Travel websites large and small often advertise something that sounds like “shop together and save.” What they are trying to do is convince or entice you that if you buy individual travel components (airfare and hotel or airfare and rental car or all) at the same time, you can save some money.

While this can definitely be the case, it doesn’t necessarily apply to every travel situation or destination. In general, if you are traveling to a major destination like Orlando, Los Angeles, the Caribbean, or similar, then buying a package can make a lot of sense. But as always shop around to make sure buying individually isn’t cheaper. Don’t forget to factor in service charges and taxes as well.

If, on the other hand, you’re traveling to a destination without a major airport nearby, you should consider buying a package with a healthy dose of skepticism. Here’s an example: Let’s say you intend to vacation in Palm Cast, FL (beautiful stretch of beach about 90 minutes south of Jacksonville and 35 minutes north of Daytona Beach). If you are buying a package 9 times out of 10, the system will package air in and out of the Daytona Beach airport. Daytona Beach is a small airport with little competition. The net result is, on average, higher airfares. Jacksonville, on the other hand, has more competition and is serviced by several low-cost carriers like Southwest Airlines.

So why am I telling you this? Because the last time I looked at a family of five, it was significantly more expensive to go with the package. Purchasing round-trip airfare to Jacksonville, renting a minivan, and booking hotel accommodations each saved more than $750 compared to a package from Travelocity, Orbitz, or Expedia.

Packages also usually work very well for a family of four (2 adults and 2 children). Packages often allow kids to stay free (if they stay in the same room as parents) or offer other freebies. If, on the other hand, you’re a single parent or have more than 2 kids, a package may or may not be a good deal. Another weakness of many of the “package travel” booking engines is their failure to incorporate requests for condo-style accommodations (2 or more bedrooms, kitchen, etc.). They often don’t find the places you’re looking for or present options that don’t apply or match your request.

Here’s a good way to see if a travel package will save you money or not:

1. Check all individual travel components separately (taking alternate airports into account). Also, if you have credit card miles or frequent flyer miles, check to see if you can use them (even if it’s only for 1 or 2 in the group). If flights are blocked or unavailable, see if you can use them to rent a car. Many credit card companies offer car rental coupons. Applying them to a week or 10 days for a minivan can save you between $400 and $600, depending on where you’re headed.

2. Once you have the total of all the individual components, open a new browser and see whether or not you can buy it cheaper as a package. Be sure to check multiple sites.

Travel packages can be a great way to snag a bargain, but don’t assume that’s always the case. Do your homework, read the fine print, and keep in mind that sellers always make more money selling you a package than the individual components.

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