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How to find the best value on the Web

Plus: Hotel and car booking gets an upgrade | Trimming delays with O’Hare cuts | More wind in this year’s sales?

Missed last week’s column?

Priceline’s new frontier: Name your price or pick your flight?

Read more columns by Jon Douglas

According to Yahoo!, the U.K. is projected to be the most popular international destination of early 2004. If you’ve noticed any of the ads lately, it’s easy to see why. Eye-popping deals by the dozen—like flights for just $99, hotels as low as $25, and packages from $339—make it seem as though a trip to London is as affordable as ever.

But don’t be surprised when you learn there’s a catch to every offer:

  • That airfare is one-way, and doesn’t include taxes and fees.
  • The hotel rate is per person, and is valid for just two nights.
  • That package price only applies to a budget-class room.
  • And all of these deals are for flights from New York, which may not be where you live.

Nevertheless, it’s possible to book a three-night vacation for under $800 per couple, or stay a week for just a few hundred dollars more. Here’s a roundup of the best deals around, as well as some tips and cautions to help you find the best value, to London or wherever you’re going on your next trip.

Provider Offer Starting price
British Airways London airfares and $25 hotels $198
AA Vacations Airfare and three nights’ hotel $278 Airfare and six nights’ hotel $339 Airfare and six nights’ hotel $399
Virgin Atlantic Vacations Airfare, six nights’ hotel, theater tickets, extras $789

Listed prices are person and do not include additional taxes and fees. Deals were valid as of Thursday, January 29.

1. Calculate the price you’ll actually pay.

British Airways’ $99 fare sounds like the best possible deal, but you’ll have to spend $198 for a round-trip ticket, plus about $100 in taxes and fees. And to get the specific flight you want, you may have to pay even more. Weekend travel will cost $60 extra, and the lowest fares may be sold out on the days you want to go. For example, over Valentine’s Day weekend, the cheapest ticket I found was $400 per person—a far cry from that $99 fare you saw on TV.

2. Hotel offers may sound better than they really are.

A $25 room would be truly remarkable if that’s all it cost. But the price British Airways is promoting is “per person, double occupancy,” which means it’s really $50. And after two nights, the rate jumps to $88 at the budget property, or at least $100 at a nicer hotel. (A solo traveler can get the $25 rate, but only for one night.)

American Airlines Vacations also has a sweet-smelling hotel deal, with a “sixth night free” at a number of Thistle properties. While that’s technically true, since five-night and six-night stays cost the same, don’t let the free night offer persuade you to pay more than you would for a comparable room someplace else.

3. Air-and-hotel packages are often the best deals.

When I bundled airfare with that AA Vacations hotel offer, a three-night package over Valentine’s Day came out to just $378 per person. You won’t do any better if you try to book air and hotel separately; the cheapest American fare for the same dates was $336. And the best deals for a longer trip—airfare plus a six-night hotel stay—are bargain-rate specials of $339 from, or $399 from

4. Consider value, not just price.

Be sure you know exactly what you’re getting for what you pay. Neither of the lowest-priced packages include transfers between the airport and your hotel, for example. AA Vacations doesn’t either, but throws in a two-for-one dinner coupon as an extra amenity. And Virgin Atlantic Vacations has a deal that’s considerably more expensive, but includes tickets to The Lion King and another West End show of your choice.

Keep in mind, too, that upgrading your hotel choice might change which company’s package is cheapest. Stay at the Jarvis Marylebone, labeled a “superior tourist class” hotel, and you’ll pay $594 per person with, but just $563 per person with But you’ll be on your own for theater tickets. How much are those worth to you?

* * *

Hotel and car booking gets an upgrade

It’s now easier to search for a room on Travelocity—but not quite easy enough. Travelocity has enhanced its hotel booking engine to let you sort by price, star rating, or the name of the property. But its new tool is less than ideal for comparison shopping. It only displays specific rates for its “merchant” hotels, the ones with which it’s negotiated special deals. For every other property—including more than half of the ones that were listed for Chicago—you have to click on an individual hotel to see what you’d pay to stay there.

For more information:

Ed Perkins: Car rental price displays—Travelocity gets it right

Meanwhile, Orbitz has leaped ahead of Travelocity with its new car rental display. As on Travelocity, you can see the total price of a rental, including taxes and fees. But Orbitz has several advantages that make its search results more user-friendly. Unlike what you’ll find on Travelocity or any other site, Orbitz shows a grid with everything on one page: a full list of car types and rental companies; the base price (to help you compare offers) and the total price; and any special restrictions. Plus, with every search I’ve done, Orbitz returned the same rates that Travelocity did. Which means that in the race for the best car rental site, Orbitz has edged into the lead.

Trimming delays with O’Hare cuts

For more information:

Tips to avoid delays the next time you fly

The last time I flew out of Chicago, we sat on the runway for over an hour after the captain announced that there were 40 planes in line for takeoff ahead of us. While thunderstorms that day made a late departure unavoidable, the Department of Transportation is taking steps to reduce O’Hare’s rampant delays. Beginning in March, American and United have agreed to cut their operations by five percent during peak hours. That means it’s a good idea to reconfirm your schedule if you’ve already booked a flight to Chicago. And if you have a choice on where to make a connection, consider another hub that’s not as prone to delays.

How can you plan a trip that’s less likely to be late? The DOT publishes a monthly report that’s a goldmine of information about flight delays, among other topics. In November 2003, for example, the most recent data available, only 67 percent of O’Hare flights departed on time, while 87 percent did in Atlanta. You can also see which airlines are most likely to be on schedule—in November, Hawaiian, JetBlue, and Southwest led the pack—and why flights are late (the most common cause is “national aviation system delays,” those caused by airport operations and air traffic control).

More wind in this year’s sales?

For more information:

Cross-country fares from $158 R/T*

I’ve seen some truly remarkable fares this year, like $158 round-trips between New York City or Boston and Los Angeles or San Francisco. But don’t let those deals mask the fact that airfares in general are on the rise. Compared to the same week in 2003, the most recent Fare Index shows that ticket prices are up more than seven percent.

Some airlines, while still trumpeting their great deals, have begun to raise their lowest sale prices. For example, AirTran’s current systemwide offer includes fares that are $10 to $40 higher than last year. And the prices on many international routes—particularly to Europe and the Caribbean—aren’t nearly as good as they were a year ago.

If you only paid attention to the travel ads, you might not know the whole story. Even an offer that sounds like the best deal imaginable might in fact be too good to be true.

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