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Travel in Style Comments

  • By Carol Mithers
  • March 07, 2013

couple on safari

I’m the queen of Internet research, but faced with putting together a once-in-a-lifetime family trip to Africa—five million Google hits for “safari”!—I knew I was outmatched.

When I asked a well-traveled friend for advice, she told me a little secret: hire a travel specialist, a high-end expert to design and coordinate your trip.

When you sign up for a tour, you go where the operator takes you. With top travel specialists, you give them a wish list—and they make it come true. Now that prime travel season is just around the corner, you'll want to add these insiders to your list of travel resources.

For the Africa trip, we contacted Explore, an adventure trip design company. We wanted to see lots of animals, but without being crammed into a bumpy mini-van, and we wanted to experience the incredible geographic variety you can find in Africa.

A couple of months later we were whisked seamlessly from the Kalahari Desert to Botswana’s Okavongo Delta, from a gritty camping trip where hyenas howled, to seeing zebras, giraffes and elephants near the Zambezi River, in total luxury.

If I’m going to Hawaii for a week, I can make the plans. For bucket-list adventures, this is the way to go.

Why hire a travel specialist?

You get exactly the trip you want. You tweak, craft, and revise your itinerary through personal discussions with a trip planner who knows the country or region backwards and forwards.

A general-purpose travel agent “doesn’t have the same depth of knowledge or regular travel to an area that specialists do,” says Cherri Briggs, owner and president of Colorado-based Explore.

Specialists also have extensive local connections “that add a layer of context to a trip,” adds Simon Ross of Aracari Travel Consulting.

When we ventured to Peru, the year after our Africa trip, Aricari got our family a tour of a remote Andean school, followed by a multi-day hike over a 14,000-foot pass—which included a long conversation with a pair of 10-year-old girls, thanks to our Quechua-speaking guide.

Specialists typically don’t arrange for the international flights that get you to their destination, but everything’s monitored and managed once you arrive. If something goes wrong—which happens in remote parts of the world—they fix it.

Need to do beforehand:

Make a “want/ don’t want” list, set priorities, and a realistic budget. You don’t hire a specialist to put together a rock-bottom-price trip—they won’t—but compromises can reduce costs. “The price of a trip comes down if you sometimes skip having a guide or choose hotels that are quaint rather than five-star,” says Ross.

Briggs adds that experienced specialists “also try to negotiate specials for clients – like bush dinners or a day with a private guide.” If price is no object, you can have anything, from gourmet meals in luxury tents to tours with award-winning photographers.

What it costs:

Specialists’ fees tend to be built into the price of the trip. Initial consultations are free, but most will want a refundable “good faith” deposit before starting the labor intensive work of building a complicated individual itinerary.

We paid about $15,000 for our Peru trip, for three people, which included travel to five different areas, two in-country flights, guides, some meals, horses, porters (for our luggage), and more. Tips (expected each day) were not included.

It’s impossible to say exactly what we paid for our specialists’ work, because I simply couldn’t have organized equivalent trips on my own.

How to find one: Preferably through a personal recommendation, but high-end travel publications regularly issue lists of the top travel specialists, like these from Travel & Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler.

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