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T+L Money: Hotel Bargain or Bummer?

Lately, my local Starbucks baristas have started suggesting specific pastries to go with my tea, and consequently I’ve developed a lasting relationship with cinnamon-swirl coffee cake. In other words, I’ve been upsold.

It’s a classic sales technique, and hotel package deals are based on the same idea: those extras that you didn’t even know you needed will persuade you to stay a few nights. These days packages come with increasingly far-out themes, peddling add-ons that range from the sublime (a private tour of the Vatican) to the ridiculous (a fridge "pimped out" with edible body paint and a Barry White CD).

A package deal can be two things: a bundle of hotel extras you want, and, for hotels, a way to offload rooms and increase sales. But although buying an entire itinerary with a single phone call will save you time, you’ll only save money if you actually use all of its components; you couldn’t do it for less; and the add-ons don’t disguise an inflated room price.

T+L Best Deals give a minimum of 20 percent Savings off à la carte prices, plus a break in the room rate. T+L editors vet these deals by asking the following questions to determine the true value of virtually any package:

How do you book the right room?

In hotel-room hierarchy, a "junior suite" means different things at different hotels. But rooms can differ even within a hotel group. The Ritz-Carlton, Georgetown’s standard rooms are called Premier Guest Rooms; three miles away, at the Ritz-Carlton, Washington, D.C., standards are called Deluxes. And just try to decipher what the ubiquitous "automatic upgrade" might mean at a hotel like the newly opened St. Regis Resort, Fort Lauderdale, which has 22 room categories. Look online to see where the room being promised falls in the food chain, or better yet, call the hotel’s front desk (not a central reservations number) to ask for details.

How much are the add-ons worth?

Last year, Omni Hotels offered a Desperate Housewives-themed package whose perks included help from the concierge to plan your stay—which, the last time I checked, was already a free service. Also look out for "breakfast included" at hotels where it comes standard; "self-guided tours," which almost undoubtedly means you’ll be sent off with a map; and "free parking" at a hotel that doesn’t charge any guest for parking.

Are occupancy taxes and resort fees included?

If you’re buying a package in Houston, where the hotel tax is 17 percent, this is an important question. It’s less so in Missoula, Montana, where the tax is 7 percent. And revenue from resort fees, for everything from phone calls to mini-bar restocking, tripled to around $1.6 billion last year from $550 million in 2000, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Theme aside, what is the package really selling?

Packages are often pitched to us as trends: "mancations," girlfriend getaways, and the newly hatched "double-date away," to name a few. Don’t feel that you have to stay within your demographic, however. Take your family on a mancation and splurge on dinner with the savings. They might thank you.

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