Think Twice Before Booking a Family Vacation Package

Last Updated Jul 6, 2010 2:41 PM EDT

If you want a great deal on a family vacation, experts recommend booking a travel package. I recently followed this advice and will never do so again. Sure, I may have saved some money. But I also got locked into reservations at an unacceptable hotel that I couldn't cancel. That's why I've since decided that parents traveling with small children must have some flexibility to remedy a bad situation, even if it potentially costs them a bit more.

Why am I so angry? Two weeks ago, my family and I traveled from New York to Florida for a long weekend. We booked our airfare (for three), hotel and rental car through Expedia. Our total cost was around $1,500.

As soon as we arrived at our hotel, a Hilton Suites, I knew we were in trouble. The room smelled of mildew and the carpeting was wet and moldy. Switching rooms didn't remedy the problem. (A Hilton publicist has since apologized for the inconvenience.)

When I called Expedia to switch hotels, I was told that we could not cancel our reservation since we paid in advance. This is apparently the rule for all vacation packages and why I believe they may not work for many families.

Then how will I book my next trip? Vacation packages may be out, but saving money is still a priority for me. So here's my new plan of attack:

1. Book Travel Segments Independently
Sure its easy and convenient to just click on a vacation package. But I now plan to book all segments of my travel separately. This will give me far more control.

For flights, I'll make sure to watch for sales and purchase my tickets on a Tuesday, the cheapest day for airfares.

For hotels, I'll shop around the web so I can get a good feel for rates. But I'll then reserve the actual room through the property directly, assuming it matches what I find online. (I may need to negotiate.) This way, I'll only have a reservation that I can later cancel if the experience doesn't live up to my standards.

As for a rental car, I'll still probably use a travel website like Travelocity or Expedia since they allow drivers to easily compare rates across multiple competitors.

2. Consider Alternative Accommodations
Budget conscious families are often best off avoiding hotels entirely. Some of the best prices are often found by renting private homes from local residents. For those traveling with kids, you'll also find you get more space and a full kitchen. And thanks to the web, it's never been easier to check out properties. Popular sites include VRBO.com (Vacation Rental By Owner) and Hotels.com.

3. Check the Web for Comments
My big mistake when booking my trip was not reading the online reviews for our hotel on a site like TripAdvisor. If I had, I would have seen that other travelers reported mixed experiences at the property and that the wet carpeting issue wasn't a new one.

So how did my story end? Expedia redeemed itself and issued me a full refund for my hotel stay and a $200 voucher toward a future trip. I fear, however, that you may need to be a columnist to get this sort of treatment from customer service. When I asked if all dissatisfied customers could expect the same response, I was told "yes". But I didn't get anywhere with the company until I called the public relations department and mentioned I was writing a story for CBS MoneyWatch.

Short of getting your own column, what are your tricks and techniques for remedying a bad trip?

Stacey Bradford is the author of The Wall Street Journal. Financial Guidebook for New Parents.
Family - Daytona Beach image by Rekkid, courtesy of CC 2.0.
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