When it comes to travel, experience isn’t necessarily tied to expenditure. Some of the best memories are free. Some of the most exclusive access and most exceptional interactions aren’t — but are worth the money.
“You can have a great value and a great experience, and that value can be a low dollar amount or a high dollar amount,” said Jeremy Palmer, senior vice president of worldwide operations and general manager of land tours for Tauck.
Tours at different price points vary in what they offer. Here’s what buyers can expect for hotels, meals and experiences at these four pricing tiers: affordable, standard, luxury and custom.
Gate 1 Travel tries not to enter a market unless it knows it will be the price leader in that destination, said vice president of marketing Marty Seslow.
“We predominantly market on price point,” he said. “That’s what we’re known for; that’s where we position ourselves in the market — as the price leaders.”
Though Gate 1 Travel often sells on price, “we try to overdeliver in terms of service,” Seslow said.
Gate 1 offers three types of tours: its standard, large-group product; the Discovery line of small-group tours; and its Signature Collection of luxury itineraries, all fully escorted.
Groups have two options to travel with Gate 1: They can buy into an existing, off-the-shelf product — Gate 1’s two highest-volume destinations are Italy and Peru — or have the company customize an itinerary for the group.
But Gate 1’s regular, large-group tours are “90 percent of what we do,” Seslow said. The company aims for a maximum of 42 people per departure, using 50-plus-seat motorcoaches.
Most trips are 10 to 12 days, and all include a mix of free time and escorted touring. In every major city, Gate 1 books only four-star hotels, and they “must be centrally located; we almost never use hotels outside of the city center,” Seslow said.
Gate 1 also only uses hotels that provide breakfast. Aside from breakfast, travelers can expect three to five included meals, mostly dinner, during the entire trip, although Gate 1 will sometimes include lunch “if it’s a grueling day, and they’re on the road for the day,” he said.
For experiences, Gate 1 usually gives people free time in the city but also includes fully guided touring at area attractions. In Italy, for example, Gate 1 hires a local guide to lead groups through museums and historic sites.
Gate 1 can market itself as the price leader for affordable travel in part because the company, which was founded in 1981 in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, now has 19 offices around the world. That global presence “gives us so much more control over product and offers better consistency worldwide,” Seslow said.
“We cut out the local hand; we’re buying direct almost everywhere instead of relying on an incoming tour operator.”
Wade Tours offers a range of itineraries, from one-day casino, shopping and sightseeing trips to tours that span several days or a couple weeks, such as the weeklong Alaska’s National Parks tour and the 16-night Wade’s Wild West Adventure.
Wade aims to offer the same comfort, service and hospitality on every trip and treat everyone like family, but “every tour has a different experience, and it depends on the destination what level of service they’ll have,” said Crystal DeLorenzo, executive director.
Wade’s standard tours include a deluxe motorcoach, a comfortable hotel, most meals and a range of guided experiences, all for about $150 per person per day, based on double occupancy, she said.
Hotels are always at least three-star and usually higher, and “some destinations are the hotel,” she said. For example, Wade runs many tours to Pennsylvania Dutch Country and often books the AmishView Inn and Suites, which is surrounded by Amish farmland and delivers views of grazing cows and a one-room schoolhouse on the horizon.
In cities and suburbs, Wade often books Country Inn and Suites hotels, although for an upcoming trip to Chicago, they’re working with Hilton to choose the right property. Though it’s not necessary for Wade to have a full-service hotel, the company does try to book hotels where breakfast is always included.
Wade includes most meals during trips because the company’s travelers like not having to walk around looking for a place to eat, especially if the group is coming into the hotel late. “We don’t want them to have to worry about where to go eat,” she said. If Wade doesn’t include a meal, “it’s because we’re staying in a location that’s easily accessible to many options.” Wade’s customers also prefer buffets so they can choose what to eat rather than a set menu.
For each itinerary, Wade includes a range of experiences, from meet-and-greets to museums like the free Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, New York. In Branson, entertainers often board the motorcoach to greet the group before the show or, if they have time, take guests on a behind-the-scenes theater tour. At the Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, singer Tony Orlando might get on board to ask how Wade’s group enjoyed the show. Wade’s guide at Great Smoky Mountains National Park was born and raised in the area and personally knows Dolly Parton. “That kind of stuff really enhances a tour,” DeLorenzo said.
There’s often a misconception that luxury items are expensive just for the sake of being expensive. But for Tauck, premium travel isn’t about price — it’s about value, Palmer said. Luxury and a great experience are not uniformly linked, he said.
