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Save a bundle with build-your-own vacation packages

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.

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:

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Spend less on airfare with a ‘side’ dish of savings

But it?s 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.


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 components Price +
Flights Boston to Maui (November 21 on United),
Kauai to Boston (November 30 on American)
Hotels Aston at Papakea Resort on Maui
(4 nights, studio with ocean view)
Aston Islander on the Beach on Kauai
(4 nights, ocean view)
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

What I learned is that Expedia’s packages do save you money over booking the identical pieces individually, but the savings are fairly limited. For example, even bundling the maximum number of options only saved less than $75 per person, but that doesn?t include the car taxes that aren’t counted in the package—cutting the actual savings to less than $50.

One caution with booking a bundle through Expedia is to be sure you’re getting the options you really want, particularly if your vacation includes a car rental. For example, Expedia first selected a Hertz economy rental with the hotel-and-car package I researched on Maui, but you could save over $40 by picking Alamo when given the option to “choose a different car vendor.” An Expedia spokesperson explained that the company only works with a select number of “preferred partners” who guarantee its customers a good experience. However, if price is more important to you than value, you’ll want to make sure you’ve chosen the options that get you the best deal.

It’s also important to check for savings that you might realize by booking part of your trip on another website. For example, compared to what I found on Expedia, I couldn’t find a better hotel rate anywhere else for the property I chose on Maui. But the same car booked at would be $40 cheaper than it is on Expedia, using the weekend special rate code “Q1.” And when you add the car taxes to Expedia’s hotel-and-car package rate that doesn’t include them, the total comes to $646—or $18 more than the cost of booking Expedia’s hotel and Alamo’s car. Of course, you’ll have to decide whether paying a few dollars less is worth the extra time that it takes for such detailed comparison shopping, and then completing multiple transactions.


Orbitz doesn’t allow you to choose more than one destination in its packages, so for the purposes of this column, I researched a nine-night vacation on Kauai, with the same type of room in the same hotel. Note that you can’t yet book a car as part of your package, although an Orbitz spokesperson said she expects that option to be available by the end of the year.

Individual components Price +
Flights Boston to Kauai (depart November 21 on United,
return November 30 on United)
Hotel Aston Islander on the Beach on Kauai (nine nights, ocean view) $1,026
+ All prices are for two people; all taxes and fees included
Type of package Package price Booked separately
on Orbitz
Extra package cost
Air-hotel $4,960 $4,595 $365 ($183 pp)

With the example I chose, Orbitz’ air-and-hotel bundle was actually hundreds of dollars more expensive than booking the same flight and reserving the same hotel with two separate transactions on the site. And although the company says that its vacation package matrix allows you to combine multiple providers for both airfare and hotels, my search turned up only flights on United. (The company spokesperson said that Orbitz’ vacation packages sometimes display fewer results for airlines than if you search for airfare alone, so she advises checking both sections of the site to make sure you get the flights you want.)

Making the problem worse is that I found another United flight on Orbitz—an overnight return on the same day—that was $480 cheaper per person than the one that was selected for my package; that less expensive flight wasn’t available as part of a bundle. That means I could actually book airfare and hotel separately on Orbitz for $3,635, over $1,300 less than the package that used the more expensive flight option.

I repeated my search for a vacation on Maui to see if what I had found was just an anomaly. But with the same dates, Orbitz turned up a different issue: It said that there were no flights available for my vacation, even though I had already found several possible itineraries when I shopped separately through its airfare booking engine.

If you choose a destination for which you see multiple options, Orbitz’ packaging matrix can be an easy way to find the best deal. But it?s still a good idea to try booking your air and hotel separately—on Orbitz or another site—to compare the total price.


Travelocity’s “TotalTrip” sale:

Save up to $80 on last-minute packages

Travelocity’s “TotalTrip” also requires a single destination, so my search was based on a similar nine-night vacation on Kauai. But since my preferred hotel couldn’t be packaged with airfare, I picked a different property in order to facilitate the comparison. Also, similar to Orbitz, you can only book airfare and hotel as part of your vacation; a Travelocity spokesperson said the company expects to integrate car rentals into its packages soon, probably in January 2004.

Individual components Price +
Flights Boston to Kauai (depart November 21 on United,
return November 30 on United)
Hotel Radisson Kauai Beach Resort (nine nights, ocean view) $2,542
+ All prices are for two people; all taxes and fees included
Type of package Package price Booked separately
on Travelocity
Package savings
Air-hotel $4,551 $6,109 $1,558 ($779 pp)

Of all three companies, Travelocity fared the best with the sample vacation I chose, with substantial savings from booking an air-and-hotel package. (Oddly, though, the cheapest package used a more expensive flight option; for airfare alone, you could save over $180 per person by booking a return through San Francisco instead of Los Angeles, and arrive home all of 14 minutes later.)

One drawback, however, is a fairly limited set of hotel choices; compared to dozens of options by searching through its hotel tab, vacation packages only turned up seven different properties. (Like other sites, you can choose the type of room you want, and the rate will adjust accordingly.) According to the company, that?s because the vacation packages only use its “merchant hotels,” the ones for which it has negotiated especially good rates.

Despite the apparent savings, the same warning applies about shopping other websites for better deals. Using the same components that are in Travelocity’s package, the same flight, booked on Orbitz, and the same hotel room, booked at Radisson’s website, totaled $4,504 for two people—a small but significant savings over Travelocity’s “TotalTrip” price.

The bottom line

I advised my friends to tread carefully before booking a vacation package on any of these sites. Be sure to ask these questions before you take the plunge yourself:

  • Is it possible to book any of the components of your package elsewhere—on the same website or another provider—that would make the overall price cheaper?
  • When looking at hotel or car rates, are you comparing the same room type and car class? And are all taxes and fees included in both the individual and package prices?
  • Is the proposed vacation showing you all of the available flight, hotel, and car choices? Can you get a cheaper car or the specific hotel that you want by booking somewhere else?

In the end, my friends decided not to go for a package deal. They booked their hotels with Expedia, and decided to reserve a car separately, since they knew that they could cancel that reservation if they happened to find a lower rate later. And because airfare was by far the most expensive part of their trip, they opted to use frequent flyer miles and travel first class. If you have enough miles, a free ticket is always the easiest way to save.

* * *

Last month, I rated flexible search tools from Orbitz and America West, but since then, a new player has entered the mix. Southwest’s Shortcut to Low Fares lets you see a color-coded display of the lowest available fares within a four-week window, and gives you the ability to shift the calendar by one to four weeks at a time. It’s a very handy way to see the price you can expect to pay for a specified travel date, and to find low-fare alternatives. Remember that Southwest’s fares aren?t available through any other booking systems, so it’s a good idea to bookmark this page to use as part of any airfare search you do online.

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