Booking the most inexpensive package advertised by some tour operators can net you the lowest price, assuming space is left at that rate, but it may get you a poorer choice of flights. In some cases, the flights you wind up with can mean you spend less time at your destination than advertised.
According to travel agents, when there are a variety of flights, some tour operators may assign the better flights between LAX and the destination to passengers taking the higher-priced packages. The bigger tour operators generally have a large number of seats blocked off on flights aboard a particular airline or airlines.
Losing a Day
For example, it's possible to be assigned an overnight flight to Hawaii and an early morning return flight instead of a morning departure from LAX and an afternoon/evening departure from Honolulu. Besides the inconvenience and lost sleep (especially if you're making an outer-island connection to Honolulu), an advertised seven- or eight-day package may be less than that because of the flight times.
The number of nights at the destination would remain the same (the operator's cost is basically predicated on the number of nights), but a seven/eight-day, six-night package may come to resemble more of a six-day, six-night package. For example, suppose you leave LAX at 6 p.m. instead of 9 a.m. You've lost the better part of a day at your destination. On the return leg, leaving at 8 a.m. instead of 8 p.m. again results in the loss of much of the day.
Tour operators have different policies for making flight assignments. They might require full payment for the lead-priced (or lowest-priced) packages but accept deposits for higher-priced packages with full payment later.
However, when the flight itinerary is assigned may not depend on when full payment is made. Some tour operators may only assign specific flights a week or so before departure and after full payment. Others may be able to confirm a flight at the time of reservation and before any payment is made.
If you have to wait until close to departure to learn about your flight times, you may have entered the cancellation penalty stage that tour operators use for their packages.
Similarly, according to some travel agents, it's possible for their clients who have made full payment for a lead-price package to get less-preferred flights than clients who have only given a deposit for higher-priced packages.
In some instances, however, the tour operator may not be able to control the flight assignment. The airline may indicate that it wants the tour operator's clients to fly on a specific flight, which may be a less preferable flight. This depends on the tour operator's contract with the airline. Smaller tour operators may not have a block of space with airlines and may get flight assignments by other means.
"Our policy with West Coast departures is to assign flights at the time of booking, and the earlier you book the more likely you are to get more advantageous flight times," said Rick Long, vice president-marketing of Pleasant Hawaiian Holidays.
Blocks of Space
"We hold blocks of space on several airlines, so people going on our tours learn when their reservation is made what their flight times are. They don't have to be concerned about discovering their flight times too late to change their minds without paying a cancellation penalty.
"Generically, consumers should realize that some lead-price packages may be based around flight times that the carriers have the hardest time selling, such as evening flights to Honolulu and morning flights from Honolulu to Los Angeles. The airlines may offer a special rate for these flights to the tour operator, who then prices a package according to these less popular flight times."
But the ads promoting these discount packages are not likely to cite such a negative factor as less advantageous flight times.
How can you protect yourself?
Find out from the tour operator or travel agent exactly when your flight will be assigned. Can the tour operator confirm your flight at the time of reservation? Will you know in advance of being in a cancellation penalty situation? Does it make any difference, on getting a flight assignment, when full payment is made?
Travel agents should, of course, advise you of the assorted flight time possibilities you face in these situations and this is certainly one way to recognize superior service.
"It's the responsibility of the agent to know the product, the tour operator's policy, and to advise people on what their options and chances are for preferable flights," said Martha Wood, general manager of Glendale Travel in Glendale. "There are good values available but you do get what you pay for, and with some of these low-ball packages to various destinations, you may get a red-eye flight.
"The point is to know in advance so you're not stuck with what you get and don't face cancellation penalties to get out of it."