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Originally published Saturday, May 18, 2013 at 7:01 PM

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Travel Wise / Watch out for snags in vacation packages

Always check the fine print on travel packages — and comparison-shop.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Dissecting the value of a travel deal can be like rooting through a pile of marked-down designer sweaters.

The price might be right, but you’ll want to look carefully for snags.

With spring and summer travel planning in mind, I examined a few promotions and package deals, looking not only at bottom-line price but also at rules and restrictions.

San Francisco

San Francisco Travel, the city’s visitors bureau, recently advertised a “25 percent off” promotion for hotel stays of three or more days. Clicking on the Hotel Union Square, I found a rate of $158.25 on a deluxe queen room for a Friday and Saturday stay in April and a rate of $139.50 for Sunday. Crossed out were rates of $211 for the first two nights and $186 for the third.

The catch: Neither the hotel nor the online sites I checked were actually charging the crossed-out rates, sometimes called “rack rates’’ or standard published rates.

The Hotel Union Square’s website showed a price of $169 for the same first two nights and $149 for the third. Phoning the hotel brought the price down to $158 for Friday and Saturday and $140 for Sunday, the same rates showing up on Expedia and Travelocity.

Bottom line: San Francisco Travel’s (sanfrancisco.travel) promotional rates were no lower than what anyone else was quoting, but they came with significant restrictions.

Bookings are handled by Advanced Reservations Systems, a third-party reservation system based in California, that requires payment in advance and charges a $25 fee for cancellations made more than three days before check-in. Cancel in three days or less and the rules say you’ll pay that fee plus one night’s room charge and tax.

Booking directly with the hotel required no advance payment and just 24 hours notice to cancel without a charge.

Portland

Travel Portland’s Portland Perks prepaid hotel packages include parking, a continental breakfast and a discount coupon book.

A search for a Friday and Saturday night stay in May brought up a king room at the Marriott Courtyard Downtown/Convention Center for $119 compared with $149 quoted by the hotel on its website and by phone. Considering the Perks rate included parking ($18 per day), this was a deal.

The catch: Travel Portland (travelportland.com) also uses Advanced Reservations Systems, so the same cancellation fees and restrictions attached to the San Francisco bookings applied here.

Booking directly with the Marriott, there were no penalties for cancellations made before 6 p.m. on the day of arrival.

Victoria, B.C.

Checking with Clipper Vacations for a Victoria transportation and hotel package on a Saturday in May, I found a tax-inclusive price of $319.50 for two including transport on the Victoria Clipper and a studio suite at the Oswego Hotel. That compared with a total of $408 for booking the Clipper separately ($264 for two and nonrefundable) and hotel on my own ($144).

This qualified as a deal for those confident enough to lock in plans. Clipper’s (clippervacations.com) penalty on vacation packages is 5 to 15 percent for cancellations or changes made up to four days before the start of the tour date. After that, reservations are nonrefundable and non-changeable.

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Prepayment requirements, cancellation and change policies dampened my enthusiasm for a Pleasant Holidays all-inclusive vacation package to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, in December.

A search on Pleasants’ website (pleasantholidays.com) turned up a bottom-line price of $2,559 for two including round-trip airfare on Alaska Airlines and seven nights, with meals and drinks, at the Riu Palace Pacifico resort.

That compared with $2,770 for booking the room separately on riu.com and the flights atalaskaair.com.

The savings with Pleasant Holidays was $211, but the package came with many strings attached. Under “terms & conditions of sale’’ were rules calling for payment of a deposit within three days, the balance 45 days before departure; fees for changes or cancellations in addition to what the hotels or airlines might charge; and (a common caveat with packages) no refunds or partial refunds for any reason once travel has begun.

Carol Pucci is a Seattle

freelance writer. Contact her at travel@carolpucci.com.

Web/blog: carolpucci.com.

Twitter: @carolpucci.

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