Expert Advice

The Year the DIY Traveler Asked For Help

by Jeralyn Gerba
Photo by Oliver Sjöström on Unsplash.

Today's U.S. travelers — with double vaccinations and saved vacation days under their belts — have a particularly rosy summer ahead of them. Early spring news of Iceland, Croatia, and Greece loosening their restrictions (no mandatory quarantine with proof of vaccine or negative PCR), followed by borders opening in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and France, have led to U.S. airlines resuming more routes this summer. (Air travel is a two-way street, so to speak, and without a surge of international travelers coming into the United States, flights will still be limited.)

The bottom line: International travel is within reach.

But both the destinations and the people visiting them look a bit different this year. Shifting flight schedules, CDC and WHO guidelines, local regulations, cultural mores, and various levels of openness on the ground are shaping the atmosphere; pandemic fatigue and high levels of anticipation and expectation are shaping travelers' plans and moods. With all the variant forms and fine print, even resolute DIYers are considering working with advisors, agents, and on-the-ground fixers to ensure that they won't mess up their big vacation plans.

"We are getting many requests that begin with, 'I’ve never booked via a travel planner, but…' and doing our best to instill confidence in travelers," says, Christina Papavlasopoulos, co-founder of Myths + Muses, a women-led boutique travel planner specializing in Greece. Travelers may be desperate for dreamy itineraries to make up for lost time and pent-up desires, but they don't want to be overwhelmed with constantly changing global rules during a worldwide pandemic. This is where a travel advisor can be an indispensable ally, there to reassure clients and manage expectations with on-the-ground knowledge around curfews, vaccine rollout, and general vibe.

"It's interesting to see the requests coming in," Kathy Stewart, co-CEO of luxury travel outfitter ‎Butterfield & Robinson. "Lots of grandparents doing long-term villa rentals with various family members coming and going. We're creating trips as a response to work-from-anywhere requests and creating a new line of extended journeys" in Europe, like coast-to-coast walks and spiritual hikes like the Camino in Spain.

Some advisors have been going a step further, anticipating travel trends and developing new programs. For example Embark Beyond, Fathom's go-to concierge partner, launched Embark Longer, negotiating special rates and perks like unlimited laundry (that's important!) at dozens of top hotels around the world (including the Belmond portfolio) for clients who want to spend months, not days, in a destination.

Advisors are also seeing an uptick in requests about low-density locales and off-season travel. Frederique Stephanie of Maison Carib, an experiential travel company in the emerging Caribbean island Martinique, reflects on how shoulder-season travel means guests are contributing to the economy when destinations need it most and allowing room for "experiences that empower and benefit local communities and respect local customs."

On the small-group-trip front, travelers are doing some last-minute planning to hedge their bets. Heather Heverling of AdventureWomen says, "We have experienced a dramatic shift in when people are booking trips; now people are booking much closer to the travel date. It's a big advantage that our group size is typically no more than 14 women, so we are able to create an AdventureWomen travel bubble in wide, open spaces.”

Papavlasopoulos reminds us of why it's worth shelling out the dollars during this year in particular. "Following the ever-changing hotel, tour, and public protocols is a full-time pursuit, and travelers like knowing they have someone in their corner updating them and safeguarding their travel experiences."

Need a little extra security when planning your epic vacation? These travel experts are prepared — and excited — to show you around.

How to Work With Tour Operators

This is the thing we hear often (and used to worry about ourselves): “Am I going to get ripped off?” Not if you work with a good and trusted company. Think about it like this: You could go to the gym and work out on your own, but if you hire a personal trainer, your workouts will be a lot more efficient and effective. That’s what a good advisor will do. As for what you’ll pay, one common model is for travel advisors to earn the industry standard commissions from hotels or tour packages, which will have no impact on your bottom line. Some fixers have flat consultation fees; some add a percentage onto the total cost of the package. You’re not getting bilked; you’re paying for a service. Local fixers are experts in their field, and you should expect to pay for their knowledge — and the relief that comes with not having to do the research yourself, to say nothing for the time you saved in the planning. Ask about the fee structure upfront and be clear about where you are in the planning process. Some operators will only book full trips (including hotels and transport); others have a la carte offerings. But please don't ask operators to book travel with your points after they put in all the hard work — there are specific companies you can reach out to for that.

Photo by Nicola Brasetti/ Unsplash.

Azores

Futurismo Azores Adventures
The highly protected island chain off the coast of Portugal is filled with dramatic landscapes, fishing villages, rocky mountains, and green pastures. The local community, wary of becoming the next "new" destination (see: Cuba, Croatia, Iceland) and conscious about building an environmentally sustainable and socially tenable industry, has a tight grip on tourism: There are no international hotel chains, hotels cannot have more than 120 rooms, and there’s a cap on Airbnb rentals. Slow, low-impact travel helps visitors tread lightly. The family-owned eco operator offers cultural immersions, wilderness explorations on land and water, ferry transfers, and logistical help throughout the archipelago.

Photo by Dominik Lange / Unsplash.

Croatia

Calvados Club
To get a real taste of the crescent-shaped country on the Adriatic coast, you'll need to touch down in a few cities, villages, national parks, and some of the 700-plus islands — where to begin? With a call to a ground operator specializing in West Balkan experiential travel. They'll organize your motorboat, book your transfers, recommend driving routes, and pair you with knowledgable locals for guided hikes (the one we had through Plitvice National Park in the pouring rain was truly memorable).

