Looking Under the Hood of TripAlertz, a Groupon-Style Vacation Site

a happy group of skiersTripAlertz.com, which calls itself "the only online travel community where the prices go down as the number of bookings go up," works a bit like Groupon.com. It offers a deal on a vacation for what's billed as a discount "member price." If enough people decide to book -- in its case, usually 50 -- then the price drops for everyone to become what it terms the "epic price." Think of it as a way to get a group rate, except everyone doesn't have to travel at the same time.

TripAlertz's deals, which appear on Tuesdays and linger for two weeks, are typically land-only, which means airfare won't be included, but available dates of travel can span several upcoming months -- you don't have to pack a bag for this weekend to score the savings. TripAlertz also seems to focus on mid-range (and often, acceptably average) properties that frequently dip into budget territory, such as the Hilton Papagayo on Costa Rica's Pacific Coast, a property that frequently impresses with lower prices if not its appointments.

Last week, I took a scalpel to inspect LivingSocial's new travel deals and decided they were a mixed bag. I recommended then that you should always do the math before participating in its group-based travel package promotions. Now it's time to look under the hood at TripAlertz and see if its engine is running smoothly, too.

One current deal is for three nights at the Royal Plaza a non-Disney-operated hotel on the grounds of the Walt Disney World resort, a place I know well. TripAlertz' initial price for a three-night stay that includes November 28 to December 1 (three nights) is $285 either single or double, which it bills as 26% off regular price, listed as $387. If 50 or more people book, the price drops to $234, which is claimed to be 40% off the $387 sticker price.

Is that a true deal? Well, if you price a three-night stay at the Royal Plaza using other hotel booking sites, the numbers tell the story. At Hotels.com and Expedia.com, the same three-night stay would cost you $321. Travelocity.com offers the same free upgrade that TripAlertz.com does, but for $352 (all prices are before taxes). So yes, it's a good deal.

Hotwire.com offers hotels in the same area with similar amenities (including the same free shuttle to the parks that all hotels on that street enjoy) for $219, but won't name the hotel before purchase, so although the price is better, the risk is slightly higher. (I say slightly because all the hotels in the Lake Buena Vista vicinity are of a more or less comparable quality level.)

So in this case, TripAlertz.com really does come out cheaper even before the "Epic Deal" kicks in, but just as with LivingSocial's travel deals, the "regular" price you're quoted is higher than what you'd actually pay if you booked on your own. It's a principal rule of deals: Never believe a vendor when they quote the "regular" price. Find out for yourself.

In the case of another property, the defiantly boxy Atlantic Hotel on Fort Lauderdale Beach ($267 on TripAlertz), the savings are not in TripAlertz's favor, because Hotels.com will sell you the same category of room for $239 a night, and Orbitz can do a dollar better. TripAlertz's offer does come with a $50 spa credit, but you have to use that to benefit from it, and once you do, you've spent even more money. For this deal, you won't actually save anything off the other booking sites unless 49 other people book, too, and the "Epic Price" brings it to just $227 a night. (Still too much for that place, but that's just me.)

TripAlertz, which has been around since 2009, does have one feature that some will love, but others will see as a nuisance: The more friends you get to sign up, the more money you save off trips. That's right: Make money spamming your friends -- $1 per friend, to be exact.

Still, since these social media travel sites depend on word of mouth, I suppose there are more unforgivable sins, especially since some of the deals are genuine money-savers. The site also makes a big deal about its donations to conservation funds -- 1% to be exact -- which is more than some other enterprises do.

All things considered, though, TripAlertz is worth checking out.
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