The travel industry has rebounded nicely from the 2008 recession, but some things never change: Vacation travel and frustration go hand-in-hand from the time we leave the airport.
In the most recent data released by the U.S. Travel Association, direct spending on leisure and travel by domestic and international travelers totaled $564 billion in 2011. The economic impact of adults who have cancelled vacations, or grew tired with the hassles of air travel and got turned off from taking off, is just as staggering.
A June 2008 study by the USTA noted that "a deep frustration among air travelers caused them to avoid an estimated 41 million trips over the past 12 months at a cost of more than $26 billion to the U.S. economy." In more recent data, the Traveler Sentiment Index hasn't been above 100 (which indicates a more positive than negative perception) since 2007. The index fell as low as 78.2 in 2009 before rebounding to 93.5 in April 2012 -- still well short of the 100 score recorded in March 2007, according to USTA and MMGY Global data.
A common culprit seems to be the "all-inclusive vacation."
The concept sounds too good to be true. Pay upfront for your entire package -- food, lodging and ground transportation -- then just sit back and enjoy your vacation. Companies have been providing this service for decades with travelers booking by phone. In the last 10 years, online outlets have made it easier to select your own round-trip flights as well.
Often, it is too good to be true. One recurring problem is that the company providing the "all-inclusive" package typically doesn't own the hotel, the transportation company, or the activities you choose -- it merely books the arrangements. Try to take a complaint to the company that booked your vacation, and they will forward you to the hotel, activity provider, or transportation company. Go there first, and they may try to blame the booking company.
Some horror stories border on the extreme. One traveling couple who booked an all-inclusive vacation in the Bahamas through the popular website Expedia.com was surprised to discover upon arriving that their resort was closing. Describing the experience on the website pissedconsumer.com, owned by market research firm Opinion Corp, they wrote: "They closed the Sunday we left and were dismantling the rooms, restaurants, bars, pool ... around us while we were there. None of the amenities were available."
Among the most popular targets for complaints is Apple Vacations. Founded in 1969, Apple Vacations began building the country's largest provider of vacations to Mexico, Caribbean and Hawaii. In the late 1970s, the company became one of the first to introduce the concept of "all-inclusive vacations" to the U.S. market. For all their experience, Apple Vacations is not immune to the "all-inclusive" pitfalls like delayed flights, lost or incorrect hotel reservations, hidden costs, and poor customer service.
At least your local travel agent can address these concerns in person. Since Apple, Expedia and other all-inclusive vacation providers conduct business online and over the phone, face-to-face complaining isn't a convenient option. "Long-distance runaround" isn't just a song by Yes -- it's a good reason to say No to all-inclusive vacation packages.
Travel expert Paula Conway offers the following tips for booking an all-inclusive vacation:
1. Let the destination rule your decision – Some destinations are built for the all inclusive experience, while some simply aren’t. In the case where the resort is the destination, and there’s just not much to do outside the resort, the all-inclusive makes sense. Just make sure you want to do all of your eating and drinking at the resort before you book.
2. Advance book – The farther out you book, the best all-inclusive deal you will get. Also consider the air fare, which increases by the week, you don’t want to pay a premium on a vacation that can be booked out many months in advance and save you a lot of money.
3. Go off-season – If you want an all-inclusive in the Bahamas or Caribbean, the summer is when the resorts are least crowded and slash their rates. Summer and shoulder seasons (June to November) are your best bets for great travel deals, up to 60% off in many cases. And remember: don’t book during Spring Break (March/April) unless you love the idea of having the property packed with high school and college kids drinking heavily and partying into the wee hours of the night, while you are trying to sleep.
4. Do your homework – Read websites for honest reviews of the properties you have in mind. There’s plenty of good intelligence out there so brush up before you book.
5. Pay one fee – you can book everything from the air to the hotel on booking sites like Orbitz or Expedia. Don’t spread the cash around, make one booking and therefore one payment. Also be sure that all costs are included in what you’re booking, read the fine print.
6. Consider niche vacations – There are all-inclusive vacations for goodies, explorers, and fitness junkies. It doesn’t just have to be a large property filled with ongoing buffets. Look into what you really want to do and do your research.
7. Read the fine print – Some will say “all-inclusive meals,” which doesn’t mean that the resort is all-inclusive, but rather just that the meal includes drinks, and often that is even limited though the language doesn’t reflect it. Read everything carefully.
8. What is the tipping policy? – Some all-inclusive deals include tipping, while others do not. Don’t be stuck with $200 extra in tips at the end unless you accounted for it.
9. Food and drink – Many all-inclusives offer different types of dining: the all-you-can-eat buffet and snack bars that are open all or most of the time, and then there’s the more popular a la carte meals at set times throughout the day. The a la carte meal times will fill up fast, so you want to know in advance which restaurants you wish to try and make that reservation in advance. Drinks are typically a bulk affair, and drinkers appreciate the beer and cocktails that never end, but most non-drinkers don’t know that they have the option of ongoing fruit smoothies and juices, and don’t ask for this.
10. Upgrades – Upgrades can be very cost-effective with an all-inclusive package, having you arrive at some nice perks like a club-level suite and free Internet access for just a little more money.