By, Susan Catto
N a recent trip to Spain, the Dickson family of Long Beach, Calif., lunched with a local writer in Seville, bicycled through the countryside along a route designed with their fitness levels in mind and enjoyed a private visit to a bull ranch, where bullfighters got in a ring with heifers.
"We could have gone down and faced the heifers too if we wanted," said Mark Dickson, who traveled with his wife and their three grown children. "That's something you won't get in a tour." Nor was it an experience they planned on their own; the day had been arranged by a custom travel planner at Butterfield & Robinson, the tour company in Toronto.
Today, most people can book flights and hotels online, and professional and amateur reviews on travel Web sites take some of the guesswork out of choosing accommodations and restaurants. Yet there is still a place for the travel consultant with intimate knowledge of a region and the phone number of a guide who won't make you visit knickknack shops on your way back to the hotel.
While group tours must cater to a range of travelers and their (often incompatible) personalities, custom travel - a trip arranged to your specifications by a travel agent or tour company - can combine some conveniences of a group tour with the flexibility, personal itinerary and privacy of traveling alone.
Travel consultants have helped clients experience puppetry in Vietnam, meet beekeepers in France and explore traditional medicines in China. For experienced travelers like Fred Hayes, a lawyer from Chicago, they can take the guesswork out of group tours. "About half the trips I take are custom trips because I like to travel with friends," Mr. Hayes said, adding that he believes that custom planners know the best guides.
A typical custom package includes help in choosing destinations, routes and accommodations, sightseeing recommendations and hand-picked guides, access to private facilities, introductions to local people and restaurant reservations. The best custom travel providers stay in contact with clients during a trip, keeping the itinerary flexible and providing a safety cushion should a voyage take an unexpected turn.
Myths and Mountains, a company based in Nevada, found Mr. Hayes's luggage when it was missing in Mongolia in July 2001. The safari planner Ker & Downey, a Houston company specializing in Africa and the Middle East, made an instant itinerary change for Robert Mark and his three companions after they arrived in southern Africa last August.
"We were originally going to stay in Zimbabwe, but the political situation at the time was a little dicey, so we said, 'Let's go across the river to Zambia and stay there just to be on the safe side,' " said Mr. Mark, a retired rental car company executive from Smithtown, N.Y. The travelers even got their deposit back on the Zimbabwe hotel.
Such personalization doesn't come cheap. Some consultants charge a planning fee up front, while others earn commissions or incorporate their fees into the overall package price. Either way, a custom trip will be more expensive than tours or packages that benefit from economies of scale.
Elizabeth Lollock, of the Chicago-based custom travel company Destination by Design, has planned trips to Panama that come in at less than $200 a day and trips to Italy at more than $1,200 a day. "Typically, people who are looking for cheap, cheap trips are not going to be inclined to spend the time with me," she said.
Custom companies earn their repeat business on high-end, complex or exotic trips that already require a substantial investment. Going on safari is a good example, said Mark Brady, president of Ker & Downey, "It's not inexpensive," he said. "When you've made the decision to spend that much money, you want to have it your way."
Questioning the Agent
While many agencies and tour companies advertise itinerary planning, it's unwise to hand over your holiday without first determining the consultant's experience, contacts and references.
"Travelers should not hesitate to ask question after question," said Valerie Wilson, a Manhattan travel agent specializing in luxury European itineraries.
Ask consultants how recently they have visited the region and what they liked and disliked, what kind of trips they've arranged and how they choose partners at your destination. The best consultants will have met local operators, tried various services and hotels and gathered a sense of local customs.
"They may have deals or contracts set up with 20 or 30 different suppliers, so you're much more likely to get something that's right for you," said David Feit, chief executive of Travants, a company in New York that matches travelers and agents.
Ask if the planners' involvement ends when you pick up the tickets, or if they provide both local contacts and continued monitoring. It is also a good idea to look at past itineraries and prices, and to ask to be put in touch with at least two people who have planned trips to your region, if only to ensure that every customer doesn't get the same trip.
Once you have settled on a planner, expect to be questioned in return, often right up to the day of your departure as the planner fine-tunes. The more a consultant knows about your travel experience, preferences, budget and expectations, the more likely you are to end up with the trip of your dreams. Choosing the hotel with the right level of formality, the menu with the desired adventurousness, the ideal balance between lingering and moving on - this is where a planner can beat the Internet.
Choosing a Planner
Organizations that match travelers with screened specialty travel agents include Virtuoso, (800) 401-4274, www.virtuoso.com, and Travants, www.travants.com. Neither charges a fee for their referrals.
Companies with track records in custom travel include these.
Offering bicycling, walking cultural and adventure travel since 1966, Butterfield & Robinson, (800) 387-1147, www.butterfield.com. Private trips are available through its Bespoke Travel service. Popular destinations include Vietnam, France, Greece and Ireland.
Founded in 1997 by a former Abercrombie & Kent tour planner, Destination by Design, (866) 392-7865, destinationbydesign.com, brings in consultants specialists as needed.
Ker & Downey, (800) 423-4236, www.kerdowney.com, is known for its Botswana safaris. Based in Houston, the 22-year-old company also customizes journeys in other African countries and the Middle East.
Founded in 1988, Myths and Mountains, (800) 670-6984, online at www.mythsandmountains.com, specializes in cultural exploration in South America, Asia and Southeast Asia.
Geographic Expeditions, (800) 777-8183, www.geoex.com, of San Francisco has 22 years' experience specializing in "challenging and unusual destinations."
SUSAN CATTO contributes to The Times from Toronto.