My wife is a psychotherapist in private practice. I'm a freelance writer. A graph of our average monthly household income over the past year looks like a time-exposure photograph of a naked and terrified Alan Greenspan waving sparklers in the night while trapped on the Anaconda at Kings Dominion. Financial instability didn't mean we weren't determined to take a winter vacation. It just meant that we couldn't afford it. The solution: shameless, relentless bottom fishing for a package deal. There was no Web site so intimidating, no discounter so impersonal, no travel agency so pushy that we wouldn't check it out. At least until it gave us a massive headache.
"It has to be someplace warm, it has to have sand, and it can't be Cancun," my wife said. "Other than that, I don't care." The exclusion of Mexico's most-visited seaside resort was due to the T-shirt of a guy at our health club that reads, "If [bad word] Had Wings, Cancun Wouldn't Need an Airport."
How naive were we? When I fired up the computer, searched Yahoo! for "discount travel" and came up with 654 sites, I actually thought I was getting somewhere.
Surfing the Internet for anything, travel bargains included, is like entering a parallel universe where everyone is a little bit dim to begin with and also suffers from the flu. One of the first listings we hit upon, Lowfares.com, seemed to be both logical and promising. What comes up at that address, however, is the Caribbean Online home page, a listing for more than 15,000 companies and organizations throughout the area and a heavy spiel about why you should sign your business up to the site. There are brief profiles of every island in the Caribbean. There is a lot of stuff about how search engines work. I found no mention of fares, low or otherwise.
If Lowfares.com was a desert, Bestfares.com was a dam break, threatening to drown you in information. A printout of the home page alone runs to four sheets of paper and dozens of clickable icons. Click on Hotel Bargains, International, and you get a chart of every country in the world. There's also Value Vault, Snooze You Lose Fares, Scam Watch, Fraud Squad, Current In-Flight Movies and, just in case you haven't wasted enough time, the dubiously named New You Can Lose. Choose carefully, because you'll have time to vacuum the living room while waiting for each site to come up. What was virtually impossible to find were hotel-air fare package deals.
One morning brought a flash of inspiration, so counterintuitive it almost seemed intuitive again: Let somebody else do the legwork! I put down the modem, picked up the telephone and began calling the discounters listed in various newspapers. You learn pretty quickly that most of the bargains are, logically enough, at the closer, high-volume destinations. A week in Cancun generally costs less than a week in Puerto Rico, which costs less than a week in Martinique. Many of the best deals are in the Mexican Caribbean: Cancun, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen. Our neighbor to the south, cheap to begin with, is getting better all the time (for non-Mexicans). Your dollar now buys 9.5 pesos, up from 7.25 a year ago.
At Always Travel With Us, I thought I'd hit pay dirt: a week in someplace called Punta Cana at a resort including transfers, meals, domestic alcohol, tips and "non-motorized water sports," for two, for $1,780, including a direct flight both ways from BWI.
"Listen," cooed Dan, the guy pitching the trip, "you can't stay home for that much money." He wasn't that far off. It sounded like a heck of a deal. The hotel was the Riu Naiboa: predictably gargantuan at 372 rooms, three restaurants and two bars, all just 200 yards from the beach. It sounded so good, I almost forgot that I'd never heard of Punta Cana.
"It's like the new Cancun, only on the east side of the Dominican Republic," Dan said. "They got like 25 miles of great beach, didn't get hit by Mitch. I've been there." I asked if there was a town nearby. "Not really. I mean you can't just walk outside the resort, go here and there for dinner or whatever. You pretty much stay put."
Suddenly, I knew Punta Cana would not be the ticket. We were perfectly willing to stay in a hotel the size of a large urban housing project of the '70s, but total encapsulation was too high a price to pay. Even for people who furnish their basement with stuff their neighbors leave at the ends of their driveways.
