In Search Of The Last-Minute Value Vacation

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A Southwest Airlines jet taking off July 23, 2013 in Imperial, Pa. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

It often seems that the travel industry is moving in two directions. One is the trend towards economy travel, with ULCCs (ultra-low-cost carriers) like Norwegian Air, Primera Air and WOW offering deals like $159 one-way to Brussels from Newark or $399 round-trip to Barcelona from Los Angeles. The hope is that Millennials and others will pay for their water and luggage, or eventually get upsold to business class.

The other industry direction is towards luxury travel, limited only by the passenger’s wallet and imagination. This is where aspirational offerings like the bedroom suites on Singapore and Etihad A380s live, or the enormous luxury staterooms on the world’s largest cruise ship, the 18-decked Symphony of the Seas.

Among all the marketing noise, the humble family vacation gets little attention. But I just returned from an affordable family vacation booked at the very last minute. And I must say I enjoyed it.

(Full disclosure: I own stock in Southwest Airlines and Jet Blue.)

What does an “average vacation” cost? Often cited is an American Express study from 2014 that says the average vacation costs $1,145 per person or $4580 for a family of 4. More recently, Value Penguin pegged the average cost of a four-day domestic vacation including transportation, lodging, entertainment, food and that critical ingredient, alcohol, at $581, or about $144 a day per person. A 12-day international trip averaged $3,251, or $271 per person per day.

For our family, the challenge was to find an affordable vacation on a crash-dive basis–after a hurricane wiped out our original plan.

Our family (me, my wife and our two adult sons) had been set for our first visit to the verdant Hawaiian island of Kauai. The boys are both surfers, while we hoped to hike through the rainforest. The paid-for trip combined an American Airlines flight with a condo in Po’ipu and a rental car, all booked through Expedia. Unfortunately, Hurricane Lane collided with our planned visit. Fearing hurricane winds and constant rain (and not wanting to be a burden if disaster struck) we canceled our $5000 trip and lost only about $200, thanks to our Expedia travel insurance.

The Expedia Inc. application page is displayed in the Apple Inc. App store on an iPhone in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Feb. 7, 2017.  Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

However, this left us with the end of August approaching, a return to college and work, and the prospect of a disgruntled family with no summer vacation. Plan B had been a trip up the California coast to Oregon, but rampant wildfires and the prospect of over-togetherness, jammed in a car for 10 hours a day, put an end to that.

So a couple of frantic days of virtual globe-spinning followed, searching for a fun, affordable last-minute destination. We only had two days to plan a week’s vacation.

The adult pool at the Grand Palladium Vallarta Resort & Spa in Punta de Mita, Mexico.Michael Goldstein

After hours of searching, we zeroed in on Puerto Vallarta, for four reasons. 1. Non-stop flights from our Los Angeles home base took only about three hours. 2. There are a number of world-famous surf breaks on the Mexican Pacific Coast near PV. 3. The weather forecasts looked fair, although rain was possible. 4. Hotel and airfare prices for the area seemed reasonable. We did have some initial concerns about the State Department’s Mexico travel advisory, but we ultimately had no issues.

We looked at Expedia, Kayak, Priceline and other OTAs (online travel agencies) plus the websites for US airlines like Delta, American, and Alaska. (Travel tip for vacation planners: always check the airline websites as well as the OTAs for deals to a particular destination, as often airline capacity and cost is the gating factor.) All yielded surprisingly affordable results, as “shoulder season” approached, but ultimately Southwest Airlines Vacations yielded the best deal. We ended up booking the four-star Grand Palladium Vallarta Resort & Spa in Punta de Mita, Mexico, located right at a surf break. The package also included four round-trip tickets on Southwest from Los Angeles to Puerto Vallarta. And as the Grand Palladium is an all-inclusive resort  the ”big five” of transportation, lodging, entertainment, food, and alcohol were covered.

The total cost for four people was $3080, or about $110 a person per day. Adding in tips, ground transportation and extras like a fishing trip and spa treatment might have added another $1000—still below the 2014 average of $4580.

Our journey on a packed Southwest 737 MAX wasn’t particularly comfortable, but at least we didn’t have to cram the overhead bins; our four pieces of checked luggage were free. When we arrived, we were upgraded to ocean view rooms, although we had to listen to a long pitch about the benefits of joining the Grand Palladium Travel Club. We also got a coupon book with “$1500 in values” although we ended up using none of them.

More importantly, in good middle-class resort style, there were activities for all. These included separate adult and family swimming pools, a saltwater pool, and a private beach with shaded chairs by a warm, calm Pacific. sun.  Surfboards, boogie boards, kayaks, and even a small catamaran were available, all included. There were also daily Zumba classes on the beach, as well as games and activities organized by the staff.

The hotel had a live entertainment and dancing every night, as well as a spa with massage, facials and other treatments available (extra, of course, but reasonable). There were also daily Zumba classes on the beach, as well as games and activities organized by the staff. For parents of younger children, there was a kid’s club and a zoo with a giant ostrich, monkeys, toucans and deer, plus free-roaming iguanas on the property. There was even a gym which we religiously hit three times in 7 days.

The lifeguard tower on the beach at the Grand Palladium hotel Punta de Mita, Mexico, near Puerto Vallarta.Michael Goldstein

The hotel was rated as four stars, although I probably would have given the buffet, Chinese, Mexican and Italian restaurants three stars. Still, there was plenty of food, including free room service, a convenience the ever-hungry surfers in our party took constant advantage of. And for those over 18, lounge, library and poolside bars (including a swim-up) dispensed plenty of alcohol.

The guests were probably about half Mexican nationals and half tourists from many countries, including Britain, Canada, Australia and Europe in addition to the US. We were probably fortunate that by the end of August when we got there, most school-aged children and college students had gone back to school, so rates were particularly reasonable. As for the weather, we were equally lucked. While it rained—or rather poured—one night, the resort was sunny every day we were there.

Was our relaxing stay at the Grand Palladium the luxury vacation of a lifetime? No. Nor was it the vacation for those with a constant itch to see the sights. We left the resort only once during the week, for a fruitless fishing excursion.

But separately and together, there was plenty for our family to do, whether surfing, swimming, resting, reading or doing nothing at all. That, plus a price that didn’t put us into debt, made it the perfect last-minute vacation.

Sunset at the Grand Palladium outside Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.Michael Goldstein

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