Up to 40% off: Everything you need to know about saving money with airline vacation packages
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I’ve been totally obsessed with travel, points and miles for more than 15 years now.
While the travel bug bit me later in life than most people, I’ve made up for lost time, hitting 49 countries and almost all the states in the union. As my friends and family have seen (and benefitted from) my travels, I’m often asked about my top tips and tricks for finding discounted travel.
My favorite travel hack by far is something I feel hasn’t gotten the coverage it deserves: airline vacation packages.
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You can regularly save at least 40% by booking flights and hotels together. You can also book rental cars and activities at the same time, though I don’t find those discounts nearly as rewarding.
So, how do airline vacation packages work? Read on for the basics of booking airline vacation packages and how you can save a ton of money on your next trip.
American Airlines Vacations is probably my favorite travel tool. I’ve been able to stay in some of the most upscale hotels in the world at steep discounts using the vacation platform. Those properties include the Park Hyatt Vienna and the Adlon Kempinski in Berlin. A few times, I got discounts of more than 40% by booking a hotel and flight combination.
My most recent booking was a quick three-day trip to Quito, Ecuador. I stayed at the Hilton Colon Quito and flew from New York-JFK to Quito (UIO) via Miami for just $783. Best of all, I was cleared into first class for all the legs of the trip thanks to my AA Executive Platinum status at the time. That trip was booked less than two weeks beforehand.
And on a trip to Bangkok in 2018, I paid just $349.23 round-trip for the flights that took me from New York City to Dallas, onward to Hong Kong and finally Bangkok.
The best part? That trip booked into a special fare category. I ended up getting $2,042 in elite qualifying dollars and 11,538 in elite qualifying miles. Vacation packages don’t always book into more valuable fare buckets, but they do sometimes book as special fares. Look for an asterisk after the letter booking code for special fare treatment.
Related: How to book AA special fares
Just be warned, even if the tickets do code as special fares, you won’t always get outsize value.
In 2018, I did a four-night stay at the Sheraton Grand Rio Hotel & Resort including round-trip flights from New York City to Brazil for less than $1,700. My upgrades cleared on that trip, too.
I got a total of 9,572 EQMs with credit for $874 in EQDs. I paid a total of $1,647.81, but the taxes on the flight portion of that were $170.18. In this case, I probably didn’t get any extra credit for booking through AA Vacations. Even though it did code as a special fare, I didn’t really get additional EQD value on the flights.
But this can still pay off in a big way.
Keep an eye on that vacations page for occasional special sales, too. That can really make the savings add up. Right now, for example, AA Vacations is offering an additional discount on South America vacation packages of up to $200 off. That “Explore South America” sale runs through July 7.
Finally, in 2020, American Airlines gave all its elites a new vacation package benefit. Here’s the communication I received from American:
As an AAdvantage® elite status member, starting (July 1) you’re eligible for a new benefit: up to $400 off your next American Airlines Vacations package. This one-time credit can be applied to packages that include air and hotel and meet the $2,500 minimum package spend.
I haven’t been able to use my $350 off coupon yet, but I will try to do a trip this fall to take advantage.
You can also earn bonus AAdvantage miles on every vacation booking, and even pay with miles (though it’s not a great redemption).
One thing to note, you will most likely not get hotel stay credit or points even if you add in your hotel loyalty program number at checkin.
I don’t have much experience with Southwest, but my colleague, TPG senior writer Katie Genter, had nothing but positive things to say about their program.
“Back in 2012, my husband and I booked a six-night Southwest Vacations package for $1,190 ($560 per person). With this package, we flew nonstop from Austin, Texas, to Denver for a pre-Christmas vacation and stayed right at the base of the slopes at the Steamboat Grand. We booked a studio apartment and saved money by cooking most of our meals in the studio’s kitchen. We also rode the free city buses to get inexpensive ski rentals and groceries in town.”
Delta Vacations also offers steep discounts when you book flights and hotels together. Delta offers trips to Europe, Africa, Asia, South America — pretty much anywhere you’d want to go. Just for fun, I tried searching from my temporary home airport of Butte, Montana (BTM), for a one-week stay in Honolulu.
A package that included flights for two people and a stay at the newly remodeled Outrigger Reef in Waikiki came to $4,695. The same trip booked separately would be $5,168. You can play around and often find even bigger discounts — sometimes much bigger.
Right now Delta has a “Ready. Set. Vacation.” sale where you save up to $300 per trip when you book before Aug. 31 using the promo code “READY.”
Related: I saved $700 with Delta Vacations
Scott Mayerowitz, TPG’s executive editor, has used Delta Vacations as recently as 2019.
