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Originally published Saturday, January 9, 2010 at 7:01 PM

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Hawaii on sale: How to find deals on airfares, hotels and car rentals

Deals on Hawaii airfares, hotels and vacation packages continue in 2010 as the islands continue to struggle during lean economic times.

Seattle Times travel writer

Room at the inns

Hotel rooms averaged 66.6 percent full in Hawaii from January-November of 2009, a 6.7 percent drop in occupancy compared to the first 11 months of 2008. Oahu suffered the least; Kauai the most.

Oahu: 73.3 percent average occupancy, down 3 percent.

Maui: 62.1 percent average occupancy, down 9.8 percent

Big Island: 54.8 percent average occupancy, down 10.1 percent

Kauai: 61 percent average occupancy, down 15.1 percent

Source: Smith Travel Research

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Fly from soggy Seattle to sunny Hawaii this month or next for less than half what it cost to get to Chicago over the Christmas holidays.

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 this month, 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."

With average hotel occupancy down 3 to 15 percent on the various islands during the first 11 months of 2009, according to Smith Travel Research, some of the deals for travel in early 2010 are even better than last winter.

Bing Travel reports average airfares between Seattle and Hawaii are down 11 to 25 percent for January and 7 to 25 percent for February compared to the same period last year. Rates at premium hotels in Honolulu for the two months dropped an average 9 percent, and 16 percent in Maui.

Airfares

Competition between Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian on nonstop routes from the Western U.S. has pushed fares into the low $300s on nonstop flights to Oahu for winter and early spring, and only slightly higher to some of the other islands.

Delta, which acquired Northwest Airlines, has reduced service from Seattle, but Alaska increased flights. It now flies nonstop to Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the Big Island of Hawaii.

How long the low fares will last is anyone's guess, but a recent check for midweek dates in late April showed Seattle-Oahu round-trips available for $309 and $320-$350 for the Big Island, Kauai and Maui.

For the best deals, avoid the peak Presidents Day/school winter break (the days around the week of Feb. 15) and Easter/spring break holidays, when fares soar and hotels raise room rates.

Several airlines were quoting fares in the $700-$800 range to Maui and Oahu from Seattle for departures on Friday, Feb. 12, returning Saturday, Feb. 20. Move dates ahead or back one week, and the fares drop back into the mid $300s.

Start an airfare search at www.kayak.com and www.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.

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," says Brian Ek, vice president of Priceline.com.

"They also tend to include free breakfast," adds Steve Pomranz, vice president of travel services for AAA Washington. "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."

The Outrigger Keauhou Beach Resort on the Big Island's Kona coast is one example. Stay two nights in January and the third night is free, bringing the regular $189 nightly rate for a partial ocean-view room down to $126.

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," says Stacey Meyer, a Hawaii marketing manager for Orbitz. "Now you can see rates from $179 for a four-star hotel on the beach."

Even the posh Trump Waikiki, which opened in November, is discounting. Stay four nights and get a fifth night free for travel through March 20. The offer brings a daily rate of $362 down to $290 for a studio with a king bed and a pullout sofa bed.

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.

Sometimes the lowest-priced rooms don't show up on the online-booking sites. Expedia, for example, recently listed a nightly rate of $195 for a partial ocean-view room at the Royal Lahaina Resort in Maui in early February. The resort's Web site listed the same rate for that room, but also showed "Garden Saver" rooms available for $169.

Priceline (www.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 www.biddingfortravel.comor www.betterbidding.com to see what other travelers report finding.

A search for a standard room at the four-star Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa in Kaanapali for Feb. 4-7 showed a rate of $311 on the hotel's Web site; $277 from Expedia, and a winning bid on Priceline of $148.

Hotwire (www.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.

To find out how real the deal is, check the component prices 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.

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

Its Web site recently listed a late-January package including five nights at the Castle Ocean Hotel in Waikiki, round-trip airfare for two from Seattle, and a car for $971 including most taxes, breakfast and an island orientation.

That was about $30 more than the cost of booking the air and hotel separately, so having the car thrown in made this package a good deal. Failure to uncheck a box labeled "Travel Protection Plan," however, would have added a whopping $238 for a travel-insurance policy, for a total of $1,209 — not such a great deal.

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 (www.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 a "stimulus" price of $80 per night, and a $150-per-night family mountain retreat on Molokai that sleeps up to 8.

Rooms in private homes can be found on Airbnb (www.airbnb.com), an online marketplace where locals advertise vacation homes, spare rooms and apartments.

The site has 136 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.

Car rentals

With Hawaii's hotel occupancy plunging last spring, car-rental companies decreased their fleets, leaving renters sometimes scrambling to find available vehicles during peak travel times. Cars are available now, but prices vary according to the island and the rental-car company, so shop around.

Enterprise usually has the lowest rates for refundable bookings. Priceline and Hotwire often have the best deals, 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.

A check on Expedia showed the lowest rate on Oahu at $141, including taxes, for an economy car for the week of Feb. 5-12 available through Enterprise. The rate was $263 on Maui and $269 on Kauai.

On the Big Island, where prices can be much higher, Expedia's lowest price for the same February dates was $436 through Enterprise for airport pickup, dropping to $239 if picked up at the agency's Luhia Street location in Kailua-Kona. Enterprise showed the car at $436 and $228 on its Web site.

A check on Hotwire.com, however, brought up what appeared to be a bargain on the same dates — a (nonrefundable) weekly rate of $140.63, including taxes, for a car from one of the major companies for airport pickup.

Carol Pucci: cpucci@seattletimes.com

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