“We want to provide the greatest value possible, and yes, for our clientele that tends to be at the higher end of the price scale,” he said. “But I’m not choosing things just because they’re expensive. Some are cheaper, some cost more money; but at the end of the day, what I want to do is give you a really great experience.”
Tauck tours are nearly all-inclusive. Each trip includes not only big-ticket items — hotels, transportation, meals and attractions — but also gratuities, alcohol at select times and Wi-Fi at hotels that would otherwise charge extra for it. The company covers about 100 different cost components in every tour, which ensures “you don’t feel nickel-and-dimed,” Palmer said.
Though it varies by destination, Tauck’s per-person, per-day cost without airfare averages $600 to $700. That is not a company guideline, Palmer said, but “just where it hits.”
For lodging, Tauck aims for the best hotel for the experience and the destination. In Europe, that means a grand, city-center hotel with history and presence, but that doesn’t mean the most expensive. It means the “best available for what our guests want,” Palmer said, such as the Savoy Hotel in London or the Gritti Palace in Venice.
Conversely, on a trip to Yellowstone or Grand Teton national parks, Tauck books Jackson Lake Lodge or Lake Yellowstone Hotel, “not the most expensive, but they are in the parks, which is what people want,” he said.
Most meals are included; daily breakfast always is. But “it’s not just feeding you; it’s the experience that goes along with it,” Palmer said. That could mean dinner in the Serengeti bush surrounded by animals, dining in the catacombs beneath a Roman street or being served a meal in a palace just as it would have been in the 1800s.
Tauck’s clients are mostly well-to-do, well-traveled American retirees who are looking for entree and experiences they can’t get on their own. In Italy, Tauck’s relationship with the Vatican allows its travelers after-hours access to the Vatican Museums, including the Sistine Chapel, where they can spend an hour with only 40 other people. In Paris, during an after-hours Louvre tour, “you’re essentially alone with the ‘Mona Lisa,’” Palmer said.
Though Tauck gets its clients behind the velvet rope, it also offers plenty of less-expensive, wholly authentic interactions, including an array of “local characters we can introduce you to,” he said. “That’s an experience that stays with you a lifetime.”
It’s not an exaggeration to say the world of customized group travel is limitless. Any group can do anything if they can afford it, but that’s not to say custom travel is always about high-end, high-price luxury. Far from it. Often, it’s about including undiscovered wonders that align with the group’s interests, said Sheri Fazleabas, president of A&S Signature Journeys.
“People run away with the concept that custom travel is expensive; custom travel doesn’t have to be expensive,” she said. “As far as we are concerned, we don’t have such huge, huge pricing because we find these hidden gems.”
She said, “We try to give the best — best not in terms of the most expensive, but best in terms of the experience.”
A&S customizes group itineraries to international destinations and specializes in Asia, Africa, South America and Central America, and the Middle East. A&S works with groups of at least six people, although groups tend to be about 10 to 15 people.
The company always starts by talking with the travel agent or the client to discuss their expectations. Most clients want a 4.5- or five-star hotel, or if it’s a unique property, they want to experience it. In Cape Town, South Africa, that could be the waterfront One & Only resort, a five-star bed-and-breakfast or a luxury boutique hotel in the middle of a vineyard outside the city.
Different properties provide different experiences, which are tailored to a group’s interests.
“What do you normally do in your life? We try to bring that interest out during their travel,” Fazleabas said.
A group of architects may want to stay in a Sri Lankan hotel designed by the country’s most-famous architect, Geoffrey Bawa, or stay in a Dubai property with views of the Burj Khalifa. Nature lovers can book an eco-friendly property in a paddy field and arrange for nature walks and bird-watching excursions. Adventure seekers can stay at the Palmstone Retreat in Sri Lanka and go whitewater rafting in the nearby town of Kitulgala or go “canyoning” — sliding down rocks and jumping from waterfalls into natural plunge pools.
Those are the types of hidden gems that are unknown to clients and that they “need to look for; it doesn’t have to be highest-end property,” Fazleabas said. Boutique properties are often on par with or more affordable than other hotels because guests aren’t paying for the brand name, she said.
A&S doesn’t always include meals but can make suggestions, reservations at restaurants or arrangements for exclusive dining experiences. In remote areas where the only food available is at the resort, A&S recommends that clients include board packages. Experiences are intertwined with every aspect of the itinerary and, like everything else, are tailored to the group’s interests.
“We add a lot of experiences to our tours, and that’s why it’s custom,” Fazleabas said.