By NANCY MATSUMOTO
There is a wealth of vacation-planning information available on the Internet, but sifting through the daunting amounts of data can be off-putting. Now, a number of websites are offering in-the-know vacation advice, from the best place to eat to the not-to-be-missed sights.
We looked to four travel-concierge services to help us plan a two-week trip to Japan and Hawaii. All offer help creating itineraries beyond the usual hotel and flight recommendations. They suggest restaurants, museums and even sights to visit. We tested two sites offering personal consultations with everything from itinerary planning to booking services, and we found that paying a fee for a consultation with a real person got us personal attention and highly specific recommendations. The other two services offered access to their databases of recommendations from travel or lifestyle experts.
Jetsetter, the invitation-only travel-booking website, recently added a personal travel-planning service that lets customers buy up to three hours of telephone and email consultation with one of its more than 200 "correspondents," who specialize in specific countries or regions. Since our trip wasn't until next year, we emailed asking if there was an expiration date on the credit. There wasn't.
In her first email to us, our planner Sara sounded upbeat. After specifying the length of our trip, our approximate nightly hotel budget and our areas of interest, Sara sketched out an itinerary that included Kyoto, the ancient capital city of Nara, a night at a hot springs inn near Mt. Fuji, Tokyo and a several-day stopover in Hawaii. She asked if we wanted Western or traditional Japanese accommodations, and briefly described the pros and cons of the islands in Hawaii.
When we spoke two days later, Sara had a good grasp on our preferences (hotels near parks, both Japanese and Western breakfast options) and budget. We refined our itinerary in 45 minutes. To please our teenager, she suggested a day trip from Kyoto to Himeji Castle, in Hyōgo Prefecture, and told us that if we bought a $350 Japan Rail Pass, Osaka Castle was an easy excursion. We agreed on a nightly hotel budget of $250 to $300, and she advised planning on $100 a day for local transportation and food in Japan, and $75 a day for food in Hawaii. Although Jetsetter doesn't make flight, car, event or restaurant reservations, Sara said she could make some recommendations.
The next day we received a detailed email reviewing our trip budget and our accommodations, including five hotel, inn or resort options each for Tokyo, Kyoto, Hakone and Maui. Sara had looked into the current flight costs for our trip ($1,600), suggested sites that send fare alerts (Kayak and Yapta) and offered budget details. We asked for dining options and several days later got both restaurant and sightseeing recommendations. Later, a Jetsetter spokeswoman explained that personal travel-planning customers can take advantage of competitively priced member rates as well as Jetsetter's often deeply discounted "flash sales."
Also noteworthy: Only Jetsetter referred to Japan's earthquake and nuclear crisis in March; Sara advised taking advantage of unusually low hotel rates because of the downturn in tourism.
Virtuoso is a network of 340 independent travel agencies world-wide that specializes in high-end travel and negotiates preferred rates and benefits from providers ranging from hotels to tour companies. Through the website's 800 number, we reached an agent who offered to waive her usual fee ($250 or more) for a first-time customer and assured us she knew Asia "like the back of her hand." The first two itineraries the agent emailed us seemed somewhat boilerplate and included cities that we hadn't expressed interest in, like Hiroshima and historic Kanazawa. Another offered sightseeing suggestions we found on the predictable side: "Shibuya area … very lively part of town."
Our consultant didn't ask for our budget limitations up front and only noted the cities we wanted to see and the dates of our trip. Still, we were surprised when the final itinerary arrived. While the free breakfasts, door-to-door van service and English-speaking guides in every Japanese city were attractive, the estimated cost for the Japan leg was far beyond our budget, roughly $26,000, not including airfare and non-complimentary meals.
A Virtuoso spokeswoman said that although agents usually discuss budget and other trip parameters up front, we would have done well to come to the situation with a detailed list of preferences, to "stress what's important to you and where you're willing to give."
Tablet Hotels' site, a booking service for high-end and boutique hotels, also features guides to more than 880 global destinations. Some are "Concierge Guides" compiled by member hotels, and some are made up of user recommendations. We decided to go with the hotels' picks.
Of the two concierge guides on the site for Japan, we preferred the Kyoto Hyatt Regency's 25 recommendations, which balanced restaurants with museums and cultural sites, like the house of sculptor and potter Kawai Kanjiro. The Peninsula Tokyo's 61 entries focused on luxury options and nightlife, like a chic cocktail lounge at Alfred Dunhill, and also aggressively pushed its own services (a roving dinner throughout the hotel's four restaurants, $243 per person without wine pairings). Later, noting that the guides differed in types of offerings, company spokeswoman Lauren O'Reilly emailed: "We don't have any strict policies in place regarding concierge guides. We leave it to our users to make the final determination."
Tablet's accommodations listings featured nine Tokyo lodgings and offered an excellent overview of the city's hotel scene. Music playlists, some compiled by member hotels and others by Tablet, and an attractive rewards program provide added value.
Next was Wanderfly, a 10-month-old site that helps plan trips based on users' budgets and needs. It also gathers curated travel recommendations from 15 of what it says are the top "lifestyle brands" websites, such as Urban Daddy, Mint and Tasting Table.
Actual recommendations relied heavily on tips from the location-sharing website foursquare, which lacked detail and substance. Still, there were a few finds, like the Japan Folk Crafts Museum and the bar- and restaurant-filled alley Nonbei Yokocho.
Co-founder Cezary Pietrzak says Wanderfly's immediate goal is to "get people inspired and to discover new places" and over time, to refine the brand-led recommendations.