RESEARCH QUESTION: Are those too-good-to-be-true air/hotel packages to Europe, well, too good to be true? You know the ones -- cheap deals to European capitals that pop up on Internet discount sites like Travel Zoo (www.travelzoo.com) and Smarter Living (www.smarterliving.com), bundling air and hotel costs into one preposterously low total. When a $499 six-night summer trip to London recently appeared on Go-Today.com, it seemed too cheap not to go. The trip would have cost at least $1,150 if purchased à la carte: Airfare was running about $750, and a bare-bones hotel would have added at least another $400.
Finger poised to click, we wondered: What's the catch? Was it really possible to visit London for $499 without sacrificing convenience and personal safety, not to mention our dignity?
METHODOLOGY: In mid-April, we clicked on Go-Today's "London Supersale," which included round-trip airfare to London Heathrow and six nights' hotel for $499 per person double, for travel in mid-July. The price was good for travel on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday (a surcharge applied for other days). Luckily, we were traveling with a friend: As with most package deals, this trip was priced on a per-person-double basis, and a solo traveler would have had to pay a $300 supplement.
* First eye-opener: Trips must be booked entirely online. If you want to talk to an actual person, that's another $20. And once we paid for the package, there were no refunds or exchanges. The company recommends buying trip cancellation insurance with your package, since you can't add it after the fact, but we decided to live dangerously. Note: We felt comfortable using Go-Today, in business for 13 years. But if you're unsure about a travel provider, check with the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org) to ensure there's not a pattern of complaints against the company.
* Second eye-opener: Watch out for extra charges -- some mandatory, some optional. Ours quickly added up:
$100 more to fly out of the Washington area. Turns out the $499 was from New York's JFK and Newark airports.
$115 in government taxes and airport fees.
$10 for mandatory FedEx delivery of e-tickets and hotel voucher.
$65 for a hotel upgrade, since Go-Today's budget choices seemed a bit too basic for anyone past the backpacker stage. It was still an incredible deal: We were paying $64 a night for a three-star room that was going for $172 a night on Hotels.com.
Final total: $789 per person.
RESULTS: You knew there was a catch.
It wasn't the ticket delivery, which can be dicey with some discounters who work on razor-thin margins. Our e-tickets and hotel voucher arrived in our mailbox within days of purchase.
It wasn't the airlines. We flew brand-name carriers: United and Lufthansa.
It wasn't the hotel. True, our room at the Corus Hotel Hyde Park was the size of a train berth, had no air conditioning, and a contortionist would have had a hard time getting in and out of the shower. But the neighborhood was safe and convenient, the room spotless and the staff friendly. We'd stay there again.
No, the catch was a return-trip routing that not only required a connection, but took us from London to Dulles via Frankfurt, requiring a 4 a.m. wakeup call and, with layover time, adding more than six hours (!) to our journey. We weren't told this prior to booking -- only after we paid in full and received e-mail confirmation. Go-Today manager Carmen Costello later explained that while the company works with vendors to get the best routing available, it depends on space available. The sale we clicked on, she said, resulted in more than 1,000 bookings in 24 hours, and United, the company's carrier on that trip, sold out of cheap seats. If Lufthansa hadn't agreed to provide a seat from Frankfurt at Go-Today's price, "we would have had to cancel you."
CONCLUSION: The deal was worth it, offering excellent value with no sacrifice in safety or comfort. In fact, unless staying in a specific hotel is important to you, we're hard-pressed to find a reason not to use these packages. Just be aware that the add-ons can dramatically affect the bottom line -- and be prepared for a little creative routing.
-- K.C. Summers