Saturday, 29 March 2008

Tips on searching for a vacation package

As I recently spent several long hours trying to find a good deal for a family vacation at an all-inclusive beach resort somewhere in the Caribbean, I thought I’d share some tips related to this process. These tips primarily apply to Canadians, but generally should work for Americans too. In the discussion below, I will limit my focus on search for vacation packages to resort areas.

  1. The first step in the process is to decide where you would like to go. It is your personal and budget-based choice in picking a region, country, resort area, and a resort. You should ask around your friends, relatives, and co-workers to share their recent experiences and general impressions about places they recently visited. Another good starting point for your research would be to read a couple of travel sections in weekend issues of local newspapers and a few of travel magazines. Of course, the best and most complete source of diversified information remains World Wide Web.


  2. Once you identified a country where you want to go, you should move to the second step of your search process: hotel/resort selection. I would strongly recommend using the Trip Advisor website at http://www.tripadvisor.com/, which is an excellent source of thousands of up-to-date user reviews. For most popular resorts, they have 1-3 daily reviews posted by people from all over the world, but mainly from Canada, US, and Europe. A lot of Canadians post their reviews on this site, so you should probably pay closer attention to these reviews if are traveling from Canada, as they typically share many useful travel tips for Canadians. On the TripAdvisor website, you should type your selected country, say “Dominican republic”, in the search window and click on the “all hotels in (a country of your choice)” in the search results section.


  3. The list of hotels will start from top rated hotels in each of the several vacation destinations within the selected country. Picking up the resort area is your next task if you have not made the relevant decision at the first step. Each location typically has a combination of pros and cons that you can take into account. For example, most resorts in Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic are relatively old, the beaches are not the top quality and often have big waves, but the prices are not very high and the service level is fairly high. Punta Cana resorts, on the other hand, are typically newer and larger, offer more facilities, the beaches are nicer than at Puerto Plata, but the prices are higher. La Romana hotels are cheaper, beaches are good, but the hotels are on the lower-quality end and most of the staff there do not speak English. Of course, this is my subjective "averaged" opinion based on what I heard and read. Once you weigh all of your pros and cons and select 1-3 preferred locations, you should move to the next step: deciding what parameters you want from your resort target.


  4. The parameters that you can consider when selecting your preferred resort include the resort’ star rating, price range, clientele orientation (e.g., families with small children, adults only, honeymooners, etc.), resort size, type of accommodations, size and quality of resort beach, resort facilities, sharing of facilities with the other resorts, number of buffets and a la carte restaurants, free activities, etc. Have this list of look-for features in mind and return to the TripAdvisor website.


  5. Note that there are certain times and locations when travel is not recommended to particular locations. The examples are: the October-November hurricane season in some Caribbean countries; the March Spring Break week when wild, drunken and swearing herds of US and Canadian teenagers take over many resorts in the Caribbean; the Easter week in the Dominican Republic when most resort activities and services are inactive; a few weeks when jellyfish take over waters in some beach resort areas; and so on.


  6. On the TripAdvisor website, pick up a resort location and search for a rated list of hotels/resorts operating in the selected area. Go through the list of the top 20-50 hotels and check their most recent reviews. I usually look at the first page summary with the latest reviews. If all or most of them are very good or excellent, then I look at the next 2-4 pages of reviews. If 90+ percent of them are good or excellent as well, then I read through these reviews in a bit more detail and look for the factors that I like or do not like. I also look at readers’ pictures of a resort located in the picture galleries.


  7. Based on this screening, I either select a resort to my preliminary target list or drop it from further consideration. Some resorts on the TripAdvisor site have top overall ratings and are high on the rated list, but their recent reviews are mostly bad. In this case, I exclude such resorts from further consideration, as it indicates the presence of possible recent issues. On the other hand, there are some resorts, which are ranked in the 30th-40th range but have excellent recent reviews; so I place such resorts on my preliminary list. At the end, I have a prelim list of 3-20 resorts, which I use in the next stage of my vacation package selection.


  8. At this stage, I go to the websites of several local travel companies (operators and/or brokers). In Canada, I would recommend looking at websites of

    http://www.escapes.ca/,
    http://www.belairtravel.com/,
    http://www.selloffvacations.com/,
    http://www.nolitours.com/, and
    http://www.sunwing.ca/.

    The last two are tour operators while the former four are travel agents/brokers.


  9. Select the travel dates you are looking for and check prices on all-inclusive packages at the resorts you have on your prelim list. Check prices with each travel company because sometimes some of them offer little extra deals or discounts. There may be also some variations in pricing of deals and packages available through different companies, but my general impression was that prices are the same on similar packages, so it is only your subjective personal choice from whom to buy a package at the end.


  10. At this stage, you get familiar with prices on specific resort packages, available dates, more detailed resort and package descriptions, etc. Based on this information, your preliminary list should now be reduced to 2-5 resorts that you really like. Here comes the final stage: tracking down the deal price.


  11. Before you buy your package on a spot, wait for a week or two and check prices periodically. If you start looking early, it does not hurt to sign up for weekly email letters from one or two operators, which provide you with descriptions of latest deals and discounts. Sometimes prices on vacation packages go down several hundred dollars per person. Sometimes there are deals on family and children travel. Sometimes, two-week vacation packages become only $200-300 more expensive than comparable week-long packages. Often there are really good last-minute deals on some packages, but remember that for good resorts during a busy travel season (usually, around Christmas and in February-April) you may end up without any package for your target travel dates if you decide to wait for the best last-minute deals, as the available spots can get sold out quickly. Also, keep in mind that deal prices can change fast and unexpectedly, so if you found a deal price at say 10 pm, it may not be available at 8 am the next morning.


  12. I noticed that deals tend to move in a wave-like motion, with a price on a package being higher before and after a deal and a deal price periodically moving further along time into the future. Most likely than not, no good deals will be available during the last two weeks before your planned departure date if the resort is very popular and if you decide to travel during a busy season.


  13. Once you found a deal at one of the top resorts on your final list, you can choose one of the operators or brokers to buy a package. At this stage, a price is typically same everywhere, so unless there are extra agent-specific incentives, it is only a matter of convenience of the online checkout at each agent’s website that should govern your final choice of whom to buy a package from.


  14. After you buy a package online, the agent will typically send you electronic tickets, travel/package itinerary, and supporting travel information via email. Call the package operator 3-4 days before your travel date to confirm your intention to go and your flight times. Make a similar call within 24 hours before you travel. Sometimes, the operators overbook resorts and flights, so it does not hurt to confirm you will be there, so that there are no unpleasant surprises later on.


  15. Finally, make sure that you have all travel documentation, IDs, tickets, cash, and personal belongings before you go to the airport. Check for possible flight delays before you leave. Arrive at the airport 3 hours before the flight departure time for an easy check-in and to reserve a window spot on a plane (sometimes you can reserve a plane seat for an extra fee at the time of your package purchase).

Once you are in your room/suite at the resort, RELAX from now on for the duration of your vacation and enjoy every minute of your time there.

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