Do you get emails from TravelZoo or other companies advertising package deals to a destination? I do. Daily. If you're like most of my friends and family, you probably wonder if those deals are worth it. If there were an easy answer, I'd share it. Since there isn't an easy answer, I'm going to help you break down the components of the deal so you can determine if it's worth your hard-earned dollars.
Before you get too in the weeds on any given package deal you see, make sure you have a few details. There are deals that are too good to be true and there are deals that are so good they are irresponsible to not book.
- Is the length of the stay worth it? Yes, that deal to Macchu Picchu is amazing, but when you look under the hood, it's only for 4 days. I'm not sure about you, but flying to South America, visiting a hard-to-get-to spot in a massive mountain range, and flying back in the span of 4 days is a lot of rushing around. At that point, is this trip worth the experience? For maybe a bit more money, could you find a better package that allows to truly soak in the time and allow you rest from your travels? There's no right answer, simply all the things to consider.
- Is this a "general" package or a time-sensitive deal? Does the awesome price you see apply to any time or is the travel company offering a 2 day flash sale? How quickly must you book the deal? Are you prepared to jump on this (or any future) deal?
- Dates and timing - Many great packages are for specific dates, often to promote tourism during the low season, or to boost an economy. On the flip side, many peak travel dates, like Christmas and New Years, are often more expensive regardless of destination.
- Specialized Packages - Some packages are highly specialized to a group of people. A friend of mine is going on a Catholic Cathedral trip across Portugal and Spain. Some family members of mine took a biking trip across Tuscany. There are trips for singles, retired couples, foodies, Crossfitters, and more. That being said, you'll have to use your domain expertise to determine if a package is worth it for you. Knowing what's included and what's extra is critical to determine if the deal is worth it for you.
Maybe instead of a total package, you have a great flight deal or mistake fare you want to use to your advantage. Just like the packages, there are a number of things to consider for flights only.
- Direct vs. Non stop - This is an article on its own, but in a nutshell, a direct flight and a non-stop flight are two different types of flights. Weird, yes. When you break it down, a direct flight means flying JFK - CDG without landing. A non-stop flight means flying LHR - LAX, but you may have a stop somewhere. Your flight number is the same and you'll have the same plane and same crew, but you have a layover. So, is the flight worth your time and any stops for the price?
- Cost of the destination - Maybe you get a great flight-only deal to Oslo, Norway, but what you don't realize is a standard latte in Norway is equivalent to about $11 USD. You may get a great deal to get there, but what will you have to shell out for lodging and entertainment once you arrive?
- Minimum stays - some flight deals are on country-specific airlines and exist to promote tourism to that destination. Many of these deals require a 7 day minimum stay to take advantage of the price. Something to consider - do you have the time to meet the minimum stay (if one is applicable)?
- Safety - no matter what good deal you get, is it a good idea for you to visit that destination. There are many reasons that may make a destination unsafe, such as recent natural disasters, economic crises, a spike in crime, or political unrest. Some countries and cities are known for pickpockets, so you should keep your wallet and handbags zipped and close to your body. It's up to you to determine what makes you feel safe/unsafe and whether or not you should travel to that destination.
- Pro Tip: If you're unsure, buy travel insurance as soon as you book your flight.
- Pro Tip 2: Never let terrorism dictate where you travel. You can't avoid everywhere that might be a target and you can't let those bastards win. Go, travel, win with kindness and love.
- Fees fees fees - The biggest problem with cheap airfares is the potential to be nickel and dimed for everything else along the way. Whether you get sucked into buying the basic economy fare on come airlines or are flying one of the low cost airlines, you could be forced to pay for a checked bag, a carry-on bag, your seat selection, any onboard food or drinks (yes, soda and water), and even a paper boarding pass. Be sure to research the airline or ask your favorite travel friend before committing to the fare.
- Pro tip: if you book a flight, you have the ability to cancel the flight within 24 hours of booking without recourse. No matter what.
When you're looking at the package, there are more details to consider than what you may think initially.
- Flights - Assuming flights are included in the package, when do they land/depart and how does that play into your total days? If you have a package from America to Australia for 8 days, but day 1 is a 13 hour plane ride and day 8 is 13 hour plane ride, you really only have 6 days in the country itself. So while you may have the room nights to make that package headline appealing, peeling back the curtain, you'll see you only have 6 days. Like the earlier Macchu Picchu example, is it worth the time and effort to travel with such a short duration in the city?
- Papers, Please - If you're visiting a country where you need a visa, are you responsible for obtaining the correct documents on your own or will the travel company help you? How much will the appropriate paperwork set you back and how does that factor in your decision to go to the country?
- Transportation - What type, if any, transportation is included? Are you expected to drive in a foreign country? Do they drive on the same or opposite side of the road? Will you need to take the train? Are you taking intra-country flights? No matter what the answers are, ask yourself if you're comfortable traveling in that manner. If you plan to take public transportation, what are the customs around taxis? Some countries, like Russia, have questionable metering practices, so it's best to arrange private transportation in advance through your hotel so you don't get ripped off.
- Hotels - Does the package include lodging? If so, what kind? Most deals geared towards Americans feature Western-style hotels with private bathrooms. However, this is not always the case. Some hotels are great, but in less-than-desirable locations, like away from the city center, away from a metro stop, or far from restaurants. That may or may not bother you. If your package includes a car, does the hotel charge for parking? Is that included in the package?
- Tours/Excursions - Some packages are fully guided, some are completely independent travel, and others allow you to purchase guided excursions to popular landmarks. Are the tours offered with a large group of people or can you book a private tour for just you and your group?
- Meals - Depending on your package, you may have meals included in your price. How many meals? Are they authentic to the regions you're visiting? If a meal is not included, will you be guided to a recommended place to eat? In trips to both China and India, we had breakfasts and dinners included, but lunches were "on our own." However, our guide recommended lunch spots that were delicious, convenient, and reasonably priced.
- The Benjamins - Different cultures around the world have different customs. Do you know those customs, specifically, do you know what reasonable prices are for a bottle of coke? A beer? A latte? On top of that, do you know what you'll be charged extra for? Most countries around the world charge for each packet of ketchup at McDonald's and charge for refills. (Hint - this is how they keep their population from becoming obese.) What about at hotels? Are you expected to tip your bellhop? What about your wait-staff? Many people ask for tips when they see Americans because we are so happy to hand over money, but many cultures do not require it and the locals don't practice tipping.
Whatever you decide, make sure you're happy with the overall outcome. There are no right or wrong answers for choosing a trip. Make sure the package is through a reputable company and the payment method is secure (no wiring money!). Whether you choose a whirlwind tour of Macchu Picchu in 4 days or take a lengthy 21 day safari, you have the tools to shop around and make your decisions. Now, get out there and start traveling!