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Want better travel deals? Join the club

Private-sale travel sites offer bargains to members. Here's what you need to know.

By Karen Datko Jan 14, 2010 12:53PM

This Deal of the Day comes from Kelli B. Grant at partner site SmartMoney.


Getting a good price on your next vacation is about who you know -- and that’s not necessarily a travel agent.


Private-sale sites that offer steep discounts exclusively to their members have long been popular for designer fashions. Now, they’re increasingly an option for luxury travel. Invitation-only fashion site recently expanded into luxury travel. Travel search engine also announced this month that it is preparing to launch a private-sale site for hotel, flight and vacation package deals.


The idea behind these moves: Members are the only ones with access to limited-time, limited-quantity deals of up to 50% off arranged directly with the property, cruise line or tour operator. Signing up is free, but sites limit the number of new members allowed in at a time. Expect to end up on the wait list unless you’re invited by a current member or have an invitation code. (Hint: Do a search for the site name and “invitation” or “code” to see if you can snag one from a coupon site or member-blogger.)


“The deals tend to be pretty favorable,” says Bjorn Hanson, a clinical associate professor at New York University’s Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management. Package prices are low, and consumers may be getting special access -- such as a tour or tickets -- that isn't available to the general public.

Interest from resorts in making exclusive deals isn’t surprising, given the dismal travel predictions for 2010. Travel is expected to pick up slightly, with hotel occupancy up 0.4%, according to PKF Consulting, a hospitality research firm that tracks pricing trends. Room rates, however, are projected to drop another 1.5% after falling 8.8% in 2009. “Last year was a dramatic shock to the system,” says Robert Mandelbaum, the director of research for PKF. “A lot of managers and owners are still shell-shocked.”

Despite the good deals, it’s unlikely you’ll find private-sale sites a replacement for all your travel needs, says Warren Miller, a senior equity analyst who covers travel for Morningstar. Sites typically only have one deal once a week, so a flexible traveler will have better luck than someone hunting specifically for, say, a swanky hotel in London or a Caribbean cruise. Deals also tend toward niches such as luxury or adventure travel, which may not fit your budget or tastes, he says.

Keep in mind, too, that there may be a good reason for the discount, says Mandelbaum. “Discounting really hurts the bottom line,” he says. “(Hotels) tend to do it as a measure of last resort.” Properties are more apt to discount in the off-season and other periods when occupancy is especially low. Do due diligence before booking: Check with the local tourism bureau regarding weather, read reviews from previous guests, and compare prices on other travel sites.


Hotels may also attach more strings to the private-sale deal, such as eliminating reward points or making the reservation nonrefundable, Hanson says. Read the fine print on booking policies before you buy.


An extra promotional e-mail or two a week is a small price to pay for a shot at up to 50% off your next vacation. Here are four sites to consider joining: Members can book discounted stays at high-end hotels, but deals only stay on the site for two days or until they’re sold out. To secure a room reservation, you put down a nonrefundable, 10% deposit; the fee will be credited toward the total when you book, or held as a site credit if you opt out. (You can also get on the wait list for a deal in case a hold for your preferred dates falls through.) Members of sister site Gilt Groupe, which focuses on designer fashion, automatically get access.


Sample deal: A deluxe junior suite at 51 Buckingham Gate in London was recently on sale for $550 a night instead of $950, for travel through May 2. You’ll save 42%.


Kayak Private Sale. Kayak has said it plans to launch Kayak Private Sale this year, offering a limited number of hotel, flight and vacation package deals. Travelers currently can sign up to receive an invitation once the site launches. did not respond to requests for comment. Take your chances bidding on a luxury hotel stay, tour or travel package, or buy it outright for a slightly higher price. An “Under $1,500” section offers selections for travelers on a budget. also offers mystery auctions, where the exact resort is only disclosed to the winning bidder. Auction length varies.


Sample deal: A seven-day African safari for two, valued at $10,150 (including taxes and fees but not airfare), sold for its starting bid of $6,770, a 35% discount. Site members could also have bought it outright for $7,815 (23% off). The package is good for travel through March 31. The fashion-focused site recently expanded into travel, with an emphasis on luxury and spa-related offerings. Sales stay on the site for 48 hours or until the deal sells out. A spokeswoman says there’s no schedule on how often travel deals are posted, but there are several each month.


Sample deal: RueLaLa recently offered sales on three-, five- and seven-day packages to ski resorts around the country, including Vail Cascade Resort and Snowmass Resort in Aspen. Members saved 20% to 30%.


Related reading at SmartMoney:

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