If your family budget is running on fumes, getting free fuel for the car is mighty appealing. But before you book your summer vacation hotel, check under the shiny hood of its offer to pay $10 or even $75 of your gas costs. Nothing is really free, and these proliferating promotions are no exception.
Hotels usually wrap fuel cards and credits into packages. Like vehicles on a dealer's lot, these come loaded with extras: room upgrades, breakfast, road snacks and more. If you don't want the extras, or they don't pencil out as savings, pass them up.
Do the same with a $10 gas-card offer if you have to slog through a slew of the hotel's online promotions to see how it stacks up. We're talking less than 3 gallons of gas here. Your time is worth more than that.
But depending on details, a $50 or $75 gasoline gift card or credit, or even $25 plus free parking, could be a deal. Some questions to ask:
Card or resort credit? A gift card is preferable. Credit at the hotel's restaurants, shops or spa is valuable only if you plan to use those services.
Per stay or per night? I checked several offers, and all were for one card or credit per stay even though some packages required multi-night stays.
Which gas stations? The gift card is often limited to one brand, such as Shell or Exxon Mobil.
How do I get the deal? Many hotels give you the resort credit on check-in or the gas card on checkout, no questions asked. But some may ask for receipts detailing your gas purchases and credit you for only that amount.
Is it the best deal? You'll need to discover this by comparing the gas offer against the hotel's other rates and packages. Enter your planned travel dates on the hotel's website and see what pops up.
When I recently did this for a one-night stay June 11 at the Portofino Hotel & Yacht Club in Redondo Beach, I turned up a $239 California Cruising Package with a marina-side room, a $25 gas card, overnight parking (usually $23 a day) and two bottles of water. The price matched the best available rate for the room alone, saving me $48 plus the cost of the bottled water. Nice.
But if I wanted to spend the night in a fancier oceanfront room, I'd save a bit more with another deal, the Ocean Sale, which cut $58 off the regular $289 price of the room (also the price for this room with the gas package). For a two-night stay, the Ocean Sale left the gas deal in the dust because the $25 gas card was per stay, not per night.
At the Four Seasons Hotel Boston for June 11, I found a $500 Fuelled Up Package with a room, $50 gas card, overnight parking (worth $47) and a one-category room upgrade (based on availability, assigned at booking). Even without the upgrade, the gas package was less expensive than booking the room alone at the cheapest rate, $475, and adding the extras.
Checking the same date at the FireSky Resort & Spa in Scottsdale, Ariz., I found the Gas-Food-Lodging package. For $139, it provided a patio guestroom, $50 gas card, breakfast for two and unspecified road snacks. The package also touted free overnight valet parking — which is free to guests regardless.
Calculator in hand, I studied 11 other FireSky packages for that date, with a dizzying array of options. I decided the gas package was well-priced, saving me about $30 over a breakfast-and-room package. It also was a savings over booking the room alone and adding the extras, although how much was unclear. Neither reservations nor the restaurant could give me a dollar value for the breakfast in the gas package.
My conclusion: Some gas cards and credits are deals. But it's not always worth the trip to find out.