Luxury for Less: The Travel Advisor Gambit
After visiting the Grand Canyon with my 9-year-old daughter in August, I splurged on a two-night stay at the Enchantment Resort in Sedona, Ariz., to cap off our mother-daughter trip. Upon arrival, we were upgraded to a two-bedroom, two-bath suite with a kitchenette, a fireplace and dual balconies facing the breathtaking red rocks of Boynton Canyon — a significant boost from the $299-a-night double queen room we had reserved. Our complimentary daily breakfast could be taken in the room or at the hotel restaurant, a hotel receptionist informed us. And moments after a bellhop whisked us to our spacious suite in a golf cart, a room service attendant arrived with a fruit and cheese platter and a personalized welcome note.
The V.I.P. treatment hadn’t come at extra cost or because they thought we were someone special. (I don’t disclose my New York Times affiliation). I had simply booked the hotel the old fashioned way — through a travel agent.
The move may seem counterintuitive when you can book a vacation with a couple of taps on your phone. Not to mention that major resorts and hotel chains boast lowest rate guarantees as an incentive for booking directly through their websites. But for luxury travelers who are already planning to spend upward of $300-a-night on their vacation, a travel adviser (as agents preferred to be called these days) can be the way to go.
To save money and enhance the quality of your trip at no cost to you, look for an adviser from a large consortium like American Express, Signature Travel Network or Virtuoso. Because of longstanding partnerships with travel companies and the sheer volume of bookings these groups generate for hotel, airline and cruise partners, they are able to negotiate special rates and perks on behalf of their clients, from free cocktails and room upgrades upon arrival to spa treatments and late checkouts. Virtuoso alone estimates it has $26.4 billion a year in collective buying power.
Simply put: “We buy a considerable amount from the travel providers and are able to secure additional benefits for guests,” said Phil Cappelli, the senior vice president of Preferred Partnerships for Signature Travel Network. Benefits can include complimentary breakfast, food and beverage credits, airport transfers, priority access to the top tour guides for cruise passengers and more.
All those extras come at no additional cost when using a travel adviser. In some cases, you don’t even need to pick up the phone. Travelers can get the same benefits at more than 1,100 hotels simply by booking at Virtuoso.com. Because the transaction is handled by a Virtuoso adviser on the back end, the traveler still gets the perks. Likewise, American Express Platinum cardmembers who book through American Express Travel have access to similar benefits whether they talk to an agent, book online or through the mobile app. (Benefits vary by card level for bookings through American Express Travel.)
Keep in mind that the relationship between agents and hotels, cruise lines and other travel suppliers is a two-way street. In return for drumming up business, some advisers not only reap benefits for their customers, they often receive benefits themselves in the form of commissions. While a good travel adviser won’t risk a client’s experience over such incentives, it doesn’t hurt to ask how your agent is being compensated.
I did my own research before I emailed my adviser, Beth Washington at McCabe World Travel, a Virtuoso member in McLean, Va. Scouring the internet for the best deals at luxury resorts in Sedona with a pool, nearby hikes and kid-friendly activities, I narrowed my choice down to the Enchantment. The cheapest option was a nonrefundable rate of $623.38 for two nights or $718.76 with flexible cancellation. The Virtuoso rate for the same room was the same as the flexible rate and included daily breakfast (a $30 credit per person, per day) and $100 credit toward spa or golf.
In other words, if my daughter and I both had breakfast each day, which we certainly planned to, the Virtuoso deal was better than if I booked through the hotel directly. Because my daughter was too young to go to the spa and neither of us play golf, my adviser offered to apply the credit to food and beverages instead. Sold.
I handled the airline reservations myself as they were simple enough — we used miles to fly in coach from New York to Phoenix. McCabe World Travel charges $45 a ticket for airline reservations, which includes after hours emergency service if any changes or delays arise. But it doesn’t hurt to ask your adviser about any deals they have with airline partners.
Platinum Card and Business Platinum Card members, for example, can get discounts on front-of-the-cabin seats for themselves and travel companions traveling internationally on more than 20 airlines when they book through the American Express Travel International Airline Program at amextravel.com or over the phone.
Aside from the deals, advisers can also ease the hassle of planning a vacation — especially for complex trips. Cruise lines in particular rely heavily on agents to send bookings their way, partly because there are so many choices involved in buying a cruise, from multiple room categories to dozens of restaurants and hundreds of land excursions. In March, Carnival Cruise Lines started a “Why Use A Travel Advisor,” campaign (called WUATA) to show agents their appreciation and convince first-time cruisers that it can pay to book through an agent. The campaign includes WUATA videos with client testimonials. One cruiser’s quote: “People that don’t use a travel agent are crazy.”
Signature’s advisers have access to special negotiated programs with 34 cruise lines, including a private car, driver and guide on shore excursions valued up to $500 per couple in addition to shipboard credits (up to $500) with most partners. Virtuoso offers complimentary benefits valued from $800 to several thousand dollars per couple on 700 departures. Perks ranging from a bottle of wine to a spa treatment are offered on another 4,500 sailings a year.
The Bottom line: If you want V.I.P. treatment on your next trip and savings to boot, and are planning to pay at least $300 a night for a hotel room anyway, it can make sense to talk to an agent. Below are three travel adviser consortiums and the perks that come with booking through one of their members.
American Express Platinum Card Members
Estimated savings: About $550 at 1,100 hotels around the world on a stay of two nights.
What you get: Early check-in and room upgrades when available, complimentary daily breakfast for up to two guests, a “unique amenity” valued at $100, guaranteed late checkout at 4 p.m. and five times the usual number of Amex points or the ability to use Pay with Points on prepaid stays at Fine Hotels & Resorts Properties on AmexTravel.com.
Estimated savings: More than $500 per stay, available at 1,400 hotels in 100 countries.
What you get: Complimentary daily breakfast; room upgrade, either guaranteed at the time of booking or at check-in based on availability; early check-in, late checkout, availability permitting for most (sometimes guaranteed); and complimentary Wi-Fi. Additional perks may include: complimentary airport transfers, spa treatments and meals.
Signature Travel Network
Estimated savings: Up to $500 dollars on luxury hotels on a stay of two to five nights.
What you get: Varies by hotel, but can include complimentary full breakfast, food and beverage credits, spa treatments, airport transfers, room upgrades, early check in and late check out.
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