Deal or no deal?

If you’ve been following the media lately, chances are you’ve seen some tempting news — such as cruise ship companies slashing fares, major destinations discounting hotel rooms and a popular U.S. airline auctioning off tickets on eBay with opening bids under a dollar. And then there’s the “staycation effect” that has many regions reaching out to tempt people away from their hometowns.

But if you’ve ever been burned by a deal that didn’t deliver on the promised savings, you’re right to be cautious. But should a healthy dose of scepticism keep you from getting a great bargain? Here are some tips for smart shopping:

Make sure it isn’t a scam. The first thing you should do when considering any deal is to make sure that it’s legitimate. Vacation and travel-related scams are still one of the most common types of fraud. Be especially cautious if it’s a company you’re not familiar with or if the offer seems too good to be true. For more information on spotting and avoiding scams, see Vacation scams: what you need to know.

Check out the rumours. So you’ve heard that hotel rooms in Las Vegas are going for a record low? Or that high end cruise companies are offering good fares right now? Is the downturn in the U.S. economy resulting in cheaper packages to Europe? Did JetBlue really auction off tickets on eBay?

Sometimes things that sound too good to be true are more than rumour. The trick is to find out what the experts are saying and to see if there are facts behind the speculation. In addition to news sources and travel publications, there are many travel experts turned bloggers, such as Arthur Frommer and Christopher Elliott, who follow the ups and downs of travel industry trends.

(And yes, all of the items mentioned above were from the travel media, including JetBlue’s online auction. The boons of media attention and word-of-mouth advertising are alive and well.)

Comparison shop. This point goes without saying, but it’s worth checking out the competition to see what else is being offered. There’s a lot of competition out there, and when one company does something others may quickly follow suit. Besides, knowing what other companies are charging puts you in a better position for negotiating a deal.

The internet is full of comparison websites, but you should also try pitting the results against the company’s own website. Many airlines save the best deals for their own sites.

Pick up the phone. When over-the-phone reservation fees aren’t an issue, pick up the phone to do some comparison shopping. The “best rate” on the hotel’s website might not be the lowest price they’ll offer, and it’s hard to negotiate with a computer screen. You want to contact someone who can make decisions based on demand and inventory, especially if you’re travelling during non-peak times.

Find the regular price. If you’re familiar with sales lingo, you know that the MSRP (the Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price) you see posted in an ad isn’t always the “regular price” before the discount. Watch out for inflated regular prices that give a false sense of the savings.

Note what’s included… and what isn’t. Savvy car shoppers know that it’s not just about the sticker price — it’s about the features. Paying close attention to the details can help you find value for your dollar if you’re comparing a discounted price to a regular one. Try to attach a dollar amount to things that are excluded, such as meals, transportation, excursions, etc. For instance, if no meals are provided, how much will you have to budget for food to compensate? Likewise, a hotel room that’s far away from the sites you want to see isn’t cheaper if you’re paying more to get around. Even transportation to and from the airport at your destination can be an expensive proposition if a shuttle isn’t available.

Consider the fees and taxes. It’s an important point worth repeating: fees, surcharges and taxes can significantly alter a low advertised price. For example, the cost of an airline ticket can more than double when the final total comes in. Hotel rooms and car rentals are also suspect, and you might even have noticed a “facilities fee” on the last ticket you booked for a major concert or sports event. Find out what additional costs you can incur and factor them into the price. (See The cost of comfort for more information about unexpected fees).

Check out the time (and the place). There are always plenty of off-season deals to be had, but they only work if it’s somewhere you want to go at a time when you can actually travel. It never hurts to look into what’s going on at your destination. Find out what activities are available, what attractions are open and what the weather will be like (especially to areas prone to cyclones and tropical storms).

There are many other factors that come into play, such as new hotels looking to promote their business. Also, areas that have recently experienced a major disaster often offer discounts and promotions to bring in much-needed tourist income, such as Toronto after SARS or New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. In either case, make sure the facilities are in good shape.

Quality counts. A less expensive product usually isn’t top quality — and the travel industry is no exception. It’s only a deal if the arrangements offer good value, like excellent food and clean, comfortable accommodations suited to your needs. A little checking up on the company or hotel, such as online travel reviews from like-minded travellers, can help you get a feel for the place before you book.

Raise the bar. Try going for something a little nicer than usual, such as a destination, hotel or restaurant you may have once dismissed as being too pricey. A special promotion can make these opportunities more budget-friendly.

Also, when demand is low ask about an upgrade to a better seat or room. Less expensive hotel rooms are often easier to fill at the last minute, and empty rooms are costly.

Ask if discounts apply. If you’re usually eligible for a discount, don’t assume it won’t apply to a special promotion. Many companies won’t double up on the discounts, but it never hurts to ask.

Get some advice. Talk to someone who has experience with the company or destination and who can help you wade through the prices. Talk to a trusted travel agent, or chances are you’ve got a friend or family member who travels frequently or who works in the business.

Take your time. Don’t give in to high pressure tactics — it could be a sign of a scam or an indication that the deal isn’t as good as it could be. If someone doesn’t want you to take time to consider your decision, you should be asking why.

Get the details in writing. This particular piece of advice shows up often for a reason — it’s evidence! You should know exactly what you are getting and how much it will cost, and you should get proof. If something does go wrong you will have some recourse.

Read the fine print. In fact, read everything closely and carefully. Ask questions and seek clarification if there is something you don’t understand.

In short, do some research and look for “the catch”. Keep your eye out for savings, but treat the advertised price for what it is: a starting point.

Photo © Mr_Jamsey

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