Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Does last minute travel result in the best prices?

In the last two weeks,we've had several clients call and ask for last minute vacations at resorts in the Caribbean for the following week or two, assuming they will get great deals. Why? Because they heard about them on t.v.

Did they get great deals? Absolutely not. In fact, two of them ended up booking resorts in the Carolina's that they could drive to. While we had no trouble finding hotel rooms, last minute airfares made their vacation prohibitive. Of the few flights we found that had any seats left, pricing for air alone was between $1200 - $1500 for two tickets to Jamaica, Mexico or California. That was the budget each client has in mind for their entire vacation.

Meanwhile, a client that booked a vacation in Cancun in April for four nights at a four star All Inclusive paid $1185 for two people including air and transfers from Newark Airport. Why? Because she booked early. We booked our own four night vacation from Long Island to Las Vegas four months ago for the week of Sept. 28. Direct flights on Southwest from Islip and staying 4 nights at Paris with round trip transfers. The price? $993 for two people. (That is the regular price, not a travel agent rate - another fallacy is that travel agents always get discounted travel). That same vacation today is $1106.

We receive daily notices from suppliers of what they consider last minute travel that are actually three to four months down the road. In July, we received reduced cruise rates from several cruise lines for sailings in October. Here is an example of something we received today with
discounted prices:

Mexican Riviera
Sail roundtrip from Los Angeles for 7 days
Ports: Los Angeles, Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlán, Cabo San Lucas

Sep 26;
Oct 3, 10, 17, 24, 31;
Nov 7, 14, 21, 28;
Dec 5, 12
Prices begin at $399* $499* $649*

See the dates? Earliest date for sale prices is Sept. 26.

We checked a cruise from New York to Bermuda for seven days for next week for one last minute client. There were very few cabins left and an interior cabin was priced at $1779 per person. Had the client looked six months ago, that same cabin would have gone for about $800 per person from NY during the summer (the most expensive time to cruise anyway).

Don't believe all the last minute vacation hype you hear. Last minute in many cases means a month or two in advance. By waiting until a week or two before you would like to travel, you are dealing with planes that are nearly full since most airlines have reduced the number of flights to avoid flying planes that are not filled. Of the few seats you can find, the price is two to three times what you would have paid by booking the flights three to six months in advance.

Book early for the best prices. We always check pricing several times before you travel and if we find a better price from the supplier, we will always try and get that price for you. But these days, it is rare to see a price drop when you've booked early, with the exception of some cruises.

Buy travel insurance with cancel for any reason coverage. Several travel insurance companies have cancel for an reason insurance available you can purchase. If something happens with your job or the economy worsens, you can cancel your vacation and get your money back. It is definitely worth looking at that type of insurance if you are worried about the economy changing after you book your vacation. This type of insurance is more expensive that insurance that covers for illness, but for some it definitely is worth the extra money.

This past June, when the swine flu outbreak resulted in people who were booked in Mexican resorts to cancel their vacations or to rebook in other areas, those who had cancel for any reason insurance were able to rebook and not have to worry about penalties - the penalties were reimbursed by their travel insurance. Those who chose insurance that covered for illness only were not so lucky. Unless they were sick enough before their vacation to cancel their trip for covered reasons, they risked having to travel or lose their money.

To sum it up - book early and purchase travel insurance to protect your investment.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sunset Jamaica Grand Resort - Ocho Rios

We recently went on a travel agent familiarization tour of Ocho Rios and Montego Bay given by the Jamaican Tourism Bureau. This four night tour was a great way for travel agents to see several hotels to make recommendations to clients.

Our first stay for two nights was at the Iberostar Rose Hall in Montego Bay. It was magnificent. Our second two nights were at the Sunset Jamaica Grand Resort in Ocho Rios. This towering resort has two bright yellow towers of rooms. The location is on the beach near the cruise ship pier. The surrounding area is not the most scenic – the houses right behind the resort were shacks and not very pretty to look at.

We arrived early in the afternoon to the open air lobby where chaos was ensuing as guests were checking out and in at the same time. First impression was this was a nice resort but not as luxurious as Iberostar or some of the other resorts we visited.

After a trade show at the hotel, we were given a tour of the grounds, which were lovely. There were two beaches, five pools plus hot tubs, beach activities, a six story water slide, several restaurants, a stage and a kids club. Our first impression seeing the grounds was that this was a great resort. Then we toured the inside of the resort.

We were then taken to see a room on the 11th floor, a suite. I was quite surprised to see not only that is was not very large, but that the bathroom had very low standards. Most resorts have upgraded sinks (many double sinks), nice soaking bathtubs, etc. Not here. The bathrooms were old and not in the best condition.

