It takes a long time for old ways to die or fade away. One of the “old ways” that is in the process of going through radical change, is the tour package.
Once upon a time putting together package tours was a long process that required negotiations with hotels, group airfare departments and transfer experts. Specialists bargained with B&B owners and hotel chains months before anyone was expected to travel, in order to nail down the best rates. Airlines created special fare structures to offer bargains to groups. Incoming professionals tracked tour buses, vans, trains and rental cars.
Then paper brochures and detailed catalogs with fixed prices were printed that had to serve for an entire season. The season was cast in stone months before the first traveler headed to the airport or turned the ignition in their automobile.
To some extent these steps still must be taken for group tours where 40 or 50 travelers follow a sightseeing trail from city to city, staying in hotel after hotel. Once the need to move so many tourists together comes into play, planning ahead takes on major importance and the role of tour organizer comes into full play.
However, the most adventurous and sophisticated travelers would no more plan on a group tour than they would consider rowing across the Atlantic. For individual travelers and small groups the world has changed dramatically.
The careful planning, negotiations and other machinations that used to take place a year to six months before any tour package development now takes places instantly for students planning a trip to Italy, friends organizing a party in Reno, or a couple planning a spontaneous week in Madrid.
Today, travelers can put together their own packages that fit their own timetables and include only the vacation elements they need.
Better yet, sophisticated computer programs can create a vacation package on the fly. It is assembled and the components are discounted. This was never been possible years ago, but pioneering efforts by Expedia and their Travelscape subsidiary have broken new ground.
The other major online travel sites — Orbitz, Travelocity, Hotels.com, Hotwire and Priceline have all entered the instant tour package fray, however, Expedia is still way out in front.
In a similar way, Site59.com has cornered the market on last-minute tour packages created from space-available components for upcoming weekends.
For example I just searched the major sites (and then some) to get rates for a trip I am planning to Reno, Nevada in September. I had dates in mind — 18-22 September. I knew which hotel I would choose, given a choice — Atlantis Hotel and Casino.
* Expedia gave me an Air + Hotel package for two priced at $457.51 per person.
* Travelocity came up with an Air + Hotel price of $481.95 per person.
* The Orbitz packaging site (NLG, I believe. The same engine drives Yahoo Travel) didn’t function.
* Hotwire.com created a package for $541 per person if I chose the Atlantis Hotel and Casino but only $425 if I followed the normal Hotwire.com protocol and allowed the computer to select a three-star hotel at random.
* Hotels.com came up with a package price of $610.60 per person.
* Site59 (only offering a Boston-Reno package for the coming weekend) had a best price of $605.
* With Priceline’s system I really can’t confirm the final price, since it requires bidding. However, the Atlantis Casino is listed in the Priceline program. I would bet that a bid of less than $425 per person would probably be accepted. However, flights would be up to the luck of the Priceline draw, which I hate when days are precious.
In the vacation package pricing derby, Expedia came way out on top allowing me to select my exact hotel and a decent flight for an affordable price.
I believe that the lowest price would probably have been created by Priceline with included a guarantee of my desired hotel, but no guarantees on flight times.
After two hours on the computer plugging on hotels, air schedules and car rental requests, the lowest price I could find after building the package myself with confirmed air and hotel was $555 per person — almost $100 per person more expensive that simply booking through Expedia’s vacation option.
In all cases, making arrangements for rental cars would have been less expensive through Hotwire.com or Priceline.com.