Pursuit of the Great American Bargain is a beautiful thing, as the creators of eBay and Costco (among many others) have confirmed all the way to the bank.
Finding bargains with air-land travel packages is no exception, and some truly wonderful experiences can stretch your dollar like latex when an experienced packager or tour company builds air transportation, hotels, rental cars and various excursions into a single price. But there can also be huge disappointments in such purchases if you don't do your homework (repeat the mantra with me, now: "Caveat emptor -- Let the buyer beware!").
Most savvy travelers and even last-minute bargain hunters know that along with that low-cost price tag comes the responsibility to research at least the basics of the deal. For instance, we know not to blindly trust that the pretty pictures of the resort hotel on the brochure accurately represent what it's really like. Even if you're visiting paradise, if the hotel turns out to be a dive, your vacation could end up feeling, well, sleazy. Checking out the hotel on the Internet is just a beginning, by the way, since even a dive can put up a great Web site with doctored pictures.
Fortunately there are many effective ways to verify the hotel's quality -- including phoning the concierge of a nearby hotel you know to be four-star quality and asking: Is the Palace of Pillows down the street really a nice place?
Also, investing in a call or two to make sure the services and tours in the package are solid and run by licensed, responsible companies is a good, basic defense system (again, that same concierge can probably help you).
Where even the most careful buyers get in trouble, however, is at the airport. By the time you're supposed to board the plane, you may find you never heard of the airline. At that point it's effectively too late to get trustworthy answers to any questions of safety and reliability. Oh, you'll get answers from the airline's personnel, all right, but you could script them yourself: "Of course we're safe, sir. We hardly ever crash!"
Now, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of tour packages sold in North America for destinations in and around our quarter of the planet use American or Canadian or Mexican airlines, most of which you have at least heard of, and almost all of which are up to the highest standards. Aeromexico, for instance, provides a lot of vacation charter flights out of the United States, and it's a good, reliable and established air carrier that also flies a network of scheduled flights through North America.
There are many other reliable and safe national and international airlines whose logos you may have never laid eyes on. Airlines such as Icelandair, for instance, is well-established with an excellent fleet of late model Boeings based (of course) out of Iceland, while North American Airlines is an equally adept and reliable carrier flying out of the East Coast. World Airways, too, is one you don't see everyday, but they've been doing excellent work for decades and are still one of the largest carriers of U.S. military personnel on charters around the world.
And speaking of the military, that brings up a little secret I want to share with you: If the Pentagon deems an airline safe enough to carry GIs, you have nothing to worry about.