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Should I book early to get the best vacation deal?

AskEd & AnswerEd
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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on June 16, 2005. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: AskEd & AnswerEd, Ed Perkins, Mexico, vacation package.

A reader says, "We go to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, every February for a minimum of two weeks. Is there a way to book a lower cost airfare well in advance of the travel dates? We wouldn't mind booking a charter flight or signing up for an air-and-hotel package, but we don't want an all-inclusive package as we like to visit a different restaurant every night."

This raises some interesting questions about vacation-package pricing and when to make your travel arrangements—both of which can be something of a mystery—which I'll try to clarify.

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Advance purchase

List prices for most package tours are no lower many months ahead than they are two or three weeks ahead. However, some operators offer small early-booking reductions; they'll be in the brochures. Moreover, some of the better deals can sell out early and may not be available at the last minute. The same is true for airfares, purchased separately, as long as you conform to the 14- or 21-day advance purchase restrictions.

The best time to buy a tour or separate air ticket—or just about anything, for that matter—is during a "sale" or short-term promotion, which is never predictable. Wait until a really good sale comes along, then buy, whether it's six months or six weeks in advance. Right now, for example, Alaska Airlines is discounting airfares and packages to Mexico, including Puerto Vallarta.

A good way to keep track of promotions is to subscribe to an online service that notifies you of special deals (SmarterTravel.com's Deal Alert is a good example). Although hoping for a cheap last-minute airfare can be risky, you can often find good last-minute deals on tour packages. Most of the big online travel sites offer last-minute options.

Length of stay

Package tours are often priced and promoted for one-week stays, sometimes Saturday to Saturday, although you also see lots of three-, four-, and five-night packages to popular, nearby sun-sand-surf destinations such as Puerto Vallarta. In most cases, tour operators are happy to extend your stay for two or more weeks with no increase in airfare. In fact, lots of tour brochures quote "extra day" rates. Just ask about extensions.

Airfares fares don't vary by the length of time you stay, provided you stay at least over a Saturday night and no longer than 30 days, and provided your travel doesn't fall on peak days when fares are higher no matter when you book them.

Charter flights

These days, the majority of tour packages employ scheduled airlines, not charters. That's one reason length of stay can be so flexible. And charters no longer provide the price advantage they enjoyed before airline deregulation.

A few programs still operate with charters—or on airlines that behave like charters. That means, at least on some routes, flights operate only once or twice per week, and your stay must conform to the limited flight schedule. Those weekly "back-to-back" charter flights aren't always on Saturdays, either: Charter lines have to keep flying all week, so some rotations are weekday to weekday.

Flights to Puerto Vallarta

Although the reader didn't specify her home airport, most of the big lines can get you from their US points to Puerto Vallarta, either on their own or through code-sharing with other lines. Both major Mexican lines fly there, as do some small, low-fare lines (Aero California, for example, flies from both Los Angeles and Tucson).

These days, you rarely—if ever—cut costs by flying two different airlines, other than on code-shared partnerships. In really odd circumstances, you might cut costs by finding a cheap flight to El Paso or San Diego, crossing by land to Ciudad Juarez or Tijuana, then flying a Mexican airline to Puerto Vallarta, but I couldn't find any such cases.

 
 
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