A lot of us are looking for a travel bargain at this time of year, as we start thinking about booking our winter getaways. And there’s no shortage of deals out there. Our mailboxes are filled with special offers, price drops, Labour Day sales… you name it. But while some of those offers are true travel bargains, others are more like travel traps.
What’s a travel trap? It’s an offer that looks like the key to a low-priced, affordable trip when it’s actually a smokescreen hiding a variety of unexpected costs that run the price up to budget-busting levels. There are a lot of travel traps out there, and if you’ve booked many trips online, you’ve probably encountered a few.
Here are a few of the most common travel traps to watch out for when you’re looking for a travel bargain this winter.
I keep getting ads from airlines and tour companies offering a great price to a great destination. Then I click on the link, put in my dates, and find that it’s going to cost me $200 or $300 more than the price in the ad. It’s only natural to advertise the lowest possible prices when you’re trying to lure customers. But when they only apply to one or two undesirable dates — or the day after tomorrow, when you can’t possibly go — aren’t they just teaser prices?
When you’re shopping for cruise vacations, you can sometimes find low prices on dates that work for you. But be aware that the price you’re quoted is almost always for an inside cabin: if you want an ocean view or a balcony, you’ll usually pay $200 or $300 more. And the price almost never includes port fees and taxes, which can add another hundred or two, plus the compulsory gratuities of $12 U.S. or so a day. If you’re cruising solo, you can add another 50-to-100-percent surcharge. Then there’s the air fare to get you to the home port. Let’s just say the price you see in the cruise line’s ad is a starting point — it’s not going to be anywhere near what you really pay.
There’s almost no end to these. First, the taxes and fees: airlines are forced to include them in their prices these days, but sellers of package vacations can still put them in the small print. So the $600 Cuban getaway you saw advertised actually costs $950 once you’ve paid all the middlemen who get their hands in your pocket. The airlines are still making hay with extra fees, as well. Some will charge you for your first checked piece of luggage, for food on board, for a blanket if you get cold … Some discount airlines such as WOW even charge you to carry-on; some travel bargain.
The hidden costs don’t end once you get to the hotel. If you’re staying in a big hotel in a resort area, you’ll likely be charged a “resort fee” for the use of the pool, exercise room, spa, in-room safe, etc. Most major hotels in sun destinations now impose fees ranging anywhere from $2 U.S. a night to $300 U.S. per stay — and you pay even if you don’t use the facilities. The big Las Vegas hotels are the worst, averaging around $30-$35 U.S. a night. (You can visit the ResortFeeChecker to see if the hotel you’re considering charges a fee.) As well, higher-end hotels will charge you extra for using the wi-fi in your room; if you want free wi-fi, you have to stay at a cheaper hotel. Life is strange …
Cheap flight, pricey stay
Sometimes you’ll get notice of an impossibly low airfare to a place you’d love to go. You might even book it, sight unseen – can’t let these get away. Then, you go looking for accommodations and tours in your destination, to find it’s going to cost you thousands to do what you wanted to do. This happened to me with a flight to Tanzania a while back; once I found out the price of hotels. safaris and even park admissions, then multiplied by the length of my stay, I cancelled.
It’s not just the price of hotels and tours that can rack up the price of your trip. There are things you never thought of, like getting to and from the airport. Some cities have a handy train or shuttle bus service into town; in others, you’re stuck with a $50 or $60 taxi ride into town on the way in and the way out. That was the case with my recent visit to Quebec City; great destination, but what about an airport bus? In London, just getting across town on the underground can cost you close to $20. And try to find cheap food in places like Copenhagen (right) — you’ll be eating a lot of hot dogs.
Cut-rate flights from hell
You’ve scoured the back alleys of the internet to find the absolute cheapest fare to your holiday spot. But look a little closer: you’re going to have to change planes twice, with long layovers in between, and you’re arriving at 1 a.m. A travel bargain like this can be no bargain at all. (I found one flight this week that was so bad, Expedia offered to throw it in free if you booked a hotel.) Even worse, you could find that your first flight drops you at the airport at 10 p.m. to wait for your next flight — at 6 o’clock the next morning. You could get a hotel, but that would add $100 to the cost of your “bargain” flight. Even if you don’t get punishing layovers, beware flights that leave so early in the morning that you have to book a hotel nearby the night before — there goes another $100.
It’s always worth clicking the little link that says “flight details” when you’re booking a trip; it’ll tell you what kind of airplane you’re flying on, how many flights you’re taking, where you’re landing and how long the layovers are. Expedia even has a helpful alert that rates the flights, from “Good” to “Poor”, with details on things like leg room and wi-fi. Don’t forget to check which airport the flight lands in; some cities have multiple airports, and one may be a lot closer to downtown than the others.
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It’s hard to judge distances when you’re looking at one of those little maps on the hotel booking sites. But getting it wrong can really cost you if that bargain hotel you booked is far from the city centre and you have to take cabs everywhere. One example is Las Vegas; the hotels off the Strip may look like a good deal, but it can cost $15 U.S. for a cab ride to get where the action is. Go back and forth a couple of times each day, and you’ve added $50 or $60 U.S. to the cost of the hotel. Even in a place like New York (left), being on the wrong side of town can have you spending a couple of hours in the subway every day.
All that assumes you’re staying a city or town. But if your travel bargain deal takes you to a place where the attractions are long way apart – Arizona, for example — you’re likely going to be renting a car. That will boost the cost of your travel bargain trip by a couple of hundred dollars, once you add insurance, gas and parking. (Hint: if you can get into town from the airport affordably, it’s usually cheaper to rent a car there than at the airport.) In some cases you can avoid the car rental and take guided tours, but doing that every day can drain your budget as well.
The captive guest
You’ve snagged a bargain deal at a classy resort that looks like a tropical paradise. Only problem is, it’s miles from town and there’s no place around the resort to get an affordable meal, or anything else you might need. You’re pretty much a prisoner of the hotel’s prices, and you know they won’t be cheap. You either pay $20 for the breakfast buffet every morning or take a cab to town for something to eat. The best remedy for this is to look for an all-inclusive resort — the higher price may turn out to be cheaper in the end. Or, if the resort you like offers an all-inclusive option, consider taking it.
Ocean cruising has its own version of this. Your cruise fare covers most of your basic needs, like your room, meals, and a lot of entertainment. But once you’re on board, anything extra is going to cost you whatever the ship wants to charge. As I wrote in this recent post, it’s easy to ring up a pretty impressive bill just with after-dinner drinks, specialty coffees and such. You could wait and buy them in port, but then, you won’t be there until tomorrow — or in some cases, the next day. So don’t forget to include these extra costs in your trip budget.
Those are a few of the travel traps that can make searching for a winter getaway a bit of a minefield. Can you still find a real travel bargain out there? The answer is yes, but you’ll have a better chance if you can avoid all the traps and pitfalls the marketers have put in your way. If you really want to know if you’ve got a bargain, click right through to the check-out page to find the final price. Then add all the extra costs in the fine print, and the ones you can anticipate once you’re on the ground. That’s when you know whether you’ve got a travel bargain — or a travel trap.