Fall/Winter 2009: The Experts
THE TRIP ADVISER
There’s something refreshingly retro about honeymoon planning sans Internet. Adding to the appeal: saving lots of money, and having someone else handle your travel hiccups.
By Sascha de Gersdorff
When “leisure agent” Janice Ackerman got into the business 20 years ago, travelers had but two options: call an agent, or spend endless time on hold with the airlines. (Some things, sadly, haven’t changed.) Now she sits in the Cambridge offices of Vista Travel, a business that, despite the lure of Kayak and Expedia, does upward of $25 million in annual sales. That’s a lot of plane tickets, and Ackerman has a lot of experience—enough to know that if you want your honeymoon done right, you’ll call a pro.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Why should couples call an agent when they can just book online? Planning a honeymoon should be half the fun of the wedding, but couples can get overwhelmed. There are so many pamphlets, so many places—how do you know if the rooms need to be redone or if the food is any good? We know the answers (and if we don’t, we’ll call all our contacts to find out); plus we don’t work for the resort or cruise line. We’re your advocate before, during, and after your trip. For example, if you arrive at your hotel but it’s sold out due to an online booking error, who are you going to call? I’m watching my reservations day and night; if there’s an airline strike or delay, I’ll back you up on another flight. If there’s a hurricane, I’ll figure that out, too. Technology will never replace the personal touch.
What else do you offer? We customize everything, like getting people around on the ground. We hook travelers up with great Vatican guides in Rome, and arrange for catacomb tours (there’s only one per day for English-speakers). And if a couple rents a car, I make sure they have a GPS and all the right maps. I had a client call me in a panic before her flight—her passport was expired. I was able to help rush her new one and rebook her tickets. Someone can come in and ask, What’s a great hotel in the middle of Milan that costs $300? I can answer that.
But isn’t using an agent much more expensive? Years ago, we got commission from the airlines for seats sold, but that commission went from fifteen percent to eight to five to nothing. So agents had to initiate service fees. But in all honesty, the websites and airlines charge those, too (around $20 per ticket). It all comes out in the wash.
Should couples have anything prepared before coming to see you? A list of questions. Do they want something exotic? Or a little adventure? Or, after all the hustle and bustle of the wedding, do they just want to relax on the beach? Also, they should bring a realistic budget. And they should be sure to reserve at least six weeks for the whole planning process, just to be safe.
What’s a good trip length? The average honeymoon length is between 10 and 14 days, but it’s nice to go for a little longer. After all, you only do this once.
Where are the current honeymoon hot spots? Greece is always tops. And Venice. If you’re on a tight budget, the Caribbean’s great, and those who can afford it are booking trips to Fiji and Tahiti. This year, I’ve been doing a lot of European ones. And Los Cabos, Mexico, is very popular, as is Costa Rica for adventurous couples.
What’s the average cost of those trips? For Europe, I advise at least $5,000 per couple. Airline tickets can get up to $800 each, and it’s important to pre-arrange ground transportation. So $5,000 could cover airfare, transportation, and three-star hotels on a 10-day Italian honeymoon to places like Venice, Rome, Florence, and the Amalfi Coast. Now, if you want Fiji or something more exotic, we’re talking about $10,000. That airfare alone can run up to $1,700 each. All this said, airline prices are dropping, and we can always get packages and deals.
And how do you know the places you’re sending couples will measure up? I do a lot of traveling myself. We check out the properties we work with to make sure we know what we’re selling.
What other little perks do you give your clients? If I have someone that’s going away for a honeymoon, I notify the hotel. And I tell couples to let attendants know at check-in that they’re honeymooners. You’d be surprised—they often get upgraded or, at the very least, a minibottle of champagne.
Any more sage advice for honeymooners? Keep the romance alive by staying in a local hotel for the nights before you leave. If you get married on a Friday, why not wait until Sunday to go away? Why rush off to a 6 a.m. flight if your reception ended at midnight? And for the first few days of the honeymoon, maybe you shouldn’t run around. You could be a little more relaxed and take time to reflect on the wedding.
Janice Ackerman, 617-588-4200, vistatravelinc.com.