Springtime is always a fabulous time for families to visit the Grand Canyon, thanks to the winning combination of fewer crowds, comfortable weather, and affordable rates.
This year, take your pick of package deals that bundle accommodations with sightseeing at a terrific savings.
The Grand Canyon Railway is offering a variety of spring hotel packages that go well beyond a mule ride. You get a train trip, hotel stay, and meals if you want them, with a promise of up to 50 percent off regular rates.
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The packages focus on stays at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel in Williams, Ariz., just east of Flagstaff. The 287-room hotel is next to the train depot and is a short walk from downtown Williams and Route 266; it also has an indoor pool, hot tub, and playground.
The roundtrip train ride -- on restored railroad cars, some dating back to the 1920s -- takes about two hours each way, and gives you about four hours to explore at the Grand Canyon's South Rim before heading back. Railway Express Plus packages are available for one or two nights, with or without meals. They include:
One or two nights at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel (usually $109 per night this time of year).
Round trip for four on the Grand Canyon Railway ($70 for adults and $40 per child, for a total of $220 for a couple with two children).
Optional: Breakfast and dinner buffets at the Grand Depot Café ($92 per day).
Entry to the Grand Canyon (usually $16 for four people).
When we test-booked the two-night package with the meals included, the total for four came to $512 for the "coach class" version of the package (meaning more old-style seating on the train). That's $126 cheaper than the $638 you'd pay if booking the components separately -- a 20 percent savings.
The package for the two-night stay without meals came to $328, which is $116 cheaper than the $444 price tag for the elements on their own. That takes you up to a 28 percent savings. It's even better when you consider that after the deal ends, the rate for the two-night, no-buffets package goes up to $514.
The best deal of all, though is the one-night, no-meals version of this package, which comes to $219 for four. You're basically getting the hotel for free and a dollar shaved off the train tickets to boot -- 50 percent off your total. Note that if you add in the meals, you're paying exactly $92 more -- what you'd pay anyway for meals, so there's no savings.
Deal or no deal? No matter which deal you choose, you're guaranteed at least 20 percent savings. If you want to ramp up to 50 percent savings, skip the buffets. The meal add-on is not discounted, so opting for the no-buffet version is the way to go. Bonus: You won't be tied to a single eatery, so you can eat where you like.
All versions of this package are good for travel through March 14. You can book online or by calling (800) 843-8724 and asking for the Railway Express packages.
(Note: There is a strict payment and cancellation policy. You pay in full when you book and can modify your reservation up until the day before you travel, though you may have to pay more if you change to a more expensive date. There is no refund if you cancel less than 72 hours before your scheduled arrival.)
But what if you have your heart set on staying inside Grand Canyon National Park? As luck would have it, Xanterra, the company that operates lodges and dining facilities inside so many of our national parks (and it happens to run the Grand Canyon Railway) is offering a "Spring Breakaway to the Grand Canyon " package that includes lodging at either Maswik Lodge ($165 a night) or Yavapai Lodge East ($150 a night), free sightseeing tours, and other perks. This package includes:
Accommodations at either Yavapai Lodge East or Maswik Lodge North (end-of-March rates are $153 and $170 per night, respectively)
Sunset or Hermits Rest motorcoach tour of the canyon's South Rim ($20 per adult for Sunset tour; $25 per adult for Hermits Rest tour; always free for one child 16 and under per paying adult).
Breakfast for two adults at the lodge cafeteria (estimated value of $12 for each adult).
A discount of 10 to 20 percent on gift-shop purchases.
Both lodges have stellar locations, a short walk from the canyon's rim, but Yavapai Lodge East is an especially convenient choice for families. Each room features a mini-refrigerator and the lodge sits adjacent to a handy market plaza with a general store, bank, and post office.
Let's suppose a family of four wanted to book a two-night stay at Yavapai Lodge East, taking the two-hour Hermit's Rest sightseeing tour of the West Rim one day and the 90-minute Sunset tour of the South Rim on the second day. If booked separately, these elements would cost $306 for lodging plus $90 for the tours ($25 per adult and $20 per child), for a total of $396. Breakfast for four people will cost about $40 each morning, or $80 over two days -- bringing the total for these components to $476.
But if the same family booked its two-day getaway with the Spring Breakaway package, it would spend $300 for lodging and sightseeing tours. On top of that, we figure the family would also spend $32 on breakfast. Comparing apples to apples, the package comes to $332.
Deal or no deal? This offer turns out to be a surprisingly good value. While there's virtually no savings on the hotel portion, the free sightseeing tours and adult breakfasts add up to a respectable 30 percent in savings for the overall getaway -- but only if you take a sightseeing tour each day.
The Spring Breakaway is available from March 5 to 25. Book by phone by calling (888) 297-2757 ((303) 297-2757 from outside the U.S.) or book online using promo code SPRING. Travelers should book their choice of motorcoach tour at the same time they book the package.
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