Save a bundle with build-your-own vacation packages

by SmarterTravel Staff
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on October 2, 2003. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: vacation package.

Booking tools: Expedia, Orbitz Vacations, Travelocity "TotalTrip" Editor's rating (out of 4 stars):
1/2 (Expedia)
(Orbitz Vacations)
(Travelocity "TotalTrip") Editor's review: Expedia is the only site that currently includes a car option, but its packages didn't display the lowest price first, and offered only limited savings. With the example I used, Orbitz' package was more expensive than booking the individual pieces separately on that site. Travelocity offered the best discount, but its package didn't have as many hotel options as the other websites.

In my last column, I showed my brother Josh how flexible search tools could help him find the least expensive days to fly to San Francisco. This month, my friends Kevin and Molly have asked me for advice about their Thanksgiving trip to Hawaii: four days on Maui and four days on Kauai. They'll need hotel rooms—with ocean views, of course—and rental cars, plus airfare from Boston, so they unleashed me to track down the best deals I could find.

Given their multi-stop itinerary, I thought it would make sense for them to consider a vacation package. If they bundled multiple parts of their trip, they might be able to save money, as long as they could still customize their vacation with the options they want.

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And that's exactly what the largest online travel agencies, Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity, have each been promoting over the last couple of months. Travelocity, for example, says that you can save an average of $155 with an air-and-hotel package, instead of booking the same flight and stay individually on its site. Similarly, Orbitz reports that its vacations are 15 percent cheaper than comparable airfare and hotels reserved separately.

More Net Worthy articles:

Save time and money with flexible airfare search tools

Spend less on airfare with a 'side' dish of savings

But itís smart for you to be skeptical of these claims, since packages often come with strings attached. Though these companies would prefer that you book your airfare, hotel, and car rental (when available) at the same time, there are several reasons why you shouldn't, all of which should raise red flags for savvy shoppers:

  • It limits your flexibility: A package may not have the best overall price if you find a better deal for one of the pieces of your trip someplace else
  • It hides the price of each component: Air-and-hotel bundles don't allow you to know the cost of each part of your trip, and that makes it difficult for you to compare prices elsewhere.
  • It habituates you to shop the same site again and again: At a time when consumers have become increasingly price-sensitive, the major online agencies would like you to view them as one-stop travel marketplaces, regardless of whether or not they have the best deals to where you're going.

My friends' Hawaii vacation is a perfect opportunity for a spot check on whether booking one or more pieces of a trip in a package can help you save. I looked at Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity to investigate their bundling options and assist my friends with planning their getaway to paradise. As you'll see, however, not every company offers the same choices, so I had to adjust the components I searched in order to show how each site measured up.

Expedia

My first stop was Expedia, because it offers three different package options: air-and-hotel, hotel-and-car, and air-hotel-car, and allows searches that include multiple destinations. I searched the itinerary listed below; there's an extra day unaccounted for because my friends are also visiting Honolulu, but I've left that out to simplify the examples.

Individual componentsPrice +
Flights Boston to Maui (November 21 on United),
Kauai to Boston (November 30 on American)
$4,802
Hotels Aston at Papakea Resort on Maui
(4 nights, studio with ocean view)
$493
Aston Islander on the Beach on Kauai
(4 nights, ocean view)
$393
Cars Compact rental from Alamo (4 days on Maui) $175
Compact rental from Alamo (4 days on Kauai) $154
+ All prices are for two people, including all taxes and fees
Type of package Package price + Booked separately
on Expedia
Package savings
Air-hotel-car $5,871 $6,017 $146 ($73 pp)
Air-hotel $5,610 $5,688 $78 ($39 pp)
Hotel-car (Maui) $615 $668 $53 ($27 pp)
Hotel-car (Kauai) $463 $547 $84 ($42 pp)
+ All prices are for two people, including all taxes and fees except car taxes in the relevant packages
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