Best (and Worst) Travel Discount Programs

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Credit card on keyboard (Photo: Index Open)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on July 11, 2010. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: AARP, airfare, booking strategy, car rental, cruise, Expedia, hotel, Sarah Pascarella, senior travel, Student Advantage, student travel, vacation package.

In response to my recent story on travel rip-offs, many of you wrote in to add travel discount programs to the list. Specifically, membership- or buy-in programs promising travel discounts, freebies, and more seemed to have left you with buyers' remorse. Common complaints included lackluster perks, inflated pricing, and sneaky "gotcha" policies.

"Many of the promised 'free entry' venues were free to all, anyway!" wrote reader meg.

"I ordered an Entertainment Book on sale last year," says reader mik. "What they did not tell me is that buying the book includes a 'membership' which means they automatically sent me a full priced book this year and then wanted to charge me return shipping to send it back."

So, what's the latest with these discount programs? Are there any that actually deliver on their promises to the customer, or are most not worth purchasing? I did a bit of digging to find out.

CityPass

I put CityPass to the test in three different cities: New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. At first glance, the passes appear to offer good deals.

CityCityPass PriceA la Carte Attractions AdmissionsBest Value
New York$79 per adult$124CityPass saves $45/person
Chicago$69 per adult$121CityPass saves $52/person
San Francisco$64 per adult$122CityPass saves $58/person

From a purely monetary standpoint, the CityPasses will save you money compared to buying all the admission fees individually. But let's put emphasis on the all here: With each respective pass, take a closer look at the offerings to see if they appeal to you. It's great that you'll be getting a discount, but if most of the attractions don't interest you, you're not getting much value. Additionally, if you have limited time (e.g., just a weekend, say, rather than a week or two to explore), you may not be able to hit every attraction, or at best have limited time at each one as you rush to take them all in.

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In short, use critical and realistic judgment, taking time, logistics, and interests into consideration when shopping for a CityPass. If you like the offerings and have enough time to see them all, CityPass can be a great deal. If you're not interested in some of the attractions or are crunched for time, you might want to consider going a la carte.

AAA

Many travelers tend to take advantage of AAA's travel discount program, particularly in regard to hotel stays. While you can often get a few bucks knocked off a hotel's per-night rate, be sure to shop around before choosing the AAA rate to ensure it's the lowest or best fit for you.

I tested AAA prices against other rate classes at several hotels in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. In two cases (New York and Chicago), I found the AAA rate was equal to the hotels' other promotional prices, and in San Francisco the AAA price was the lowest available. Additionally, I found that the AAA rate offered greater flexibility than some of the other sales, in that the only requirement was presenting the card at check-in. Some of the properties' other sale rates required payment in advance, no cancellations or refunds, and other restrictions.

In short, every property is different and may have a variety of pricing structures. Do a little legwork to see what else is on hand before booking. While you may find the AAA rate fits your budget, there may be other sales that offer lower prices—you'll only know if you do a bit of advance research.

AARP

AARP's "discounts" are the most disingenuous of the programs I researched. On the AARP travel website, you'll see an "AARP Travel Center" reservations area, affiliated with Expedia. I tested a variety of hotels to see if senior-only special offers or discounts were featured in the search results, and found in most cases they were not—the AARP results were nearly identical with Expedia.com's own sale offerings for almost every property I checked.

As with AAA, you'll have to do a bit of digging to determine if AARP's discounts offer a good value. Don't assume the first price you see is the lowest, whether you've found it on AARP or elsewhere. Compare prices among a variety of providers, and call companies directly to see if senior discounts or other sales (open to anyone) are available.

Student Advantage

The Student Advantage card offers a host of student discounts at retailers around the country, with travel providers such as American Airlines, Amtrak, Choice Hotels, and more represented.

The card costs $20 for a one-year membership, $30 for two years, $40 for three years, and $50 for four years. Here's where the value proposition comes in: Do you think you'll use the card enough to offset the sign-up cost? Do you think the perks, once purchased, are worth the membership fees? (Many travel providers offer discounts ranging from 5 to 25 percent off, with some restrictions, black-out dates, etc.)

Browse the available offers with a critical eye to see if you frequently visit participating retailers. If you do, signing up might be worth it. If you don't, you may want to forego membership and search for non-member deals.

Entertainment Books

Entertainment books offer a variety of discounts throughout a specific region and/or city (e.g., Las Vegas, Orlando, Hawaii, and the like). Each book's coupons are valid throughout the current calendar year and retail for $35. Additionally, once you've purchased your book, you'll receive a link to a dedicated discount section of Entertainment's website, where you can print additional coupons not found in the print edition.

Like Student Advantage, the Entertainment pay-for-discounts model requires careful consideration. You can see previews of current offers on the Entertainment website before you buy, as well as a breakdown of what types of retailers are offering discounts. Whether the discounts are a good value, appeal to your tastes, and the purchase price is affordable, is up to you.

Your Turn

Have you found membership and/or pre-purchase discounts to offer good deals? Or do you think they're rip-offs? Share your thoughts by submitting a comment below!

(Editor's Note: SmarterTravel.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com.)

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