We finally found a match at Empress Travel, the New York travel agency with approximately 1 million branch offices, including one in Falls Church. Jennifer, our contact there, came up with a week on the Mexican island of Cozumel, famed for its diving and snorkeling, for $1,516. The package was offered by Apple Tours, a mega-agency specializing in packages to the Caribbean, Mexico and Hawaii that works only with professional travel agents. The hotel was the 106-room Casa del Mar, just across the road from its own sliver of beach and a mile south of the main town. The package, run by Apple Vacations, didn't include meals. At that price, we didn't expect it to. Also, we would need to get up at 4:30 a.m. on Sunday to be at BWI by 6. Grim, but necessary. The real clincher was that the room came with a $46 per day beverage credit. "I hope you like pina coladas," said Jennifer.
We jumped on it with both feet.
That night Jane and I fixed a fancy dinner, lit the candles and dug out the "Greatest Hits of the Animals," dancing around the kitchen table as we joined Eric Burdon:
We gotta get outta this place
If it's the last thing we ever do
We gotta get outta this place
Girl, there's a better life for me and you (believe me, baby).
We arrived bright and unfocused at BWI at the appointed hour, hopped a chartered jet to Cancun and stood in line with about 2,000 other Americans for a little over an hour as we funneled through immigration. An Apple representative with a clipboard herded us onto a puddle-jumper to Cozumel, where another Apple clipboard directed us to a white Suburban that dropped us at the Casa del Mar.
Apple rates its hotels from 1 ("a basic budget hotel or condo with few public areas or amenities") to 6 ("deluxe hotel offering a variety of entertainment, dining and sports facilities"). The Casa del Mar was only a 2, but it was plenty good enough for us. You could actually swim up to the back side of the bar and chop away at your drink credit without leaving the pool. There was a restaurant where waiters in flowered shirts slung drinks under a thatched roof, and grounds planted with palm trees and botanicals.
The moment of truth came early, when the bellboy showed us to our room, which was on the back side of the hotel with a panoramic view of the laundry building. Fortunately, the room had not yet been made up. I went back down to the woman at the front desk. "We have been traveling for 36 hours straight to get here," I lied. "We need a room immediately. We want one that faces the water." She turned. She selected a key. We followed the bellboy to a room from which you could just see a sliver of sea framed by palms. I was so happy I gave the boy 20 pesos, the equivalent of $2.
The room was small but clean. It had sliding glass doors that gave out onto the garden, a king-size bed with a headboard of yellow tiles, two small chairs and a TV that broadcast snowstorms in both Spanish and English. That night as I stepped into the shower, the knob for the hot water came off in my hand and a geyser of water began spurting all over the place. I went back to the front desk and explained that my wing of the hotel was in danger of flooding. The woman there nodded and smiled. In just three hours, the chief engineer came and fixed it. After that, everything went fine.
The Casa del Mar is a short walk south of San Miguel, the main town on the 189-square-mile island, which has about 60,000 inhabitants. Despite the island's size, only about 3 percent of it has been developed and nearly all of that lies on the west side, which faces the mainland, 40 minutes away by ferry. The undeveloped east side, accessible by car or taxi, has some lovely beaches. But you'd better be careful. The surf is strong, there are no lifeguards and nobody's going to come looking for you any time soon.
Avenue Rafael Melgar runs along the island's west coast, where most of the action is. Cozumel's many reefs have made it into one of the world's most popular islands for serious scuba divers. There are dive shops offering equipment and day trips everywhere you look. The place is also big on the cruise ship circuit. Some mornings we'd step outside to see three huge boats disgorging passengers at the pier just down the road like a going-out-of-business sale at Filene's Basement. The passengers would swarm the town for a couple of hours, buying duty-free diamonds or a pina colada at the Hard Rock Cafe, then rush back to the ship.
We were actually grateful for the people on the cruise ships, because an important part of any vacation is having some group of people you can feel superior to. We told ourselves we might be slumming, we might be sneaking part of last night's dinner back to the room for tomorrow's breakfast, but at least we weren't seeing the world by oversize party barge.
