by Shawn L Fitzpatrick
Many people think that having a big budget ensures the ability to enjoy great travel. They are wrong. Even if you have the discretionary pocketbook to do whatever you want, you have to actually know what it is you want to do – and how to do it best. More importantly, even with lots of cash, time still remains the most valuable commodity – it is a finite resource and the clock never stops ticking. Anytime you take a trip and don’t make the most of it, you’ve wasted an opportunity and used up some of your most precious resource
Having covered luxury travel worldwide for a about 20 years, I’ve had the chance to meet many different kinds of well to do travelers, and I also get tons of questions from those planning trips. Whether it is for business or leisure, active or passive, cultural or relaxing, I hear the same questions over and over and see the same mistakes being made so often.
So to help more of you travelers avoid the pitfalls, we have made this quick checklist of the Five Most Common Mistakes when it comes to Luxury Travel:
Not Using a Travel Agent: This is a topic we have covered previously at length, but to put it simply, there is no excuse not to use a good agent. Much more often than not it ends up costing you less for the same thing, or the same amount for more. But beyond the value proposition you get actual expertise in helping you pick where to go, where to stay, what guides to use, all those things. On top of that, good agents can often get you better flight routings and prices than you can get on your own, they are an immediate remedy when things go wrong (cancelled flights), while the good ones get you room upgrades, cabin upgrades on cruises, late checkouts, all sorts of extras. From rooms at otherwise “sold out” hotels to VIP red carpet access to audiences with the Pope, there are few limits to what the best travel advisors – these days they prefer that term – can do for you.
Misusing Miles: Today, thanks to credit cards and other non-aviation sources, from mortgages to television providers, well-heeled travelers typically have more miles accrued than ever, even if they are not frequent fliers. We hear endless complaints about the difficulty in using miles, but we have found that is not the case at all – at least if you go through a mileage and ticketing expert. By using a company called SmartFlyer, I was able to fly to Tokyo and back in Business one way and First the other for $1500 and about 100,000 United miles. This was less than a third of the miles for the best deal I could get through United’s site, and I ended up getting more than three times the dollars per mile that most experts value frequent flier miles at. You can literally save thousands of dollars per trip by having someone who knows what they are doing leverage your miles for premium class upgrades, and unlike purely free award tickets, you still earn miles for the trip (and qualifying dollars towards elite status).
But even if you just want to splurge for straight up free first class, these specialists can often get the tickets for far fewer miles or on better airlines that you would have little chance of finding on your own. It rarely makes sense to cash in your miles for simple domestic coach ticket, but it makes a lot of sense to use them to turn a cheap ticket into a very expensive one you would have paid for anyway – use the extra cash to splurge on a deluxe hotel. SmartFlyer is the creme de la creme of this field, but there are other options (upgrd.com, iflywithmiles.com, and bookyouraward.com).
Choosing Trends Over Timeless: Some people love to be the first on their block to jump on a trend bandwagon, but in many cases when it comes to travel, the flavor of the day doesn’t make much sense. A few years back all the major travel magazines made a big deal out of covering Dubai and its raft of bogus self-proclaimed “6-Star hotels,” its offshoots of the same celebrity chef eateries found around the globe, and its mirror images of Vegas casino shopping boutiques. There are few places I would be less interested in going on vacation, but the full court press by the press worked, and I had friends asking me over and over if they should go to Dubai. “For what?” We would counter, and they had no reasons, other than having read about it. This cycle plays out on an almost yearly basis. Cuba is an interesting place with great weather and beautiful beaches, but this hardly sets its apart from dozens of other Caribbean and Latin American destinations. What does set it apart and the main reason it is hot now is simply because it has been forbidden, and we find stuff that is off limits tempting, but is that really a good reason? I’m guessing for most people chomping to go, there are lots of other places in the region that have not been forbidden that they haven’t bothered visiting.
The other current rage is Iceland, for reasons we really can’t fathom – and for reasons our friends who are suddenly hotly interested cannot explain themselves, other than “I’ve been reading a lot about it.” There’s nothing wrong with Iceland, it’s very close, and it’s got natural beauty and friendly people (along with so-so lodging, average food, and a below average airline). But the reason travel magazines are all covering it is because they have to put out covers month after month, year after year, and so have to keep looking for something new, while most travelers don’t take big vacations month after month for decades. So don’t be so quick to toss aside proven wonderful vacation destinations for Johnny come lately hotspots – I’d rather go to Tuscany for the umpteenth time than Dubai once. This is obviously subjective and you might love Dubai but have no interest in Tuscany. That is fine, if you can’t think of a compelling reason you want to experience Tuscany you shouldn’t go. Wherever you choose should pass a simple smell test: ask yourself “For what?” reason are you going, and if you don’t have a concrete answer you might want to reevaluate. Among places I have not been, India, Egypt and Morocco are all high on my list, and these are not for everyone, but I have my reasons.
Not Using a Specialty Tour Operator: Once you get into certain types of niche travel like safari, skiing, cycling, fishing, paddling, other kinds of adventure travel and guided excursions, it almost always makes sense to you use a specialist in the field. By definition, niche means a very narrow focus, so why not get help from someone who knows the niche best? If going to Rwanda to go trekking with gorillas and go on safari – all are especially complicated, with tons of tiny but distinctly different lodges and lots of moving parts and complex infrastructure, go with the perennially top ranked specialist in the genre, Micato Safaris. Use ski operators for the best winter trips – even if you think you know what to do – as well as the top cycling (Butterfield & Robinson, Backroads, Gray & Co) and bespoke vacation specialists for different types of trips.
Being Too Brand Loyal: When it comes to lodging, a lot of travelers have a favorite brand or chain that is their go-to first choice around the world, usually a luxury brand with a high repeat guest rate such as Four Seasons or Peninsula. Aman Resorts enjoys this kind of traveler so much that its clients are known in the industry as “Aman junkies.” These are all great brands, but our North American and European-shaped worldview sometimes keeps travelers from selecting less familiar hotels that may be better options where we are headed, hotels that are as good or better than we are used to in terms of service but with a more distinctive sense of place. Consider India: the nation is home to three stunningly good luxury hotel brands that often use palaces or amazing one of a kind buildings and settings for their hotels and resorts and stand toe to toe with any luxury brands on earth, Oberoi, Leela and Taj. India has Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton too, but wouldn’t you rather get a solid dose of Indian culture along with your local 5-star lodging?
Hoshino is a Japanese luxury brand with a dedication to culture and tradition built into its reason for being so go try the company’s new Hoshinoya Hotel in Tokyo. There are plenty of other famous luxury hotels in Tokyo but none come remotely close to delivering the Japanese experience that Hoshinoya does. The Amanera and Six Senses chains out of Thailand and Banyan Tree from Singapore – are other good examples of exemplary brands that are top choices in their regions. International luxury brands are increasingly moving into Africa to chase the fast growing high end safari market, but it’s hard to believe they could outdo proven top tier lodges from companies like Singita and Virgin. Sometimes it is worth going with what we know we like because you get security and reliability, but in other cases this might cause us to miss out on a more memorable experience. And this brings us full circle back to number one above – talk to your well-informed Travel Agent!
“Do not go where the path leads, travel instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” @wbbrjp