Hawaii on sale: How to find deals

Snorkelers enter the water at Pupukea Marine Life Snorkelers enter the water at Pupukea Marine Life Conservation District, on Oahu's North Shore. Photo Credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority

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Nab a room in a four-star hotel in Waikiki for well under $200 a night for six nights and get the seventh night free.

Book a five-night air-hotel package through Pleasant Holidays to the islands in May or next fall, and the travel company will throw in a rental car.

Signs point to a mild recovery for tourism in Hawaii this year after a long and steep slump because of the economic recession. But for now, at least, Hawaii is still on sale.

The pressure is on for hotels to keep rooms filled, even if it means discounting rates heavily, something they're willing to do if it boosts business in their restaurants, bars and activity centers, said Jay Talwar, senior vice president of marketing for the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau.

"No one is saying it's changing in 2010. It's basic Economics 101 that's coming into play," Talwar said. "The demand isn't high enough to allow anyone not to give value, from the Four Seasons to the B&B."

About one-third of Hawaii's hotel rooms were empty in 2009, according to Smith Travel Research, so it's no surprise that some of the deals for travel in early 2010 are even better than last winter.

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Bing Travel reports February and March rates at premium hotels in Honolulu are averaging $153 a night, about a 9 percent drop from the same period last year. 

Flights

While West Coast cities such as Seattle and Los Angeles have seen fare slashes to Hawaii in recent months, New Yorkers are paying just as much now for airfare, if not more. Round-trip airfares from New York City airports are averaging between $685 and $738 in February and March, according to Bing Travel data, which is 6 to 20 percent more that what it cost to fly during the same period in 2009.

TO GET A DEAL Start an airfare search at kayak.com and bing.com. Both sites scan what's available directly from the airlines and commercial sites such as Orbitz or Expedia, and provide links for booking. For the best deals, avoid the peak Easter/spring break holidays, when fares soar and hotels raise room rates. 

Lodging

The best deals tend to be in Honolulu and Waikiki, where there's the biggest concentration of hotel rooms, and on the Big Island, which tends to be less well-known than Maui or Kauai. (Travelers looking for a more low-key vacation will find it on the smaller islands of Molokai and Lanai.) "Rather than reduce rates further, most of the major chains are responding with special promotions and add-ons, free-night stays being the most popular," Brian Ek, vice president of Priceline.com, said.

"Some of the chains will offer kids' stay, eat and play free, and some that used to offer a fifth night free, now offer the third, " says Steve Pomranz, vice president of travel services for AAA Washington.

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The Outrigger Keauhou Beach Resort on the Big Island's Kona coast is one example. Stay two nights between March 11 and April 4, and the third night is free, bringing the regular $189 nightly rate for a partial ocean-view room down to $126 (866-326-6803, outrigger.com).

Luxury hotels have been hard hit by the downturn.

"Two years ago, it wasn't uncommon to see average daily rates (for four-star hotels) in the $300s," Stacey Meyer, a Hawaii marketing manager for Orbitz, said. "Now, you can see rates from $179 for a four-star hotel on the beach."

Even the posh Four Seasons Resort in Maui is discounting. Stay four nights and get a fifth night free for travel through Dec. 16. The offer brings the daily rate of $595 down to $476 for a garden view room with one king or two queen beds.

TO GET A DEAL Shop around for hotel deals. Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity and other online-booking sites are offering Hawaii sales. Prices sometimes beat what hotels offer on their Web sites, but it's always best to call hotels directly to check AAA or AARP rates or other discounts.

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Priceline.com bidders are reporting snagging rooms for half the price quoted on online sites or available through the hotels. With Priceline, you pick the class of hotel you want (such as two- to four-star or resort) and the location, but don't find out the name until your bid is accepted and your credit card charged. Check biddingfortravel.com or betterbidding.com to see what other travelers report finding.

Hotwire.com offers similar deals. The difference is that Hotwire lists a price (i.e.: Four-star Lihue Kapaa hotel for $102) and reveals the name of the hotel once you've paid.

Packages 

Pleasant Holidays, AAA, the airlines and various online-booking sites offer packages that combine airfare, hotel and sometimes a car.

Example: Pleasant Holidays is throwing in a free Hertz rental car on five-night vacation packages in May and from September through Dec. 15.

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Among its offerings is a May package including five nights at the Sheraton Waikiki Resort, round-trip airfare from JFK and a car for $1,175 a person - a good deal, considering airfare alone costs about $725 in May.

TO GET A DEAL Check the component prices of a package and deal individually on airline and hotel Web sites. Make sure all taxes and fees are included in the bottom-line price. If booking online, uncheck any boxes that automatically add the cost of trip insurance or other services you may not want.

Vacation rentals

For longer stays, a house or a condo rented directly from the owner can be the most economical way to go.

Vacation Rentals by Owner (vrbo.com) is a reliable site with hundreds of listings and photos organized by areas of each island. Offerings include a two-bedroom, two-bath cottage on the Big Island's Kona coast for $110-$150 per night, and a $150-per-night family mountain retreat on Molokai that sleeps 7-10.

Rooms in private homes can be found on Airbnb (airbnb.com), an online marketplace where locals advertise vacation homes, spare rooms and apartments. The site has 163 Hawaii listings. Among them: a $75 per night room in a tropical beach house on Maui and a $55 per night studio cottage four blocks from the ocean in the village of Pahoa on the Big Island.

TO GET A DEAL Consider the cost of the extras -- many listings have minimum stay requirements, and a cleaning fee might be imposed. There might also be cancellation penalties.

Car rentals

With Hawaii's hotel occupancy plunging last spring, car-rental companies decreased fleets, leaving renters sometimes scrambling to find vehicles during peak travel times. Cars are available now, but prices vary by the island and the rental-car company, so shop around. Enterprise usually has the lowest rates for refundable bookings.

TO GET A DEAL Priceline and Hotwire often have the lowest prices, but bookings are nonrefundable. You're guaranteed a car from one of the major car-rental agencies, but you don't find out which one until after you've booked and your credit card has been charged.

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