Secret Dalmatia
Alan Mandić studied design in New England but shifted his career to travel in 2005 when he returned to Croatia and saw the negative effects of mass tourism. There had to be a better way, he thought, one that showed Croatia's heritage in a different, more personal light through private experience. This summer, he recommends that travelers "spend more time off the beaten path: hike through Velebit mountain, take the sailing route north of Split instead of south, see the treasures of Slavonian towns." But he cautions, "try not to do everything in one trip. Somehow, I see people actually speeding up their vacations and trying to cover even more than before instead of enjoying and relaxing — to make up for the time they were unable to travel. But, like in everything, it should be quality over quantity, about experiences over checklists. Pomalo, as we say in Dalmatia. 'Take it easy.'" Secret Dalmatia can arrange a simple outing for a few hours or a whole discovery trip around the country. Read about Mandić's favorite spots in this piece he wrote for Fathom:These Four Stunning Treasures Will Inspire Your Trip to Croatia.

Photo courtesy of French Side Travel.

France

French Side Travel
A father-son duo lead a team of specialists across the country who organize honeymoons, multigenerational family trips, ski trips, and immersive excursions from the Alps to Bordeaux to Provence to Corsica. A deep base of knowledge allows for insider access (i.e. dinner after-hours at Versailles), and a passion for sustainable methods that benefit local economies ensures a thoughtful approach to itinerary-making.

Photo courtesy of Myths + Muses and Domes Resorts.

Greece

Myths + Muses
"We have always drizzled in the gems along with the more popular places, but we’re seeing people are very receptive to it this year. We’re also seeing some extended stays at villas and boutique hotels, where the work-from-home camp are in desperate need of a change of scenery," co-founder Christina Papavlasopoulos says. The Greece-focused fixers are excited about setting up guests with Minoan pottery making in Knossos, marble-working in Tinos, beekeeping in Chania, and sailing to a local seaside taverna in Donoussa for lunch.

Photo courtesy of Hidden Iceland.

Iceland

Hidden Iceland
The immersive travel agency puts together great trips while being carbon negative (offsetting 100 percent of carbon emissions, donating money through fuel partners, and getting gold class environmental accreditation). Private, semi-private, small group, and self-drive tours are personalized (from a day-trip to a month-long adventure) and sustainable. To get a taste, read Is This Place Even Real? Iceland's Top Marvels on Fathom.

Classic Journeys
Led by "dyed-in-the-wool Icelanders," the tours here are a mix of nature, folklore, and mythology. Walking, multi-sport, and family adventures are a full package — with meals and activities included. A breath of fresh, Icelandic air, you won't find any chain hotels on your itinerary – just charm: glacier trekking and snorkeling between tectonic plates spread out between cozy farm stays and delicious meals. To get a taste, read This Is Iceland Like You've Never Seen It and The Non-Touristy (and Absolutely Awesome) Guide to Iceland on Fathom.

Photo courtesy of Bellini Travel.

Italy

Bellini Travel
If you're usually swanning about Italy with George and Amal at their humble Lake Como villa but want a change, Emily FitzRoy of Bellini Travel is the woman for the job. She knows the best of Italy, though she specializes in luxury, and can be counted on to get special access to homes and villas and people that no one else has.

Essence of Sicily
Co-owner Viviana Buscemi says the company is receiving a lot of emails from U.S.A. agents these days. "I can tell you that people repeatedly ask for experiences that are unique, luxury, and [get them] in touch with locals." Once, when we were looking for a cannoli tutorial in a nonna's kitchen, Viviana arranged a whole day of cooking and lunching with a James Beard-award winning cookbook author at her overgrown 13th-century abbey in the Madonie Mountains (on short notice, too). If you don't have something specific in mind, you can start by perusing their book of 200 Sicilian travel experiences compiled over the years.

Imago Artis Travel
Not surprisingly, the company founded by art historians has a particular affection for the legacy of Italian culture and art.

Personalized Italy
Fun-loving founder (and Fathom contributor) Annie Ojile, who we met when she first started her adorable Vespa tour company in Rome, has expanded her offerings to include tailored shopping experiences in Tuscany, retro ape tours around Ischia, and private boat excursions in Venice. To get a taste, read A Private Shopping Tour of Florence, and La Dolce Everything: Rome on Two Wheels on Fathom.

Photo courtesy of Beyond Dracula.

Romania

Beyond Dracula
Raluca Spiac, managing partner of the Romania-based travel advisory, noted that even before the pandemic, her country was almost purpose-built for slow travel. "Untouched, authentic: This is very Romania. Even the rushed Americans were taking it slow when they came here." While Transylvania may be the best known region — if only from Dracula legend — the country's riches abound. "I just came back from four days in the Danube Delta and was blown away," Spiac told us. "This summer, I invite travelers to not only discover the beauties of Transylvania and the Carpathians but to venture by boat on the small canals of the Danube Delta, to stay in silence to watch a wild goose hatch her eggs, to approach a colony of pelicans enjoying their dinner, and to sunbathe on a wild beach at the meeting point between the Danube and the Black Sea. Such a great experience." For a sense of the kinds of experiences you can have with Beyond Dracula, read See, Taste, Touch, Smell, and Hear Your Way Through Romania on Fathom.

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