Monday, July 12, 2004

Best Deal for Travel

I don’t want to get in the habit of touting one business over another, but…

When I need to get airplane tickets (and this is fairly often, as I’ve been in, let’s see… Palm Springs, Long Beach, Seattle, Houston, Nashville, Paducah, Vancouver, Kansas City, New Orleans, Chicago, Las Vegas, Columbus… at least 11 metro areas this year, with at least three more to come before the year is over), I go to a variety of websites looking for the best price.  Most of my cross-country flying is on American (for the miles), and my West Coast trips are usually on Alaska (again, for the miles), but I also check Orbitz, Travelocity, and Expedia as well.  You never know which might have a Web Deal or even just a fare a few bucks lower.

Twice in the past year, poking around for best fares — both times going to Texas, oddly enough, and gasping at the prices — I’ve found my best deal to be through Travelocity, with their “Search Flights + Hotels” option.  They partner with area hotels — anything from a 2-star Comfort Suites to a 4-star Crowne Plaza — and get you a package deal which is below the cost for the items separately.  This has proven true even when I was staying at the host hotel for an event at what should be a cut price off the standard rate.  For my upcoming trip to Dallas, the net savings will be about $80 off the separate pieces, a bit more than one night free at the hotel.

(Of course, I have to be a good consumer of the event as well, and call the hotel to confirm the reservation and make sure they record it as being in conjunction with the event.  Events and conventions need room nights at the host hotel to ensure that they get ballroom and exhibition space at as low a price as possible.)

Updated August 11, 2004
I need to downgrade the above recommendation somewhat after my trip to Dallas this past weekend.  I realized as well that I used Travelocity for my hotel on a trip to Las Vegas back in June, and I’ve used them now and again in the past just for airfare, and that helped establish a pattern.

Both of my airplane seats on this last trip were “E” seats — middle of the right side — and my memory says that this is a pattern.  That is, as a bulk seller of airline seats, they put you in the less desirable middle seats (or perhaps those are the ones made readily available to them; can’t put all the blame on them without knowing all the details).  On both legs of my Dallas trip, the plane was packed to the gills (even on a mid-afternoon flight out of the hub on a Monday!) and there was no availability to change seats.

Worse, though, is that they do the same thing (perhaps) with hotel space.  When I got to the Sheraton in Dallas, I was greeted by “I see you’ve requested a Smoking Room.”  I most certainly did not: with my asthma, it’s bad enough going to bars and dating a smoker, I sure don’t want to breathe leftover smoke all weekend while I sleep.  I had the same situation with the hotel in Vegas; I don’t recall about Houston last October.  Fortunately, I’ve been able to change to a non-smoking room each time, but it was no sure thing in Vegas.

Again, it’s impossible to say whether this is an intentional thing, that the hotel partners offer up smoking rooms because they are less able to fill them, or if it’s just a bad web interface which doesn’t ask about smoking preference and the lack of info gets pushed through to the hotel as a default preference for Smoking.

Whatever the intent, caveat emptor: you can get a better deal this way, but there may be hidden bits of undesirability.
Updated on March 4, 2011
I no longer use this mechanism when I’m going to events where I plan to stay at the host hotel.  The hotel sometimes isn’t able to retroactively apply your externally done reservation to the room block, and getting those rooms sold is often vital to the host club.  (They are on the hook for unsold rooms if they don’t meet a certain percentage.  It is really bad form for you to save $60 over the course of three nights but cost the organizing group 3 x $129 in the process.)

My current recommendation for travel is Kayak, for their combination of aggregating from multiple airlines along with their decent UI experience.  But I do still go to other sites before making the purchase, just to be sure I’m seeing all the options (often I’m not).

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