Why would travelers ever plan a vacation on their own when their money will go a lot further with the help of a travel agent? At a time when booking trips online seems to be the norm, it’s a message that several travel networks, each with their own group of travel agents, are increasingly pushing.
With more than 16,000 agents globally, Virtuoso is one of the largest networks. That scale can benefit the traveler: Book a trip with a Virtuoso agent, said Albert Herrera, the company’s senior vice president of global product partnerships, and you will get hotel perks such as free breakfast, room upgrades and spa treatments; these extras are worth up to $450 a property. “If you’re staying at three hotels on one trip, you’re looking at more than $1,300 of amenities that you’re not paying for,” he said.
Signature Travel Network has more than 7,000 agents. Ignacio Maza, the company’s executive vice president, said that the network’s agents can get clients benefits valued at up to $500 at hotels; on cruises, more than $1,000.
Smaller networks also offer amenities for their clients: Andrew Harper Travel, for example, began in the 1970s as a hotel review company but expanded around 15 years ago to offer travel planning services; currently, the company has around 20 agents.
How do these networks stack up against each other, and what does it cost travelers, if anything, to take advantage of their perks? Here is a breakdown of some of the top networks.
Signature Travel Network
HOW TO FIND AN AGENT signaturetravelnetwork.com
NUMBER OF AFFILIATED HOTELS More than 1,030, both large chains and boutique properties; the collection includes four- and five-star hotels.
THE COST Signature doesn’t charge a membership fee to use its agents, but some charge fees of up to several hundred dollars.
CRUISES? Yes, 30 lines. Benefits vary by sailing, but could include onboard credits, prepaid gratuities and shore excursions. Also, on a select 200 a year, travelers get a private guide and driver for a day at selected ports — a perk valued at up to $900, according to Mr. Maza.
HOTEL PERKS Up to $500 of amenities at hotels, including daily breakfast for two, an extra amenity such as a $100 dining credit, room upgrades and early check-in and checkout, when available. Some properties, like the Ritz Paris, offer additional benefits including round-trip airport transfers.
HOW TO FIND AN AGENT virtuoso.com/advisors
NUMBER OF AFFILIATED HOTELS More than 1,250 luxury hotels, both large chains and boutique properties; 900 of those can be booked through virtuoso.com.
THE COST Virtuoso doesn’t charge a membership fee to use its agents, but some charge trip-planning fees; depending on the complexity of the trip, fees can range from $50 to several hundred dollars.
CRUISES? Yes, 31 lines, with more than 500 select sailings a year. Travelers get an $800 credit to use one of three ways: onboard, for a private car and driver at a port of their choice, or for a tailor-made excursion.
HOTEL PERKS Up to $450 of amenities at hotels, including daily breakfast for two, room upgrades (either guaranteed at the time of booking or on a space available basis) and early check-in and late checkout, when available. All affiliated hotels also offer extras for their Virtuoso guests which vary by property. Examples include a six-course dinner at Casa Gangotena in Quito, Ecuador and a horse-drawn carriage tour with a stay at Alpaga Megève in Megève, France.
Ensemble Travel Group
HOW TO FIND AN AGENT ensembletravel.com
NUMBER OF AFFILIATED HOTELS Around 700, both large chains and boutique properties; the collection includes four- and five-star hotels.
THE COST Ensemble doesn’t charge a membership fee to use agents, but some charge trip-planning fees.
CRUISES? Yes, 26 lines. On more than 1,500 select cruises a year, travelers receive various benefits such as room upgrades, onboard credits and shore excursions.
HOTEL PERKS Benefits vary by property, but could include room upgrades, daily breakfast, spa treatments, and food and wine welcome baskets. The Raffles Makati in the Philippines, for example, offers daily breakfast, afternoon tea, evening cocktails and 50-minute massages for two.
Fine Hotels & Resorts
HOW TO FIND AN AGENT AmexTravel.com
NUMBER OF AFFILIATED HOTELS More than 1,000 affiliated luxury properties.
THE COST The network is exclusively for American Express Platinum and Centurion cardholders — the annual fee for a Platinum card is $550. (The company doesn’t reveal the cost of the Centurion card.) In addition, some agents charge small trip-planning fees.
CRUISES? Yes, 15 lines. On sailings of five nights or more, travelers receive an onboard credit of between $100 to $300.
HOTEL PERKS The average value of benefits travelers receive at each hotel is $550, according to Tom Stein, the vice president of American Express Travel. These include a space-available room upgrade, daily breakfast for two, noon check-in, when available, and a guaranteed 4 p.m. checkout, as well as an additional amenity that varies by property — examples include a spa treatment, a meal or a bottle of wine.
Andrew Harper Travel
HOW TO FIND AN AGENT andrewharper.com
NUMBER OF AFFILIATED HOTELS 500. The majority are 40 rooms or less.
THE COST $395 a year. In addition, advisers charge a $250 “commitment” fee which is applied to the cost of the trip once travelers book.
CRUISES? Yes, around a dozen lines. Travelers receive $100 onboard credit on every sailing.
HOTEL PERKS Benefits include daily breakfast, room upgrades upon availability or at the time of booking and an additional amenity valued at $100 that varies by property — examples include a dining credit or a cooking class.