Updated: Apr 27, 2022
If your primary goal for a family vacation is to maximize your experience budget, and your family of four is more than happy to all share a two-queen room at Motel-6, that is fantastic. Then, yes, budget travel sites will absolutely save you money as long as you are willing to hunt for those great deals in out-of-the-way locations at no-frills properties. Budget travel sites can help you to economize so that every dollar can go towards awesome memory-building activities. Rock-on.
If, on the other hand, you are ready to upgrade to moderate or affordable luxury travel, but don’t want to feel like a shorn sheep in the process, then let me share some of my experience and knowledge. Over the years, Fat Papa and I have gone from budget, to moderate, to affordable luxury (sometimes dipping our toes in luxury) travel and I am always on the hunt for a good travel deal. But first, some definitions. What do I mean when I say budget travel versus affordable luxury and so on?
Budget Travel: accommodations at hostels, motels, or low rated hotels (below 3-star rating on most booking sites) or travel arrangements with no extras (basic economy, no seat choices).
Moderate Travel: accommodations at hotels rated 3 to 4-stars on most travel websites or travel arrangements with some upgrades (economy plus, choice of seat, extra leg room).
Affordable Luxury Travel: accommodations at hotels or resorts rated above 4.1-stars on most travel websites or travel arrangements with significant upgrades (premium economy, choice of seats, free checked bag, very TWF friendly).
Credit Card Services: travel planning and booking services offered through your travel-oriented credit card.
When I am planning a vacation, I have four main options for booking my travel regardless of where I am going. I can either book through:
Budget travel websites
Directly with the property
Club travel service
Credit card or loyalty program
Over the years I have taken advantage of all of these services. I have used all of these successfully and had good experiences with them. So I am not here to say one is better than the other. In fact, depending on the type of travel or destination, I switch back and forth between three of them.
I no longer bother with budget travel sites, and this is why: Rarely am I able to find a travel deal that is better than what I can get through my loyalty programs, credit card services, or club travel. Let me show you what I mean, using a super-splurge Universal Studios Orlando vacation as an example. Let's run an experiment and see how budget-friendly the budget site really is!
Fat Papa and I would like to take Itsy Bitsy to Universal Studios, Orlando, in the spring for 5-days of fun hopping between the three parks so 3-Park-to-Park tickets for two adults and one child will need to be purchased. We plan to splurge and stay on property at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel and rent a 1-King Bay View Room for 7-nights. The hotel provides a water taxi and shuttle to the parks, so no need for a rental car. If possible, we would like round-trip, direct flights from San Francisco (SFO) to Orlando (MCO) with a choice of seat and extra legroom.
Let’s see what booking this vacation with each of the four above-mentioned services looks like and costs.
For this experiment I chose to examine booking this awesome splurge vacation through Booking.com (budget travel), Universal Studios Orlando (directly with property), Costco Travel (club travel service), and AMEX (credit card/loyalty programs). When booking, I booked identical vacations with each service. Identical rooms. Identical flights. Identical everything. Sometimes that was the more expensive option, sometimes it was the less expensive option. But for the sake of the experiment, I wanted everything to be the same.
Fat Mama Tip: Remember, the reason budget travel sites are great, and are able to save you money, is flexibility. The more flexible your travel plans, the more likely a budget site can save you money. When I travel, my plans usually are not flexible enough to take advantage of budget travel sites.
As I ran the experiment, the data and my experience spoke for themselves. What I found was that each service had its unique pros and cons and that each service was within a few hundred dollars of each other on final price.
When I added up the total cost of the vacation (flight, hotel, and park tickets) Costco was the least expensive, followed by Booking.com, Universal, and then AMEX. But the overall experience of putting the vacation together varied greatly between each service. So let me delve into that a bit deeper.
Costco Travel - $6,595.19 (Flight + Hotel + Theme Park Tickets)
Now I am a HUGE fan of Costco Travel, and every time I use this service, it just reinforces my love. Not only does Costco Travel offer a wide variety of vacation packages and hotels, but the website itself is really easy to use. Plus, many of the vacation packages come with a Costco Cash Card which is always welcome!