“I was going to (Turks and Caicos) and staying at a non-chain hotel. I booked via Delta Vacations. They were giving me extra savings as a then-Platinum member, plus extra Delta miles for the entire booking. The hotel was an all-suite property with breakfast included, so there was no harm (in) booking this way.”
The reason Mayerowitz mentions the potential harm in booking via airline vacations?
You won’t get stay credit for your hotel stays. So, if you’re going for elite hotel status, you won’t want to use a vacation booking.
Hawaiian Airlines has a great vacations page, too. To try it out, I did a dummy booking between New York City and Honolulu for eight nights in July for two people. I chose one of the airline’s longest flights and more than a week at one of my favorite hotels in Honolulu: The Waikiki Beachcomber by Outrigger.
The total price was $4,653.01. Hawaiian said I’d saved more than $400, but when I tried to book the same itinerary separately, it would have cost $5,384.95, so I calculate savings closer to $732.
You can even find deals for interisland flights with hotels.
United Vacations also provides many great packages. I found the selection slightly more limited than American Airlines, but there are plenty to choose from.
For example, doing a vacation search, United Airlines had a package from Bozeman, Montana, to Athens, Greece, with a stay at the Royal Olympic Hotel for six nights for $1,836 per person for a total of $3,690. That same itinerary would cost $5,116 if booked separately.
Other vacation packages
There are plenty of other airline vacation package programs if you search around. JetBlue, for example, has a robust vacation package offering at JetBlue Vacations.
The online travel agencies, of course, also offer vacation package bookings where you can save big, including Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity, among others.
My colleague Ben Smithson swears by British Airways’ “holiday” vacation packages. “It’s often cheaper to book a business-class return ticket and hotel (and) car hire through BA Holidays than just the business-class ticket by itself,” he said. “There’s no obligation to actually use the hotel room or car hire and you get extra Avios for the package deal, too.”
Using airline vacation portals for cheap business-class fares can make a lot of sense. You can often select the cheapest hotel, and get business-class fares for a much better price than booking direct. You can then “throw away” the hotel reservation if you don’t want to stay at the hotel. The hotels (generally) don’t mind since they are still getting the money for the reservation.
A step-by-step guide to airline vacations
I tried to recreate one of my best trips ever, to the Park Hyatt Vienna, but couldn’t find availability right now. In fact, probably due to COVID-19, there are simply fewer options in general at the moment — especially for international travel.
That said, there are still plenty of deals to be found.
If you wanted to book an AA Vacation, for example, go to AAVacations.com. Enter your travel dates and the destination you want to visit.
Just as an example, I chose a trip in July for two people traveling from Los Angeles to Paris. Unfortunately, there’s no availability until September, so I modified my dates.
You need to start the booking by picking a hotel. You’ll see a page that looks like this:
I prefer to select five-star hotels, but you could also search by Tripadvisor ratings, neighborhoods or even specific properties.
This is where you want to do your research. Look for “private sales,” “exclusive discounts” or perks such as free Wi-Fi or breakfast. Make sure you’re comparing the prices to what you would pay if you booked direct.
Once you’ve picked a hotel you’ll get more details and a summary:
I picked the Waldorf Astoria Versailles for this exercise. You’ll now be able to pick a room category.
The website auto-selects your flights, but you can easily change those and pick the ones you want.
This is where you want to find if the flights will code as “special fares.” See the asterisk where it says “Economy Class (O*)”? That means these flights would code as special fares and potentially give you better EQDs and EQMs for American.
Once you hit enter, it takes you to the booking page. Here’s where you can apply discounts or use your miles. It’s usually not a great redemption, but it’s nice to have the option. You can even slide a button to use more or fewer miles for the trip.
Now American says I saved $72 with this booking, but when I tried to recreate the itinerary using direct booking it would have cost $4,805 — that’s a savings of more than $915.
For a trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina, I found a great deal for a total price of $1,700.
If you booked the two separately, it would cost you $2,037. By using AA Vacations, you’d pay $1,934.
And remember, you don’t have to fly abroad to try an airline vacation package. You can book these trips for domestic destinations as well.
You can also use airline vacations to book all-inclusive stays. My colleague, TPG senior writer Andrew Kunesh, wrote a great piece about booking all-inclusives with AA Vacations.
There are more than a few reasons why booking travel with airline vacation packages is one of my personal favorite travel “hacks.”
They’ve helped me stay at some of the best hotels I’ve ever visited and saved me a ton of money. Occasionally, I’ve even been given a status boost as a result.
The next time you’re thinking about booking a trip, do a little research to see if using an airline vacation package can help you find significant savings on your next vacation, too.
Featured photo of the view from Berlin’s Hotel Adlon Kempinski in May 2014 by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy.
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