In the newest twist in economy travel, long-standing department store Sears now wants to be your travel agent — and it's even willing to let you put that next vacation on layaway. Sears Vacations is the retailer's latest online initiative (there's no in-store component, at least for now), and it's aimed at providing vacation packages similar to large travel aggregator sites like Expedia and Orbitz; it currently features 100 vacation packages for less than $399, good through July.
But what seems to really be catching the eye of consumers and media outlets alike is that Sears is extending a "layaway option" to its vacation deals.
Buy Now, Pay LaterTechnically it's not called layaway; it's a prepaid vacation package with an open itinerary, says Laurie Bowden, Vice President of Marketing for International Cruise and Excursions Inc. (ICE), the BBB-accredited company that administers the back-end operations for Sears Vacations. Basically, shoppers can buy a vacation package before they decide upon a destination or travel dates. They can pay towards the vacation in installments, like layaway, and set the particulars like place and time closer to departure.
Unlike layaway, however, there are no upfront additional fees for choosing this option, nor is there interest to pay. Moreover, there are no booking fees for cruises, resorts, escorted tours, and hotels. There is however a booking fee for the air portion of the trip, similar to those paid in most travel transactions.
The Details on Layaway
There are, of course, some rules. According to Bowden, when opting for layaway, a cruise and resort vacation must be purchased together. They can be used separately but the two components are a must when opting for the open itinerary. In doing so, consumers lock in travel at today's prices. The vacation must be booked within 18 months of the initial payment, paid in full before departure, and completed within 2.5 years from that original time. There are anywhere from 3,000 cruises and 5,000 land-based resort vacations available at any given time, says Bowden.
Should an advertised price be found elsewhere for less, Sears Vacations will match it up to 90 days before departure. But the same pesky price matching rules apply that trip up shoppers at electronics and discount stores: it must be identical in terms of dates of travel and destination, which is a difficult apples-to-apples comparison under any circumstance.
But it's an interesting option for anyone who doesn't know exactly when or where they'll want to travel, but are sure they'll really need a vacation at some point in the next two years. What's more, when they're ready to book, the whole trip will be practically paid off. While layaway vacations may seem a bit foreign, the concept itself isn't all that new. We found payment plans available at smaller travel aggregators including GetAwayToday.com, as well as individual resort websites like MGM Resorts.
But the prepaid travel package belongs solely to Sears. Customers also have the ability to schedule automatic payments toward the vacation and earn points in Sears' Shop Your Way loyalty program. In the future, Shop Your Way points can be used as payment toward travel as well, although there's no time set yet for that benefit to start.
Deal or No Deal?However, much of this means anything at all if the deals aren't, well, deals. While the site is new, and we have yet to do a thorough investigation of their offers, dealnews price-checked a handful of current promotions to assess their value. As it turns out, there are a few choice deals. For example, a few days ago, the site offered a 7-night Carnival Caribbean Cruise for two for $609 before taxes and fees (a low by $20), which is the lowest total price we've ever seen for a 7-night Carnival cruise.
Many packages however appear to be carbon copies of deals offered by other providers, much like you might find comparing any given travel package across Orbitz, Expedia, and others. Thus, shopping carefully and price-checking is still — not surprisingly — quite necessary.
There are some additional caveats as well. First, you'll want to keep an eye out for the travel insurance surcharges. On the aforementioned cruise, an $89 travel insurance plan was automatically added to the package. This amounted to 14% of the base cost of the trip. In order to avoid buying it, you must click the "uncheck to decline insurance" box. This practice is similar to Sears' former policy of automatically adding appliance warranties to shopping carts at their main consumer site. The store halted that practice once it was publicly denounced by ConsumerWorld.org. It remains to be seen if auto opt-in is OK with their vacation package customers.
Secondly, like most layaway plans, you lose out on the ability to avail of an amazing deal with an extremely short lead-time. For example, slightly less than half of the Editors' Choice travel deals we posted last month involved a travel period within three months. For some, paying way in advance is a necessary evil; dropping several hundred dollars on a last-minute vacation package may be unmanageable, no matter how good of a deal it is. But if the option to pay in installments isn't absolutely necessary to your budgetary needs, you may be better served by remaining flexible and jumping on offers that take advantage of slow seasons, hotels with unbooked rooms, etc.
In the end, Sears Vacations will not please everyone. Some will find the no-fee, no-interest layaway option an appealing alternative if saving on their own is a losing exercise in self-control. But buying in advance prevents travelers from jumping on last-minute deals as well. In the long run, if the Sears Shop Your Way points can be redeemed for worthwhile rewards, it may be enough to sway brand-dedicated shoppers. Either way, if you're interested in giving Sears Vacations a try, consider perusing similar options elsewhere first to make sure the price is right.