A tour of the spa left several agents surprised at the condition. In the room where manicures and pedicures were given, the ceiling had a lot of mold and water stains on it. The pedicure foot baths were filthy. The room also was sloppy - there wasn't a place for everything and everything in it's place. It was not even close to comparing to any of the other spa's we saw at other resorts.

After our tour, we were given keys to our assigned room - 916. Upon stepping out of the elevator, the smell of mildew was pervasive on the entire floor. The carpet in the hallway was dirty and worn.

Stepping into our room, the mildew smell got worse. (I sprayed my pillows nightly with perfume as that was the only way I could stand the mildew smell).The airconditioning vent in the room was so full of dust you could barely see into the vent. The bathroom and vestibule had dropped ceilings and some of the ceiling tiles in the bathroom looked like they would soon cave in. There was a vent in the bathroom that did not work. There was a single sink, tub and a toilet in the back of the room. The bathroom amenities consisted of a bottle of shampoo and conditioner and a bar of soap. The towels were gray (but were supposed to be white).

There was a safe in the room with no lock. In order to get a lock, you had to leave a $100 deposit that would be refunded upon check out. I thought this was outrageous -I ended up locking my valuables in my suitcase. We were also given a card for towels at the pool that had to be returned at check out or you would be charged $15 per towel.

We had two double beds with very old bedspreads and thin, aging blankets. There was a dirty carpet in between the two beds. The dresser had four mildew smelling drawers. The t.v. was not flat screen. There was a coffee maker that boiled water and you could use teabags or Sanka for coffee, but there was no milk or coffee mate for it. There was no refrigerator.

A table and chair held an empty ice bucket with hair in it. The floors were dirty – there was black hair throughout and it needed a good scraping to get the dirt off of it. At Iberostar, we had been given slippers and at the last minute I took mine and I was so thankful I did, as I did not walk on the floor or carpet with bare feet. We had a balcony overlooking the pools that was impossible to slide open. We could open it enough to go out sideways and then has to push it with all out body weight to close it.

We needed internet access in the room and were directed to the Business Office where we paid $5 for 60 minutes of access. They handed us a cable for the room and a code to access.The first cable they gave us did not have any ends on it, we had to bring it back and swap it. There is also wireless access in the lobby.

We ate at the buffet restaurant for breakfast and lunch and the food was adequate. Eggs were made to order and the chef was able to cook eggs for six people at a time. There was plenty of fruit for all meals. In the morning there was a juice machine, in the afternoon it was switched to soda. For breakfast, there was also a choice of French Toast, delicious cinnamon pancakes, some Caribbean meat and vegetables, sausage, bacon, pastries and cereal. For lunch, spaghetti in red sauce or cream sauce, salad fixings, hamburgers and French Fries, and more Caribbean dishes. Coffee was served by waitresses, but you had to wait until they had the time to get to you.

My only issue with this open air restaurant is that cheese was melting in the heat and there were bugs flying around, which were landing on the food.

The service was substandard in all areas. I waited on line for 15 minutes to ask to see the Sales Manager to ask if our room could be changed due to the moldy smell. The one staff member at the Guest Services Desk was tied up with one client and the others at check in couldn’t be bothered. They chatted among themselves and when I really pushed them, finally called the Managers office. The Manager never came out. I ended up leaving and when we came back for dinner, spoke to our Jamaica Tourism Board guide. He was unable to obtain another room for us as the hotel, so we had to live with the smell. As travel agents being trated like this, I would be horrified if I sent a client to this hotel that received the same treatment.

Service at the bars was very slow. Most of the bars had only one bartender (during very busy times, maybe two). It took quite awhile to get a drink and the drinks were very weak. Beer and wines were watered down and the red wines were downright terrible. They had a daily special drink which was okay the two days we were there. If you asked for a pina colada or strawberry daiquiri, you had to ask for rum to be added or you received a virgin drink. At the bar in the main lobby, I was ignored so long by a bartender that a very nice British man stepped in and got the bartenders attention so I could order a drink.

The light in our bathroom over the sink was out of service. We called twice requesting it be fixed to no avail - it was not fixed during our stay. It's very hard to take a shower and dry your hair in a dark bathroom.

