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).
Flying an Unfamiliar Airline
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.
There was a time before the late 1980s in which just about any certified airline could be chartered to fly U.S. military men and women. In 1985, after a terrible crash in Gander, Newfoundland, killed some 200 American soldiers, Congress created an extremely effective Department of Defense inspection agency to take over a function the Federal Aviation Administration had been fumbling. The result today is a substantial inspection and monitoring system considerably tougher than what the FAA could provide.
Of course, it is possible for a U.S. airline to be very safe and well-run and yet not on that list (perhaps because it doesn't want the government charter business). But since the ordeal of gaining DOD certification is a high hurdle, finding your charter airline's name on that DOD list is reassuring. You can view the list at http://www.af.mil/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=173 .
Here's the main point. When you get interested in an advertised travel package, ask the seller what airline (or airlines) it uses, and if one of them is something unusual like Arrow Air or BubbasAir, ask if it's a DOD-certified carrier, or go check it for yourself. (By the way, Arrow Air is an approved carrier, while BubbasAir -- as far as we know -- doesn't exist.) Now, a caution here. The DOD list includes only U.S.-based airlines, so don't get nervous about a foreign carrier just because it doesn't show up there.
Sometimes You Just Know
Many foreign airlines are easily recognized (British Air, Lufthansa), and some major carriers have been longtime charter specialists (Holland's Martinair, for instance, is an excellent, well-established carrier). Some, however, are seldom seen at U.S. airports, and frankly, even I have to research some of the logos I see popping up from time to time on charters.
If you don't recognize the name of the carrier the packager is going to use, research it on the Web starting with Google or Yahoo! (And just as with hotels, remember that even the most dysfunctional excuse of an airline can still spring for a slick Web site).
Also keep in mind that if you're heading to some far-flung corner of the planet, a strange-sounding airline with headquarters in that section of the world may be the only airline the packagers can charter. If you don't know the airline and you can't find any substantive information about its approach to safety, then the bottom line is simple: Regardless of price, if you're not comfortable with what you hear about the airline involved, it's probably best to move on to another package.
By the way, to find out whether a particular carrier has been involved in major accidents over the years, go to http://www.airdisaster.com/ and search the database with the airline's name. Keep in mind that almost all of the world's good and experienced airlines have had accidents. That's not the point. What you're looking for is a pattern of mishaps, especially in the past 20 years. That's by no means a perfect indicator, but it's a start.
Let me make this point again, because it's very important. Most of the world's major airlines using modern Boeing and Airbus equipment and a discipline we call "crew resource management" are more than reliable -- especially the major carriers of Europe, Australia, New Zealand and much of Asia. There are, however, some exceptions, and the best rule of thumb is to check them out as well as you can and then listen carefully to your own intuition. Differences do exist, and this is one place where "vive la difference" doesn't apply.