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NEWS, TIPS & BARGAINS | THE INTERNET TRAVELER

Savings look minimal at best as AARP links with Travelocity

July 09, 2006|James Gilden | Special to The Times

TRAVELERS 50 and older — "Gen AARP" as I like to call them -- have long had access to discounts at preferred travel providers.

When my mother and I traveled to Amsterdam two years ago, I was able to book, at the Starwood website, an AARP rate room for her at the Sheraton Pulitzer Hotel. Her discounted rate was $183 per night at current exchange rates. My non-AARP rate was $80 more.

Today, those big savings may be on the wane because AARP is discontinuing its members' ability to book directly with hotels. AARP has entered into a business relationship with online travel agency Travelocity -- the details of which both parties have declined to disclose -- and is soon going to send members to book only at Travelocity if they want to receive discounts.

Although AARP members will continue to save on airfares, cruises and up to 10% on hotels when booking on AARP Passport, at travelocity.com/aarp, a recent look at Travelocity's AARP website suggests that bargain-minded members will be well served by shopping around.

"The lowest price is not always the only measure of value," said AARP spokeswoman Barbara Foelber. "Other features include convenience, time and ease of online booking."

Contrary to stereotype, older people are adopting the Internet with increasing vigor. Growth in Internet use was greatest among Americans 50 and older last year, according to the Department of Commerce.

This boom in online use has provided AARP with an opportunity to increase its revenue.

AARP's royalties and fees increased from $299 million in 2003, the year before the relationship with Travelocity began, to almost $400 million in 2005.

"Nonprofits have business deals all the time, particularly member organizations like AARP," said Paul Clolery, editor in chief of the NonProfit Times, an industry newsletter. "Unfortunately, they don't have to disclose much."

Perhaps some AARP members would be happy to kick in a bit for the convenience of booking travel online, as long as the deals were comparable. But travelers may be disappointed because the deals often aren't as good.

First, at AARP Passport, members are hit with fees they would not have to pay if booking directly with a hotel or airline. Travelocity does not disclose how much those fees are. It folds them into one number it calls "taxes and fees." I did a quick search of hotels in London, where the tax is 17.5%. I was able to subtract the tax and calculate the Travelocity fees at 2% to 2.5%.

Second, the deals I found were often anything but deals. In fact, rates at Travelocity's AARP site were sometimes higher than at Travelocity's regular site.

In that search for a hotel room in London, I found 11 offers covered by AARP and the Travelocity "best-rate guarantee." These are supposed to be specially negotiated rates that are up to 10% off the regular rates.

Of rates at the 11 hotels, five had rates that were lower at AARP Passport. Four had rates equal to those found on Travelocity, and two were higher on Travelocity's AARP site.

Travelocity's response to my inquiry about why the rates were higher at some hotels on its AARP site was to change one of them.

The next day its rate had dropped to below that offered on Travelocity's regular site. A second higher rate at another hotel remained higher the next day.

"We are in the midst of the Passport initiative," said Tim Fitzgerald, director of Passport and Privileges for AARP. "It's not complete yet."

James Gilden can be reached at james.gilden@latimes.com.

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