Many staff just couldn’t be bothered to assist if you had a question. After staying at the Iberostar, the lack of service here really stood out. Another example of poor service – on the second day, we found a letter under our room door to someone named Patricia welcoming them to the resort and room 916 (our room) and hoping their stay went well. On Monday morning, the only day we had to relax and sleep late, our phone rang at 7:30 AM by someone from the front desk welcoming Patricia. I told the front desk clerk Patricia wasn’t in this room. She asked if I could bring the paper down to the lobby they had left in our room. I opted not to wait on a line where the staff didn’t care if you were standing right in front of them or not so Patricia could get the form in whatever room she had been assigned to. How difficult was it for the staff to look up Patricia on their data base to find what room she was in? And did they need to call at 7:30 AM?

The evening entertainment was also sub par. A Jamaican group sang on the outdoor stage the two nights we were there. While the girl singer had a fantastic voice, the songs seemed to be the same song played over and over. We tried the Nightclub – there were about 10 people there, with four of them dancing.

There was plenty of music and socializing going on at the pool during the day. There are also plenty of things to do in the Ocho Rios area, from Dunns River Falls to Dolphin Swims at Dolphins Cove. There is a Tour Desk where you can purchase optional excursions.

The one thing I can say was great at this hotel was our air conditioning. It was very cold – while other resorts limit how cold you can turn your thermostat to, not a problem here.

It seemed many of the guests staying at the hotel were British or Canadian. We were told that Europeans receive several weeks at a time off and that this low priced All Inclusive allows them to stay for two weeks at a time without breaking their budgets. The guests we spoke to were mostly repeat customers and indeed were staying there for more than a week. They seemed to be happy with the accomodations. And they did tell me that this was the best for their budget so they could go away for two weeks. We met some delightful guests that were happy to answer my probing questions

This hotel is not for all clients – if you are on a very limited budget, want plenty to do and don’t care about the conditions of your room or service isn’t important to you – you might like this resort. If you do care about these, I would suggest the Grand Palladium in Montego Bay or any Riu resorts-good priced options that are much nicer than this.

Last Minue Travel Deals - Yeah or Nea?

In the last two weeks, we've had several clients call for last minute vacations in the Caribbean. They wanted to travel within the next five to 10 days. The assumed they would get a great deal. Where did they hear this? On t.v.

Did they get great deals? Absolutely not. In fact, two of them ended up booking hotels for a few days (instead of a week) within driving distance. While we had no trouble finding hotels, last minute airfare made their vacation prohibitively expensive. All of these clients said they wanted to spend less than $1,500 for an entire weeks vacation. At this time, there were very few seats available on flights to either Mexico or the rest of the Caribbean and the prices for two seats alone ran from $1200 - $1600. The few rooms remaining were also higher priced than they were three or four months ago.

Meanwhile, a client who booked a four star all inclusive resort in Cancun back in April for 4 nights spent $1185 with air and transfers included. Another example - we booked our own Las Vegas vacation for September in March with round trip direct flights on Southwest, 4 nights at Paris and transfers for $993 - for two people. (This is the regular price that clients pay - another myth is that travel agents travel for free or low cost. We paid what a client pays.) Today that same exact trip is priced at $1106.

Last minute travel deals don't mean plan your travel the week before you plan to go. Travel agents receive last minute "deals" every day. What do suppliers consider last minute? Anywhere from one to six months in advance, not a week or two.

Cruises are frequently sending us cruise sales, but for several months in advance. For the clients I first mentioned, I also checked last minute cruise prices for them from New York. Of the few cabins left, the pricing started at $1700 per person for an inside cabin - which is what they could have spent in total for two people had they booked six months earlier.

When should you book early? If you are flying, you usually get better air prices early rather than late. If you are using frequent flyer miles, you should always book early. You will almost never get low priced airfare a week or two before you plan to leave.

If you are cruising and want a particular cabin, book early. If you want a suite for a land vacation, book early. If you must have a balcony - book early. There may not be suite or balconies left when you choose to book late. Many cruise lines also offer early saver rates - to receive those you must book early.

If you need to budget your money and pay a little at a time for your vacation - book early.

When is later booking an option? If your job doesn't allow you to book too early but you must be prepared for the trade offs. (Although there are more and more travel insurance companies that are offering cancel for any reason policies). One trade off is that you can't be particular where your room or ship cabin is located (some of the last minute cabins or rooms available are not the most desirable areas - the very front or back of the ship, or over a nightclub or dining room, or near the front desk in a hotel). You will be able to book what is left. And you must be able to pay in full for your vacation and may receive a surcharge to have your documents overnighted to you.

As a footnote, when you book early with Promal Vacations, we always check prices before your final payment and if we find a lower price you may be entitled to, we will work with the supplier to get that price for you.