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Hawaii Special Issue

Waikiki....7 nights $399*

Are These Hawaii Deals Too Good to be True? We Check It Out

March 23, 1997|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

HONOLULU — Stop smirking, travel snobs. I stand with my brethren on the Arrivals level of Honolulu International Airport, not quite fresh from the five-hour flight on American Trans Air, ready for a cheap week of white sands, warm, blue tides and tall, green palms. My complimentary luggage tags are in place. My hotel voucher and Hilo Hattie's discount coupon are in hand. An absolutely free tote bag will soon be mine, along with two free nights at the Gold River Resort Hotel & Casino in Laughlin, Nev. And my festive lei greeting is about to begin.

A smiling young man with an aloha shirt and clipboard directs about 50 of us into the custody of our official photographer. She coaches us and snaps. A shirtless, ostensibly Hawaiian man drapes flower necklaces around our heads, extends thumb and pinky, and flashes the ever-popular island hand signal: Hang loose.

Later, of course, we'll have the opportunity to buy copies of the pictures. But now it's time to board the bus for our free airport-hotel transfer, and rumble over to the skyscrapers of Waikiki. Let the vacation begin!

And why, exactly, is this vacation beginning with this unfamiliar airline, these cheerful, clipboard-wielding strangers and these self-conscious exercises?

Because we are package tourists. Package tourists make certain allowances, endure certain rituals and are accused by holier-than-thou jet-setters and adventurers of being sheep-like and uncool. But package tourists get really good prices, enjoy reduced logistical responsibilities, have more independence than travelers on an escorted tour . . . and did I mention the really good prices? Most Americans who visit Hawaii, and most Californians, do so on package and group tours. And right now, thanks to a well-financed upstart's challenge to the longtime 800-pound gorilla of tourism in these islands, Hawaiian package vacation prices are difficult to ignore. As the spring sales season began, the gorilla, Pleasant Hawaiian Holidays, and the well-financed upstart, Sunquest Holidays, were each advertising weeklong packages for under $400 per person (assuming double occupancy), with shorter trips for even less. Pleasant Hawaiian had billboards pitching seven nights in Waikiki for $399; Sunquest had newspaper ads offering five nights for $299.

For such prices, a person gets round-trip air fare, a big Waikiki hotel, the aforementioned festive lei greeting and various other perks, but no meals except for the first-morning briefing breakfast. Of course, there are small-print provisions: to get the very lowest price, the trip often must begin and end on days of lowest demand (usually weekdays) and rooms must be available at the very cheapest participating hotel. (Since I am traveling alone and on short notice, I can't get the rock-bottom rate; I'm paying $455.14 for round-trip air and three nights' lodging. I am also traveling anonymously, not mentioning that I am a Times reporter.)

Even with the small print, the prices on these packages are low enough to make a person think. And veteran Hawaii-watchers are guessing that, with the exception of a jump in rates for Easter week, this competition could help hold down prices of dozens of other companies that sell Hawaii vacation packages through travel agents. So, if you haven't taken a package tour to the islands recently, all this marketplace jostling points to a crucial question: Exactly what does a Hawaii vacationer get for the low prices?

*

Now we're rolling from airport to hotel in a big bus. There's Hilo Hattie's, home of the world's largest aloha shirt. There's the Ala Moana Tower, centerpiece of a recently revitalized shopping area. There's the old Ilikai Hotel, where Jack Lord was seen standing during the opening sequence of "Hawaii 5-0." And here's my stop.

I step out to confront the Outrigger Maile Sky Court Hotel. The Sky Court is a 596-room Waikiki skyscraper, in no way lavish, and stands about 10 minutes' walk from the beach, across the traffic-choked main drag, Kalakaua Avenue. It is one of four low-end hotels generally used by Pleasant Hawaiian for its cheapest packages. (Sunquest plans to use the Kuhio Village Court Hotel, similarly spartan and also about 10 minutes from the beach, for its lowest-priced trips.)

My room is clean but small and plain, with a noisy air-conditioning unit. My bags will arrive in about half an hour, having been brought by another bus, then lugged upstairs by a porter.

I am without a balcony, without room service, without a hotel restaurant (although the downstairs T.G.I. Friday's more or less fills that role). A notice above the sink warns that "for the protection of the environment and our associates, we request that you call Housekeeping for a container for your syringes."

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