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updated 9/29/2010 10:05:31 AM ET 2010-09-29T14:05:31

The Internet is brimming with promises of stunning savings on package deals of all kinds — from weekender cruises and the old three-day/two-night dodge to golf and activity packages and hardcore eco-trips. These are all-inclusive, "one price covers all" deals, right?

Well, not exactly. Even dilettante cruisers can tell you that the real costs of a cruise materialize onboard the ship, and I've experienced package deals where the cost of transportation from the airport was more than a night's hotel stay.

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Even with the extra expenses, package deals can be a great way to travel affordably. More than once I've saved so much money on a package deal that I just checked into the hotel, told the front desk we were leaving and would be back on our day of departure to sleep before our flight, and went on my way, having no intention of staying in one place for the entire trip.

But with such attractive prices, common sense dictates that there has to be a catch to these package deals. These can come in many forms: less flexibility, nonexistent refund eligibility, rooms without a view, hidden costs for items that you might usually think of as standard (e.g., the aforementioned airport transport), and attractions that bear no resemblance to those found in the brochures.

Here's a passage from the terms and conditions on the Southwest Vacations Web site:

"Items not included in the package price consist of, but are not limited to, baggage handling, tips and gratuities, meals, rollaway beds, cribs, resort fees, and all items of a strictly personal nature. These items are the sole responsibility of the Customer and should be paid directly when the service is received. ... Rates for packages including a rental car do not include gasoline, taxes, optional insurance, Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), under age driver charges if under the age of 25, or airport charges, which are payable directly to the rental car company."

Whew, talk about potential for hidden costs! Of course, there are hidden costs in all travel, but my point is this: "all-inclusive" doesn't always mean all is included.

Hotels: How many stars does it take to make a black hole?
Before purchasing your package, know enough about your lodgings that you won't be blindsided upon arrival.

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What's the name of the hotel? Go online to the hotel's Web site to see photos and read descriptions of the rooms; then check other Web sites for traveler reviews so you know what you're getting into. Ask the packager, and perhaps even call ahead to the hotel, to ask which rooms are most attractive, which rooms are sold to packagers, if you can call and ask them for a specific room once you've bought your package, if there are any hotel costs not included in your package (meals, pool/beach/golf course access), how far the hotel is from area attractions ... you get the idea.

Did you say our airline is Cropduster Air? Was that Crocbuster Air?
Questions to pose about air transport:

What is the airline? What is the class of air service? Do I get frequent flier miles? Can I use frequent flier miles?

What baggage size and weight restrictions apply on the airline(s) I'll be flying — and what baggage fees should I expect to pay?

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Are there any flights on local short-hop airlines? If so, what is the name of the airline, and on what type of plane will we fly? Are these flights reliable, on time and comfortable?

Meals: four star or ground round?
Some package deals also include meals, and you'll want to know if you'll be eating fine dinners at the best and tastiest restaurants in the region, or schlepping up and down the elevators to the hotel slop hall — or across the parking lot to the affiliate Ground Round chain.

If your package includes breakfast, does this mean a hot buffet with eggs, bacon and potatoes, or a pre-wrapped pastry and a cup of weak coffee?

Contingencies
Ask your tour operator about its policies regarding delays and cancellations.

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This goes two ways. First, know what happens to your money if you cancel or wish to reschedule (and whether there are deadlines for doing so); second, know what happens if the airline, hotel or packager has to cancel for any reason. Is there a minimum number of bookings required for a given tour to take place? What happens to your hotel if your plane is delayed? What will it cost to extend your trip in the event of air travel delays?

In cases where cancellation policies are stringent or you will be putting a lot of money down for your package upfront, it's a good idea to purchase travel insurance.

What about upgrades?
When traveling on a package, you may not be eligible for upgrades of any kind at any time during your travels. Ask your agent or travel packager what class of service you have, and whether or not you can request or even purchase upgrades.

Beware of "Kids Sleep/Fly Free" deals
Unless you like sleeping four to a bed, or your kids really like back-breaking fold-outs, or if you are a frontier family accustomed to sleeping, eating, changing and entertaining all in one room, beware of the many "Kids Free" deals out there.

Most often these deals just mean you won't pay a surcharge to have your kids sit in your lap on the plane, or sleep in your bed in the hotel. They're rarely offering you a suite with a separate room for your kids; they're telling you that you can put them wherever you can find space.

So unless you want your stay in the four-star hotel to feel like a camping trip, ask instead if the package company or hotel offers a discount on higher-level accommodations for families — a suite that costs half price for kids, or something like that.

Look for the "in the same room" comment in the fine print.

Other questions to ask
Is transportation between the airport and hotel arranged for and included in the price, and if not, what are the details and costs of these items?

Are there restaurants near the hotel, and if not, what are your options for meals in the area?

What advertised or featured attractions, if any, are and are not included in the package price?

What taxes and fees are not included in the cost of the package, and when do they need to be paid? (For example, some countries have departure fees that must be paid in cash at the airport.)

Finally, ask point blank: "What else is not included in the price?" If you're dealing with a reputable operator, you should get a straight answer. If you don't, you may want to consider switching agents or operators.

What if you're really dissatisfied upon arrival?
You'll want the assurance of your agent or packager that someone will be there for you if you arrive at your destination to find that your room is unacceptable and the front desk won't move you, or some other such calamity. If they work with the property or airline with any regularity, agents and packagers sometimes have more clout than you do standing at the front desk begging for a new room while your kids hold in their pee back in the room because the bathroom doesn't work. Get your agent or operator's promise that you can contact them at any time if your flights, accommodations or other elements of your package aren't up to snuff.

Finding a reputable packager
You can avoid most of the problems listed above by choosing a reputable agent or packager (although truth be told, even some of the best-known and powerfully established companies have been caught fleecing customers).

You may want to check to see if your packager or agent is a member of one of these professional associations:

For an outstanding list of current deals with reputable providers, see our vacation package deals.

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