How to Plan a Trip on a Whim—and Save
When it comes to trip-planning, I tend to get serious: My husband E. would tell you that I sometimes spend too much time on pre-trip research and packing deliberations, but recently, I tried a different approach: I used a travel auction site to book a trip to Mexico’s Riviera Maya 12 days out and left the planning to chance. While E. and I briefly entertained Istanbul and Rome, one of our favorite cities, we quickly agreed that what we really needed was four or five days of sleeping, eating, reading, a little walking, a lot of unplugging, and a beach—without our three kids.
We spent a couple of nights on hotel websites, checking out reviews and photos on TripAdvisor, trolling everything from travelandleisure.com to Priceline and Inspirato to Jetsetter. Then we tapped our way around LuxuryLink and Vacationist. (Full disclosure: the latter is Travel + Leisure’s members-only flash sale travel site through a partnership with LuxuryLink, but I booked my trip and paid my own way the same way you would.) By night two we had narrowed our choices to Jamaica (Rockhouse Hotel is hard to beat for value); Harbour Island; Turks & Caicos; and Mexico’s Riviera Maya.
And then, there it was on LuxuryLink, a deal worth splurging for:
• Five nights in an Ocean View room for $2167 (nearly 30 percent off the usual rate with taxes included) at Maroma Resort & Spa, 20 minutes north of Playa del Carmen and 35 minutes south of Cancún airport (bonus: a direct flight).
• Daily breakfast and coffee service
• One dinner for two with a bottle of wine
• Two 50-minute massages at the Kinan Spa
• A morning of snorkeling on the nearby reef
• Aromatherapy at turndown, nightly
I logged on to the hotel’s website to check availability and compare pricing. There appeared to be rooms available for the dates we wanted (beginning the day after low season rates kicked in), but the room rates were, not surprisingly, quite a bit higher.
So, in the same casual way you tap to buy most things these days, I officially registered to become a LuxuryLink member; read (well, scanned) the fine print (a.k.a. “Booking Conditions”); worried for a minute about them; and then tapped again to pay the $40 fee to bid on the Maroma package at the auction price. (Your credit card is refunded the $40 if you are not the winning bidder.)
Our auction was scheduled to end at 8:00 A.M. the following day. During the next 18 hours, E. and I logged in to see if we had competition and wondered if they were tracking my I.P. address and upping the bid. Then we waited some more. Just before 8 A.M. on Saturday morning when our auction was supposed to end, we logged in to track our bid again. There was a suggested new bid price set at $30 higher than our original offer but we were still the highest bidder. 8:00 A.M. passed…8:05…Nothing happened. (Beware the fine print: LuxuryLink auctions are conducted on Pacific Daylight Time.)
Then at exactly 11:00 EST, I received an email letting me know I had won the bid for the package. At 11:16 A.M. I emailed our preferred dates; at 3:18 P.M. our reservation was confirmed by the hotel, much to my relief, and E. booked the flights.
I confess that next time around I might consider paying slightly more for the “Buy Now” option to avoid the suspense (and potential hassle had our preferred dates not been available) or to lock in the fixed price right away. But in the end the process was kind of exciting, even if “winning” meant paying up no matter what.
Here’s what to know before you place your bid.
Travel Auction Site Booking Tips
• Do read the fine print and know what you're signing on for prior to bidding or booking.
• Make sure you look closely at the valid travel dates for the package you are bidding on and have the dates you want to travel in mind.
• Check for flight availability during your ideal time frame and call the hotel or try the hotel website in advance for availability; it might help you avoid disappointment, especially during high season.
• Auctions are non-refundable, but there is a “Buy Now” option that costs slightly more if you want to lock in a rate and have more flexibility on making date changes.
• Trust your instincts. If a deal seems too good to be true, that may very well be the case.
The Splurge: Five nights at Maroma Resort & Spa
The Location: Solidaridad, Mexico, 35 Minutes south of Cancun Airport (CUN); 25 minutes north of Playa del Carmen by taxi. My husband E. and I flew out of JFK on JetBlue direct at 7 A.M. and were having fish tacos, ceviche, and Dos Equis on the beach at 1:30.
Hotel Vibe: One&Only Palmilla meets the Rockhouse.
Daily Reminder That You Really Are on Vacation: It’s a toss-up between the beach beds and the local fauna (including a red macaw and a fleet of iguanas) that cross your path when you’re en route to the beach, pool, and spa.
Favorite Meal: Breakfast: Chaya-pineapple juice, hot chocolate with lemongrass, fresh mangos, yogurt, the organic egg-white omelette with chorizo, green tomatoes, and locally grown fresh herbs. And the fresh corn tortillas delivered to the table by the lady who made them.
Jennifer Barr is Travel + Leisure's executive editor.