Fat Mama Tip: Since you can only use Costco Travel if you are a Costco member, this option isn’t available to everyone. However, I feel the membership fee is well worth the price since every time you book travel through Costco Travel, you are earning points. Which means, if you are on any plan above the basic plan, you are earning actual dollars back into your pocket. So if you are only on the basic membership and plan to book travel it is worth upgrading your membership. Depending on the trip you book, you can pay for your membership with just one vacation.
Out of all the booking sites, Costco makes it the easiest to choose the exact room you want, choose your flight, pick your seats, add a rental car, get park tickets … everything. NO OTHER SITE was so easy to book absolutely everything we needed (and didn’t need) for this vacation. The fact that they came in less expensive was also a bonus. Also, Costco was the ONLY site that let me book and purchase flight, hotel, and park tickets all together. No other site let me do this. SO for easy vacations Costco Travel is ALWAYS my number 1.
By the way … Costco came in less expensive WITHOUT me factoring in the $300 Costco Cash Card that comes with this vacation OR the points I will earn with my membership that will convert into cash at the end of the year OR the points I will earn on my Costco Credit Card when I pay for the vacation. All in all, I will get about $1,000 back in credit that can be used at Costco. For me, that’s great because more than half my shopping is done at Costco.
Booking.com - $6,624.14 (Flight + Hotel + Theme Park Tickets)
Out of all the sites, Booking.com was tied with Universal for the most difficult to use. While it came in second for least expensive (and I will admit, I ran the numbers multiple times for each site and once Booking.com came in less expensive, but I stuck with this number because it was more consistent with what I had seen), the site is just not user- friendly. That is to say, navigating the site isn’t difficult, but if you want to customize anything, that’s when the job gets tricky.
Want to look for a specific hotel, the search function freezes up sometimes. Want to pay more to choose your own seat on the plane? Great, you don’t get to choose the actual seat/row just if it’s a window, aisle, or middle seat. Want more details about the room? Too bad, sometimes it’s even difficult to match the photos from Booking.com to the photos from the actual hotel website.
One reason I chose the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel Bay View King Room for this experiment was because it was one of the few room descriptions I could match on a budget site and a property site (and then also find with Costco, Universal Studios, and Amex). What I am saying is, if you have any kind of opinion about where you want to stay, other than the cost, avoid budget sites. You might save a few bucks, but as I am about to prove, a few bucks is ALL you will save.
If I had booked the hotel only, without airfare, through Booking.com then the room would have cost the same (technically 3¢ less) as it did using my AMEX booking service. Additionally, I am not earning any perks by booking my vacation with Booking.com. I’m not earning points toward future travel, I’m not part of a loyalty program with Booking.com, I’m not getting a hotel credit. The only benefit I will get is the points I earn with my travel credit card that I will use to pay for the trip (the same points I will earn booking through any site… well not true… read on to see why).
Fat Mama Tip: Be careful when you book. Compare the description of the room on budget sites with the description of a room on the property’s site. If things don’t match up, there is no guarantee what you will get when you arrive. Always read the fine print. Some discount sites whose descriptions don’t match the property descriptions exactly will have a disclaimer like “or something similar” which means the property you book can put you wherever they want and there is nothing you can do about it.
So, unless you want to spend hours scouring the web trying to find an illusive amazing deal on a vacation that may be here today and gone tomorrow my advice is to just avoid budget travel sites. It’s not worth the effort. And the benefits are FAR better elsewhere … like literally anywhere else.
Universal Studios Orlando - $6,807.88 (Flight + Hotel + Theme Park Tickets)
I had really mixed experiences using the Universal Studios website to book this vacation. Which is why I felt it was difficult to use, kind of like a budget travel site. The first time I went through and tried to book the same room as I had with Costco Travel and Booking.com, I got a crazy high price for the total vacation (flight, hotel, and park, tickets were going to be $7,754.68). BECAUSE Universal was trying to offer me a deal on a better room and I declined that offer, chose the room I had been using for the experiment, which bumped the vacation price way high.
Every other time I went back, the website had learned my preference and adjusted the vacation package to reflect the 1-King Bay View room. Now I was consistently getting the price I listed above, but I still feel a little weary about the site. As a consumer, I don't like it when my computer, or a major corporation, does the thinking for me. And even worse, I don't like that a "lesser" room could have cost me more.
