Sunseeker's smart guide to that package holiday

RICHARD MEADOWS
Last updated 10:54 12/06/2012

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Kiwis are not flightless. Every winter we depart these lands in droves, flapping our way to the Pacific to warm our ruffled feathers. But there's no hardwired instinct pulling us north.

Instead, it's the siren-song of the glossy travel brochures spread across the kitchen table, promising us our very own island in the sun.

The all-in-one package deal is the simplest way of getting there, but without some savvy it won't be as much of a bargain as the brochures would have you think.

Greg Southcombe, owner of travel expert network Travelcafe, is frank about the real value of holiday packages: "To be quite honest, these days package deals are often really just separate components bundled up. More often than not, it's just convenient."

That hassle-free experience is not to be sneezed at, with hotels, flights, transfers, taxes and other easily forgotten things all taken care of. However, there are several tips and tricks to be aware of.

Consumer NZ calls the rock-bottom headline deals you see splashed around "teaser rates". They're sexy at first glance, and by the time all the extra charges have mounted up, you're already committed. Sun, sand and sea is not exactly a tough sell.

For example, one travel website is running a "hot" three-night Fiji package for $899 - complete with bronzed babe lounging in a hammock. What's wrong with this picture?

After flying in, transferring to your resort and unpacking, you'd have just enough time to snatch a few drinks at the bar and wriggle your feet in the sand before heading home again.

Naturally, there's a convenient extension offer available for four extra nights at $299, bringing the total price to $1198.

Things have improved since Consumer NZ investigated what it called these "sly" industry tactics a few years ago, but holidays are still not always advertised at the more realistic length of five or seven nights.

The gloss comes off a little further when you realise the accommodation you're being offered is usually at the cheaper end of the range.

We may not be talking roaches and stained bedclothes, but concrete rooms and spectacular views of the unit next door are a distinct possibility. Which means, of course, that most people will shell out a few hundred bucks extra to upgrade to a better room or resort.

Finally, there's the fact that package holidays are advertised per person sharing a twin room. That's bad news for Nigel no-mates, but no problem as long as you have an offsider.

Those are the traps; here are the tips. Your holiday might run on island time, but timing is everything when booking. Swanning off to laze on a beach during the gloomiest depths of winter is a fantastic idea but it's hardly an original one.

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The winter shoulder seasons in May/ June and September/October tend to be cheaper, but the real spike comes at the break in school terms.

The worst possible time to go is the first two weeks of July, when both primary and secondary schoolchildren are on the rampage. The demand is so high that prices can rise as much as 20 to 30 per cent compared with off-peak. With rugrats in tow, it would pay to book well ahead of time - at least six months - to secure a spot.

"Those who plan early often get really good deals," says Brent Thomas, commercial director at House of Travel. "They can get in at the peak time when those opportunities are not there."

If you're unburdened by offspring, you can cut things finer for a spontaneous getaway. Hoteliers and airlines are always desperate to get bums filling empty seats and beds, so procrastinators, for once, can come out on top.

Within the past month, there's been a flurry of bargain packages to the Cook Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia. And on Expedia's website, the 11th-hour offerings include unfilled rooms at Bali's Radiant Hotel and Spa reduced by 55 per cent.

And if you really want to pinch pennies on the timing, Expedia suggests flying out on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. That's when flights are cheaper.

But the single biggest factor in holiday planning is location. The Cook Islands and Fiji are the classic Kiwi getaways. Our roundup of the holiday packages on offer found five-night Cook Island trips starting about the $800 mark, while Fiji was closer to $1200.

Southcombe says people often inquire about Fiji for a week and end up settling for Rarotonga instead. The currency is the same as ours, and everything is cheaper.

Samoa is a little further away and not yet blanketed in tourist fales, but Thomas says it has been a huge seller this year. We found several Samoan packages on offer for under $1000 per person.

Vanuatu, Tahiti and New Caledonia tend to be pricier, but are still available within the $1500-$2000 per person range.

Having sorted destination and dates, all that remains is booking it in. Martin Lewis, of MoneySavingExpert.com, writes that haggling, particularly with high-street travel agents, can knock another 10 per cent off cheap packages.

The idea probably seems a bit odd to most Kiwis, but it paid off handsomely when we put it to the test.

A cheap and cheerful romantic holiday for two to Fiji came in at $2596 from one agent, better than the first offering received. We forwarded that quote back to the original agent, and he undercut the trip by $250 - almost bang on 10 per cent.

When we asked about a credit card surcharge of $60, it was dropped - another good bargaining opportunity there.

Neither of our travel agency insiders was worried about the idea of haggling and shopping around, saying it reflects the nature of the market these days.

Over the past decade, customers with all the information at their fingertips via the internet have become much better informed.

But that's actually a good thing, Mr Thomas says. It means they've done some research and know what they're after, leaving the agent free to hone things down and work out the details.

Price is not the same thing as value, he says, which is where the agent's expertise comes in.

At any rate, it's already June, so you don't have a snowball's chance of a cheap holiday in Hawaii.

But Southcombe has a Plan B: with more hotels and flights available, the Gold Coast is competitively priced and can even be booked during the school holidays.

Sure, it's not exactly Fiji or Samoa. But at least our Aussie neighbours can always be relied on to provide a last resort. Fairfax NZ

- The Dominion Post

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