cost, $711, was a $380 savings off the price I found by checking the hotel and airline sites separately. Orbitz served up essentially the same package as its “best value” with a different JetBlue flight leaving New York in the evening instead of the morning for $72 more than Travelocity. Expedia offered the same flights and a different hotel — Washington Plaza — for $810, with no savings indicated. But even that deal was $281 less than what I was quoted ($1,091) when trying to book the same flights and hotel myself.
CONSIDER PEAK-SEASON PACKAGES. Even in the high season, the agencies’ pre-negotiated rates with airlines and hotels allow them to create packages at prices that you’re unlikely to get from hotels and airlines separately. The best price I found by searching airline and hotel Web sites for a week at the all-inclusive ME Cancún the week before the Easter holiday was $5,297 ($3,102 for the hotel and $2,195 for the flight). All three sites beat that price by at least $1,000, with the best savings from Travelocity, at $3,212 for the same flight and hotel. It still pays to check hotel and airline Web sites directly, as I was reminded when looking for the best price for a peak-season trip to Scottsdale, Ariz. None of the online agencies beat the price I came up with, $3,070, for a week at The Boulders, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, the week leading up to Easter. The closest was Orbitz, which listed the trip for $3,232.
BOTTOM LINE Ultimately Travelocity had the best price for two of my searches: $380 off the Washington trip staying at the Palomar and an impressive $2,085 off the week in Cancún. It also had the cleanest, most intuitive search options with tabs on the left of the packages results, allowing users to select from three options: cheapest package, closest match (for those with specific flight times in mind) and shortest flight. The “change flight” button was another convenience. Travelocity also made it easy to search by hotel amenities like a swimming pool as well as by star rating or hotel name.
Expedia offered the cheapest option when searching by price alone at $400 for the Washington trip, but the hotel was 22 miles from downtown. (The company says it has more than 75,000 hotels available through packages, offering customers a wide choice.) Expedia’s site was also the least appealing. While it did allow searches by hotel amenities, I nearly missed that option, which was in tiny print at the top of the page. Orbitz served up results in a matrix that allowed for an easy at-a-glance view of available deals, but it lost points in my book for neglecting to show the total price upfront, requiring consumers to double the per-person price (shown on the first page) in their head or click on a package to see the total. Users also can’t narrow their search by hotel amenity. My advice: use Travelocity to hunt for packages. It still offers American Airlines in its search, and its site is easy to navigate. Then try to book those directly with the hotels and airlines to see if you can get a better offer.