Five Ways to Shop for the Best Vacation Package

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Frugal Family

Sometimes budget travel means spending as little as possible to take the longest, farthest, most ambitious adventure possible. Other times, you just need a break. If the goal of a trip is to relax and spend focused time with family, you have to be realistic about scheduling and budgetary constraints and honest about your tastes and you need to seize any window of opportunity. Here are some lessons this vacation-package skeptic learned from her first experience with what the industry calls “bulk” travel.

Make a List

If you have only a few days for your trip, spend as little time as possible in transit. Use Google Flights’ highly customizable search parameters to explore your options. Add the name of your home airport, pull down “nonstop flights” and select a duration of six hours or less. By leaving the destination blank, Google will return a list of places matching your requirements. From there, you can further narrow the search using the “Interests” tab. The Frugal Family’s search for “beaches” and a nonstop flight from the Bay Area turned up a handful of destinations in Hawaii, Mexico and Central America, for example.

Window Shop, Within Reason

Armed with your list of potential destinations, begin plugging your dates into sites selling vacation packages. There are dozens, but opening a manageable number of browser tabs (five or six, max) is adequate for comparison shopping. Initially I was most intrigued by sites like Costco and Groupon, which I don’t typically turn to for travel. But there are also niche sites, like Last Minute Travel, which caters to the spontaneous, and Cheap Caribbean, which specializes in a single region. It’s likely, however, that your best option is a site like Priceline, Kayak or that you’re probably already using for the rest of your travel.

What Does the Package Include?

Every “bundle” includes at least airfare and hotel, but some offer a rental car, tours and more. In the case of the Frugal Family’s recent trip [“What’s an Unlikely Vacation Bargain? Hawaii”], which was booked through Expedia, adding a car increased our price by $300 to $400. I was confident I could get a better rate on a stand-alone rental. Using Priceline’s “Name Your Price” feature, I reserved an economy car for just $21 a day, a reminder that buying in bulk isn’t always best.

Beware of Resort Fees

The scourge of the budget traveler, resort fees have proliferated in recent years. These fees are mandatory; they apply whether you’re using the services they supposedly cover: Wi-Fi, parking or equipment, like snorkeling gear. Worse, the charges — typically $10 to $40 per night — are often hidden in small print. In the case of Expedia, the site contradicts itself. At the top of its vacation-package search results it specifically states that prices include “taxes and fees,” but further down the page, beneath where the room price is listed, it adds, “Plus $30 daily resort fee.” Having read that some hotel chains waive resort fees for customers in their loyalty programs, I signed up for the Fairmont loyalty credit card, which is free for the first year. The Fairmont Orchid, unfortunately, makes no such exceptions. Being greeted with a nonsensical $120 charge at check-in was an unfortunate first impression.

Timing Is Everything

Plane tickets are almost always most expensive during what calls the “Hail Mary” window of 0 to 13 days before a flight, when airfare is $75 to $200 more, on average, than during the “Prime Booking” window of 21 to 112 days out. According to Cheapair’s analysis of three million trips, the best flights — those nonstop morning flights that would get us to Hawaii by midday — are often hundreds of dollars more when purchased last-minute. Because convenience was a priority this trip, I booked as soon as possible, 12 days before our trip was to start. A few days later, our package had jumped from less than $2,000 to $2,607, well outside my $2,400 budget. This is where being open to where you’re traveling pays off. If one destination on your list is out of reach during your travel dates, try another. With the peso at record lows, for example, this winter is an ideal, and affordable, time to visit Mexico.