That said… By booking through Universal Studios there are certain perks that are not available through other vendors. If themed breakfasts in the park are important to you or you want reservations at specific attractions, then you may want to consider booking a hotel directly with Universal. However, I would check first with their Guest Services as money opens many doors and some of these experiences may be available for purchase with your tickets.
AMEX - $6,917.54 (Flight + Hotel + Theme Park Tickets)
If for some reason I decided not to book through Costco, then Amex would have been my second choice for booking. Even though the cost of booking though AMEX was $112.66 more than Universal and $322.35 more than Costco Travel, the perks it comes with make up for the additional expense. Let me explain.
Not only is booking travel through AMEX travel services easy, but when I use my AMEX Platinum Card to pay for travel there are certain perks automatically included like travel insurance. Additionally, I receive $200 in airline credit and $200 in hotel credit every year that I can apply. I am also eligible (when available) for a room upgrade, free breakfast for two, a complimentary dinner for two at the hotel (minus alcohol), free Wi-Fi, early check in, late check-out, and other perks at the hotel that are all really great when traveling with kids! But, these are only available to me when booking through AMEX.
Like when booking with Costco Travel, AMEX let me choose my exact seats on the plane, I was able to easily choose the room type I wanted at the hotel (and could easily match the room description to those listed on the property’s website), and I get access to the Unlimited Express Pass. Also like Costco, I will get additional points (in this case 5X the normal points) for booking travel with AMEX and then using my AMEX card to pay for said travel. Thus, I will get buku points to put towards free travel in the future. Yeay!
Do budget travel sites save you money? It's complicated. I lean towards, no they don't really save you. Especially when you add in all the benefits you get from club travel, credit cards, and loyalty programs.
All in all this is what I have learned about paying for travel. You get what you pay for.
If you are flexible with your dates, accommodations, and travel arrangements then by all means take full advantage of the wide world of budget travel. If, on the other hand you need to travel on specific dates, are TWF, prefer to travel in comfort, or have any opinion whatsoever about the way you travel, ditch budget travel for what I like to call “loyalty travel”.
Okay, I know I’m not coining a new phrase here, we have all heard of loyalty programs, but bear with me.
Travel has become so much easier, and more affordable, now that Fat Papa and I always know who we are traveling with. That is to say, we are always traveling with either Costco Travel or an AMEX affiliate. By choosing Costco and AMEX as our “loyalty travel” companies, not only does it take the guess work out of finding good deals, it also helps us earn free travel or other rewards faster.
Sometimes I am even able to combine the two. For example … I can book our vacation with Costco Travel, but then call the airlines to upgrade out seats. I then use the AMEX to pay for the upgrade and earn a credit on the AMEX for the airline upgrade … free upgrade. If the hotel we are staying at with Costco Travel is a Hilton or Marriot, both are partnered with AMEX and provide upgrades when available to Platinum card members, I can call and have my AMEX card listed as the card on file so that we become eligible for upgrades and on onsite credits or experiences. This is how you travel smart and take advantage of what your loyalty travel plans have to offer.
Even when I can’t make the two loyalty programs work together, Costco Travel and AMEX have made traveling as a Fat Mama so much easier. Regardless of how I book my travel I know I am going to be able to choose my seats on the plane. I am likely going to be able to pay for an upgrade for more space during the flight (and get $200 a year in free flight upgrades). I know we will be in upgraded rooms, which is always nice when traveling with Itsy Bitsy (Costco Travel has NEVER disappointed with rooms). And frankly, I feel special using Costco Travel and my AMEX. We get special treatment when we travel. And who doesn’t like special treatment when they travel?
Dr. Fabby Note: No medical advice this time, but as a professional I regularly was able to receive discounts or deals on travel through various professional organizations that I belonged to. Always check with your work to find out what perks might be waiting for you.
So however you like to travel, whoever your favorite airlines, hotel chain, or travel credit card. Just choose one or two and make them your go to for travel. Choosing a loyalty program and sticking to it will pay off in the end as this experiment has clearly shown.
I know this experiment was anecdotal, but it is so true. I have done the research for over a decade. It is SOOOOOOO rare that budget travel ever actually works out. Choosing a loyalty program and sticking to it has made travel so much more affordable for us. I cannot emphasize that enough. That and having a financial adviser… but that’s a different post.