DealBase.com fumbles the numbers, makes vacation savings look sweeter

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I've spent years writing about affordable travel for a slew of magazines and sites, including this one and Budget Travel, where I worked as an editor, and Travel + Leisure Family, where I covered family-friendly packages. Dozens of "deals" cross my desk every day. A lot of times--in fact most of the time--I find that these so-called packages are not the sweet deals they appear at first blush. On closer inspection, you find that you could actually do better.

How? Sometimes promotions lock you into a room category that's not the cheapest in the hotel. Sometimes, the deal forces you to say several nights longer than you might otherwise (I'm lookin' at you, Disney). Sometimes, that "corporate discount" code actually ends up jacking up the regular price. And quite often, you can't find the low price quoted by the hotel, no matter how many travel dates you plug into the reservations system.

DealBase.com is a new site that claims to do something that travelers need badly. It takes all those packages that the hotel industry is forever advertising (Girlfriend getaway deal! Valentine's lovebirds package!) and picks them apart, element by element, to see if you're really saving money. How much would that champagne cost you otherwise? What about that spa treatment they're throwing in? It adds it all up and compares the result to the package price.

Any tool that cuts through marketing BS is a godsend for bamboozled vacationers. But one savvy blogger, Alexander Basek, discovered that some of its information was skewed to make a deal look stronger than it really was. The package in question was for the Hotel Jerome, a luxury resort in Colorado, and its "The Beer and a Burger Package." One of DealBase's dissections calculated that the hotel's deal was worth up to 75% off the non-package price.

As it turned out, though, DealBase was using the most expensive, summer-season room price ($599) as the marker, not the actual room price charged during the time that the package would be available ($159). In reality, that 75% savings was more like 30%. Still a savings, of course. But not nearly as sexy as the label said. And because DealBase makes a cut on some of its packages if you book them, it stands to make money if packages are made to look sexy.

I asked DealBase what happened. Essentially, it fell into the same trap that so many vacation bookers do: the one in which the price the hotel quotes is not available on every day. "In this case, we did not use the appropriate comparison rate reflecting low season prices," the site's CEO told me. "We apologize for any confusion this may have caused. We have a comment and a "report a problem" process for users to discuss and report these types of issues, as deals change frequently and it's important to us to always have the most up to date information." After I contacted it, the site tweaked the listing to become accurate, and the rep emphasized that the site has "no sponsorship relationship" with the Hotel Jerome.

Ah yes. The old trick, in which vacation sellers lure you to the table by showing a low price preceded by the tiny word "from." You could get that price, if only you knew exactly when it was available. But you don't, so you take a more expensive date.

Even if some of DealBase's calculations might be over-optimistic, intentionally or otherwise, I still think it's a terrific tool, and it attempts to do something few other travel sites do: hold vacation sellers accountable. It does something we should all be doing.

But the flaw that was exposed in the case of Hotel Jerome underscores the vital need for line-by-line scrutiny that makes DealBase such a good idea to begin with. When it comes knowing if you're truly saving money on a vacation package, don't take anyone's word for it. Not even a website that claims to be your advocate.

Price out all the elements your vacations independently and add up the costs yourself to know if the promised savings are truly there. You might even realize that that tempting package you were considering includes stuff you didn't truly want to begin with.

For me, the red flag is always when hotels claim something is a "value." That's a meaningless word. Value is about perception of worth, not about money. If you want to grab my attention, show me a "deal," which means the package costs less than what you'd normally pay for the same stuff if you bought it a la carte. The only way to prove that definitively is to do the math yourself.
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