Paycheck Chronicles

Does the Military's Travel Discount Site Really Offer Deals?

Vacationing on a beach (Stock image)

A military travel discount site rolled out this month by the Defense Department and Priceline boasts that it offers exclusive travel savings for qualifying users.

The site, American Forces Travel, offers hotel, flight, car rental and cruise deals, as well as bundled or package deals that a spokesman said can save travelers an average of $240 per person.

So I put it to the test. Could using it save money for a real human like me?

The answer for me was no.

First, a few notes. For this experiment, I researched prices for airfare, hotel and a rental car for a single trip to San Francisco from my home near Anchorage, Alaska, for my family: me, my husband and our two kids. We have family near enough San Francisco that we could use that airport, but not close enough that we would stay with them if we wanted to vacation in the city for a few days. I compared prices against those on the sites I normally use for booking -- Kayak.com for air travel, Hotwire.com for rental cars and Hotels.com for hotels -- and searched dates for a fictional four-day weekend trip in late March.

This test was inspired by comments from readers on our Military.com story announcing the discount program. Many commenters noted they were finding better travel rates outside the DoD's new site. Given that our test was truly limited, I encourage you to compare rates for yourself.

Air Travel Rates

Searching for air travel rates on this new site showed no savings or, worse, much higher costs depending on how I searched.

To be fair, the site didn't claim to have great deals for the types of flights for which I was searching. The site says its flight perks are no booking fee, reduced fees for reservation changes, all flights cancellable within 24 hours and exclusive flight options with split-ticket fares.

For my four-day, Friday to Monday trip to and from San Francisco International Airport, Armed Forces Travel found me a roundtrip ticket for $610.10 per person at Delta's Main Cabin rate, which lets you pick your seats.

As advertised, no booking fee was added, and I was told I could cancel within 24 hours. I didn't try to change my ticket, so I couldn't see what their fees would be for that, but their fine print warns, "Air travel itinerary changes, if permitted by the airline fare rules, may have a change fee charged by the airline typically ranging between $200 and $300 USD per ticket that will vary by market, carrier and specific fare rule," so I am unclear as to what their reduced reservations fees might be.

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My flight search on Kayak.com brought up significantly cheaper options. For those Delta flights, it first brought up an Economy rate of $315 per person, where seats might be automatically assigned. Then, when I clicked through to book on the Delta site, I was offered a Main Cabin rate at $435 -- still well below the Armed Forces Travel rate.

It was difficult to even compare the Kayak offers to the American Forces site because the latter didn't have as many flight options. Kayak showed me a pair of Alaska Airlines flights that allowed you to pick your seat for $343 per person, well below the $610.10 option with Armed Forces.

American Forces' website told me I might be able to save more by booking in a bundle. When I clicked through that option to search for flights, I was offered the same main cabin price -- $435 -- as through Kayak. And while the click through said I was building a bundle, the system did not appear to require me to actually select anything more than a flight to get that lower price. That felt a little sneaky.

Hotel Rates

I started my search through Hotels.com for three nights at a hotel off Market Street in San Francisco, since we'd be visiting the Wharf area and shopping on my fictional trip. The hotel options in that area range from nice to really fancy without any familiar name-brand budget options, so I looked in the "nice" range. I then searched for the same area on the American Forces site.

The sites tended to offer different hotels. But they both offered the Hilton Parc 55, so I chose that hotel for this comparison. I wanted accommodations for two adults and two children. Hotels.com gave me a rate of approximately $178 a night for about $622 total, which includes $87.66 in taxes and fees. It had no trouble searching for two adults and two children.

The American Forces site, on the other hand, first told me that it could offer me only double-occupancy rooms, even though "four guests" was a drop-down menu option when I searched. That was confusing. When I changed it to two guests and searched, the next screen showed me as having searched for "two adults, two children." The top of the page said I was getting exclusive discounts, and the photo of the Parc 55 said "13 percent off."

But when I clicked through, it said my best rate was $635 for three nights, plus about $105 in taxes and fees for a total of about $740. If that's an exclusive discount, it's not a very good one, and it's definitely not better than the non-exclusive discount on the other site.

I also tried booking my hotel through the bundling option, which had found me extra savings with the flight. For the hotel reservation, it made no difference.

Car Rentals

American Forces again boasted exclusive rates and two specific perks -- the ability to cancel on cars reserved for payment at the time of pickup, and lower rates if you pre-pay.

My search on American Forces revealed my cheapest alternative to be an economy option with Hertz for $22 a day if a pre-pay. For $27, I could reserve through Thrifty and leave myself the option of canceling at any time.

Heading over to Hotwire.com, my site of choice for rental cars, I found the same Hertz deal of $22 for pre-paying. And again, over at Thrifty, I was offered the same $27, cancel-anytime option.

In short, for my trip, booking through American Forces offered me no savings.

I also tried booking a car through the bundling option. Like the hotel, bundling for the car brought no price difference.

I Didn't Find This Site to Be a Money Saver

A Priceline spokesperson said that for cars and hotels, "certain suppliers will be contributing exclusive rates to American Forces Travel. There are a lot of ways to save on the site," but she didn't offer clues on how to find those, specifically. She also said that hotel rates are likely to get better over time.

"As American Forces Travel continues to grow after the initial launch, we are constantly working to improve the product for our customers and have plans in place for an even more diversified inventory, as well as booking options for the near future," she said.

So, yes, likely there are deals I didn't find. After all, this experiment was limited to one trip to one major city in one state.

But as part of their target audience, I can't say I'll be hitting it up to find deals for my family any time soon.

-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at amy.bushatz@military.com.

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