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Where can you unwrap the best deals on last-minute packages?

SmarterTravel

Sites: Hotwire “Weekender,” Priceline “Weekender,” Site59, UnitedEscapes

Editor’s review: For the trip I researched, Hotwire and Site59 offered the best prices on a budget hotel, while Priceline was superior for an upscale property. However, the major drawback of Hotwire and Priceline is that you don’t get to see the flight details before you agree to book. United’s prices were less competitive, and the airline offered fewer hotel choices than the other providers.

New York City is always magical, but it’s especially so in the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Have you ever visited at that time of the year? The frenzied pace of holiday shopping always seems to give way to the pure joys of marveling at the latest department store window displays, sipping steaming mugs of hot chocolate, and watching ice skaters whirl around the Rockefeller Center rink.

But don’t let your holiday reverie be interrupted by worries about how much it’ll cost. It’s no surprise that New York City is expensive, particularly if you haven’t made plans months in advance. Fortunately, however, last-minute vacation packages can make your trip more affordable than you might expect.

I wanted to price a weekend trip from Boston, so I looked around the Web to see which of the four companies that promote last-minute packages—Hotwire, Priceline, Site59, and United—offered the best deals and most convenient choices. Here’s a summary of the differences among the various packages. I’ve listed prices for both the cheapest hotel and the Grand Hyatt New York, which all four companies included as an option, though each gave it a different rating according to its own system.

Company Know flight details in advance Choose specific hotel Earn miles Cheapest option Grand Hyatt price
Hotwire No (select flight time windows) Yes No $271 (Wyndham Garden LGA –
3 stars)
$540
(3 1/2 stars)
Priceline No (select flight time windows) Yes No $324 (Manhattan Seaport Suites –
2 1/2 stars)
$408
(3 stars)
Site59 Yes Yes Yes $285+ (Wyndham Garden LGA –
3 stars)
$607+
(3 AAA diamonds)
United Yes Yes (limited options) Yes, plus 1,000 bonus miles $428 (Marriott New York Financial Center – deluxe) $594 (deluxe)

All packages were researched on Tuesday, December 16, for departure on December 26 and return on December 29. Prices quoted are per person, including all taxes and fees.

+ Not including $25 SmarterTravel.com member discount

Hotwire and Priceline: Savings and tradeoffs

Before choosing a provider for your vacation, first decide whether you need to know all of the details of your trip in advance. If not, consider Hotwire and Priceline. Both companies offer a “Weekender” package (both claim to have come up with the name first) that can be purchased up to 14 days in advance. And although Priceline is known for its “name your own price” model, both companies tell you the specific package price up front, so there’s no bidding required.

If you’re just booking a flight on Hotwire or Priceline, you generally need to be willing to depart any time between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.; that flexibility brings you extra savings. (Priceline has recently started selling specific flights at listed prices; more on that in a future column.) However, with the Weekender packages, you get to narrow the possibilities by picking a flight window. For example, on Hotwire, you can choose to leave between 6 and 11 a.m., 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., or 4 and 10 p.m. And with both companies, you can depart on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, and return on Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday, though you have to stay at least two nights.

So while these sites allow you to specify your travel dates and choose your approximate travel times, neither company lets you pick a specific flight. That means it’s possible for your trip to include a connection, even if you want to avoid having one, and you won’t earn any frequent flyer miles.

On the plus side, Hotwire and Priceline are able to negotiate some of the best package deals out there. Hotwire had the lowest price we found on a budget hotel within a reasonable distance of Manhattan, while Priceline’s quote for the Grand Hyatt was $132 less than Hotwire’s package at the same property; Site59 and United were even higher. (Since I couldn’t see the specific flights I’d be taking, it’s possible—but unlikely—that Priceline’s flights could be much more inconvenient than Hotwire’s, offsetting the extra savings.)

Also, since Priceline offers a 24-hour guarantee that you won’t find a better price on the same vacation anywhere else, you can be confident that its package will be the cheapest available. If not, Priceline says it will refund 100 percent of the price difference.

The bottom line: if you can live with the tradeoffs, Hotwire and Priceline are great ways to find a deal on a last-minute weekend package. And since what the two providers offer is so similar, be sure to check with both before deciding where to book.

Site59 and United: A mixed bag of options and prices

The other two companies that sell last-minute weekend packages are Site59 and United. (You’ll see similar deals on other websites, but most are just airline-specific versions of Site59. Most major online agencies also have package offerings, although they’re not specifically for last-minute travel.) With these providers, you get to customize your vacation by choosing your flight and hotel; if you select an option other than the cheapest one available, the price goes up accordingly. Also, you’ll earn frequent flyer miles, and on United, an additional 1,000 bonus miles for booking one of its last-minute packages.

With Site59, I found a wide range of flight times and hotel choices, as well as an extremely easy-to-use interface. The total price for the cheapest possible package was clearly displayed, and I could tell exactly how much extra different flights or hotels would cost me. Plus, I could sort the options by either price or hotel star rating, which made it easy to see where I’d get the best value.

United’s system was much less convenient to use. Although you can find some pretty good deals, you’re limited to flights on United or its partners, and you need to choose from one of four hotel categories: economy, moderate, superior, or deluxe. So if you’re looking for the best deal, you need to price the package individually for each hotel level. And what you find might surprise you: In my test, the cheapest (and only) economy hotel package came out to $728 per person for three nights, while United’s lowest-priced deluxe hotel package was $300 less!

Another place where Site59 came out ahead of United was in the range of hotel choices, with more upscale properties in the center of Manhattan. Though United’s Grand Hyatt package priced at a few dollars lower, Site59 offers several other hotels in midtown or Union Square where you’ll get a better deal; United’s only better value is in the Financial District of lower Manhattan.

Overall, I think you should check Site59 first, and then go to United if you don’t like what you see. And if you then happen to find that the same package costs more on United than it does on Site59, you can take advantage of the airline’s 24-hour price guarantee; it says it will refund the difference in cost, up to $100.

Packages, all tied up

If you’re going to book both a flight and a hotel stay, you can definitely save by purchasing them together. In my test, three nights at the Grand Hyatt plus airfare cost between $400 and $600, depending on which provider I chose. But if you want to book that same stay through Hyatt’s website, where the hotel company guarantees you can find its lowest rates, it’ll cost at least $949, including taxes and fees, for the hotel room alone.

Of course, it’s possible to put together a budget trip from Boston to New York, too. Just take the Fung Wah Chinatown bus for $20 round-trip and crash on your friend’s futon. You’ll save so much that you’ll actually be able to spend some money after you finish window shopping.

But if you’re willing to pay a little more for the perfect gift, or want to relieve your holiday-related stress, the convenience and savings of an air-and-hotel package to the Big Apple may be just what the doctor ordered.

We hand-pick everything we recommend and select items through testing and reviews. Some products are sent to us free of charge with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions and do not accept compensation to review products. All items are in stock and prices are accurate at the time of publication. If you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.

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