Web sites that take you beyond the usual places



The darkened sky softens as the sun slips over the mountain-ringed bay. Though it's barely dawn, Vietnamese fishing boats bob in the distance; joggers have already hit the beach.

Here at Ana Mandara, one of Vietnam's premier resorts, in Nha Trang, the day is filled with promise: bicycle rides, spa treatments, sunning on the beach, lounging by the pool or simply soaking in the beauty of the carefully clipped seaside gardens. My personal concierge will take care of it all.

And save for the spa, it's all at a 25 percent discount, thanks to LuxuryLink, an online site catering to style-conscious travelers who want pampering at a discount.

The Internet is loaded with sites offering deals and travel ideas you might not find on your own. If you've ever been online, you know about the big three: Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity. Here's the lowdown on a half-dozen others that are particularly intriguing.


Founded in 1997, LuxuryLink (luxurylink.com) closes about 650 auctions each week, says president Diane McDavitt.

The name tells the story: The vacation packages here focus on luxury experiences, often at hotels that you've read about in Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure magazines.

I love LuxuryLink just for the fantasy factor: a slip into the past at the turreted Rufflet's Country House Hotel in Scotland, romance in the bungalows of Fiji's Turtle Island, whipping up culinary masterpieces at Peggy Markel's cooking school in Tuscany. What makes it better is that you can actually buy these vacations.

LuxuryLink offers opportunities to buy at auction, buy at a set price ("Best Buy") or build your own trip. You can search by type of trip -- gourmet vacation, adventure trip, family holiday, spa or golf getaway -- or the month you want to travel. Most trips are hotel packages, though some offer air as an option; others are tours. Suppliers are disclosed during the shopping phase, before you bid or buy.

Sorting all of it out can take a while, especially if you get tempted by the delicious possibilities, though a new site design should make it easier. But don't hesitate if you find one you like: Offerings change quickly.

Fixed-price packages are sold at about a 20 percent discount, with auction items typically selling at 40 percent under retail, says McDavitt. I found that on fixed prices, the values aren't always cheaper than what you could find on your own -- I e-mailed several properties listed and got similar rates.

The real plus to LuxuryLink's packages come in the extras that are included, such as round-trip transportation from an airport, breakfast, welcome baskets, champagne and tours.

The drawback: LuxuryLink doesn't confirm dates. If you want a package for set dates, you need to call the hotel, check its calendar, buy the package, then hope the hotel still has the dates available. (You can't ask them to hold.) With the custom trip-builder, LuxuryLink can't offer real-time confirmations: They have to get in touch with the property to confirm, so there's a lag time there, too.

The company welcomes phone inquiries -- 888-297-3299.


Looking for a bargain on airfare -- even business or first class? A vacation package, New York theater tickets, vacation home rental, hotel stay, restaurant certificate or flight simulator experience?

Founded in 1999 by a longtime tour operator, Skyauction (sky auction.com) works with reputable suppliers to offer trips, most starting at a $1 opening bid. Whether the supplier is named in the auction listing depends on that company's wishes, but if you e-mail Skyauction about a "blind" item, the company often can tell you the supplier's name in an e-mail, says president Michael Herring.

Typical users are solo travelers, students and couples traveling without children, but the site recently has beefed up family options. Herring says they vet suppliers with which they work, and rarely have customers had problems that weren't quickly resolved.

The site allows users to search by destination, some trip types (including last-minute getaways and cruises) and "Auctions Closing Soon." The site runs about 1,500 auctions a week; most last for two or three days. Some packages have less expensive prices for children; you'll need to e-mail Skyauction for information on a case-by-case basis.

We recently saw:

Round-trip Economy-Class airfare to Tokyo bidding at $496 just three hours before closing.

A nine-day Kenya safari including air from New York on British Airways going for $1,387 a half-hour before closing.

A seven-night Caribbean cruise aboard the Norwegian Jewel going for $316 per person a half-hour before closing.

Note that auction prices often don't include taxes and single supplement fees. To find those, you must open the auction item info and read the fine print at the bottom.

One drawback: The site sometimes gets slow, especially toward the end of the day. Be patient; it will load -- eventually.


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