We soon developed a cheap-skate routine that worked for us. Rather than renting a car or taking cabs everywhere, we each got bikes at $7 a day. In the morning we'd pedal into town for coffee and postcard-writing at a cafe. Sometimes we'd order breakfast, but more often we'd hit the big Chedraui store near the hotel, a combination K mart and grocery store, and load up on supplies. We'd eat breakfast sitting in a nearby park, then stash lunch back in the room for later. The beverage credit worked out to about 30 drinks each per day, just 26 more than the two of us could manage. Everyone else at the hotel, almost all of whom had fled winter in Minnesota, evidently had the same deal. There was always a group of people poolside at 9 a.m., glistening with sun block and working on their first cocktails of the day. We had no intention of keeping up. And with a half-liter of water costing the same as a beer, we took to ordering a dozen bottles of agua purificada each morning and stowing them in the room.
In the afternoons we'd cross over the highway to the hotel's tiny strip of beach to swim and snorkel. Some days we'd head a mile down the road to Chankanaab, a great little nature park with a better beach, better snorkeling, a restaurant and some Mayan ruins. It cost $7 to get in, but it was worth it. There were colorful fish fanning themselves; I saw a five-foot barracuda hanging out under a ledge in waist-deep water, oblivious to the people splashing a few feet away.
We wanted to go see the eastern side of the island but were put off by the price of renting a jeep: $50 plus gas. The solution came one morning as we were pedaling home from the Chedraui store. One of the many men on the street hawking everything from dive trips to mopeds asked if I wanted a jeep. Too steep, I told him. "How 'bout 10 bucks?" he said. "What's the catch?" I asked. "You listen to a one-hour deal at this time share and they give you a coupon."
I looked at Jane. We were in.
At the appointed time, our new friend picked us up in a cab at our hotel and dropped us at another place half a mile up the road. They tag-teamed us for an hour, explaining how we couldn't afford not to become members. The closer was Jerry, an American in his early sixties with carefully coifed hair who was wearing a sweater even though it was 80 degrees outside. We listened while he went through a practiced spiel. At exactly 60 minutes, I piped up.
"Thanks, Jerry, but our hour's up and we've got to be going." He looked up, his feelings terribly hurt. "You don't want to hear the prices or anything?"
Not really, I said, but thanks.
"Don't thank me," he said petulantly, "I didn't do you any good." With that he stamped our coupon for a $10 jeep.
Actually, Jer, you did quite a bit. The next morning we got a tiny Suzuki and bombed all around the island. At Playa Morena, the northernmost beach on the east side that you can get to before venturing off-road and forgetting the insurance coverage on the car, we sat at a little bar on the beach, had a beer and watched the pelicans patrol two inches off the surface as they looked into the face of cresting waves. I looked over at Jane. It was late January, warm and sunny.
She smiled. "This was a really good idea."
Bill Heavey has nearly recovered from last year's visit to Iran.
Working with a travel agent, the important variables affecting the quality of your search are how many sources the agency uses for its vacations (some agencies specialize in certain company's products, sometimes to the exclusion of others), and whether it specializes in low-priced or high-end trips. If you use a Web-based agent, the key variables are the quality of the searching and browsing tools the site employs, whether the site offers the packages' price at the top level or (maddeningly!) makes you dig for it, and how frequently the site is updated. Most Web sites take bookings by phone, but some permit (or encourage or even insist on) online booking.
Every mainstream travel agency that handles leisure travel has access to packages to cheap, common, warm destinations. Call any travel agent you work with, ask a friend for an agent recommendation or find one in an advertisement. A few agencies we checked out, reflecting an arbitrary sweep through the marketplace rather than a list of favorites:
These Internet sites are time consuming and often not updated regularly, but they provide a good way to survey prices and options before you consult with an agent or shop elsewhere. Most permit bookings by phone. Again, what follows are notes reflecting one shopper's experience, not necessarily the best or most fruitful choices.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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