Have you ever wished you had an assistant to research and book the best travel deals for you? From plane tickets to hotel stays, it can take many hours to comb through booking options for the right offer, especially in the new world of fast-disappearing travel deals. Enter travel subscription services, also known as travel clubs, which make it possible to offload that task for a set monthly or annual fee. Such online travel subscriptions have been rising in popularity—with several new services launched in recent weeks—but not all are created equal.
Companies including Tripadvisor and airfare alert site Scott’s Cheap Flights have rolled out new travel club subscription services that offer deals exclusively for paying members. The new Tripadvisor Plus offers reduced hotel and activity bookings (as well as perks like free rental car upgrades and a Dollar Flight Club membership) for $99 per year. Scott’s Cheap Flights’ new Premium and Elite subscription tiers alert members to either economy or business-class fares for $49 or $200 per year, respectively. And then there are the top-dollar travel membership providers, like Inspirato, which offers luxury travel experiences for $600 to $2,500 per month, the latter of which includes all nightly rates, taxes, and fees in your monthly dues.
The main appeal of membership-structured deal clubs, experts say, is that they afford you deals that can’t be listed for the general public online—rates that are typically better than any deal website’s. “There are rates that are not to be promoted or distributed in a mass-market situation,” says Mike Putnam, CEO of Custom Travel Solutions, a business-travel provider that works with dozens of existing travel clubs. The services that provide those deals, Putnam says, “require they only be distributed to membership organizations, which are paying for the right to them.” So it’s clear you’re paying for exclusive travel prices that often can’t be found elsewhere.
But can you make your membership money back in order to actually save money, and quickly? For memberships that charge modest fees (about $200 or less per year), the answer seems to be yes. Willis Orlando, a member operations specialist for Scott’s Cheap Flights’ paid services, says it’s his job to find the mistake fares that make a Premium or Elite membership worthwhile. “Many people don’t have the time or energy to look for great airfare deals, but I’m fortunate enough to be paid to do exactly that,” Orlando says. He’s part of a three-person team that hunts for flight deals, the best ones of which are a fraction of their usual price: Long-haul economy fares found for the service’s Premium tier membership are typically around $500 or below as opposed to the normal average of about $800 dollars, Orlando says. Business- or first-class fare deals are usually around $1,200 to $1,700 instead of the typical $2,500 premium ticket.
While Scott’s Cheap Flights is an airfare-only subscription, there are hotel and experience-geared subscriptions for those who fly less often. Abigail A., a Connecticut-based frequent traveler and blogger who signed up for Tripadvisor Plus this June, says she already made her $99 annual fee back in savings. Her first booking, a domestic work trip to New York, saved her about $200 on a weekend-long hotel stay, compared with prices listed elsewhere on the internet. Abigail says she chose Tripadvisor Plus because it offers cancellation (for a full refund) within 30 days of signing up if you’re not happy with the deals offered, but she’s sticking with her membership thanks to the hotel savings she’s found. Tripadvisor said in a statement that its Plus offering saves members an average of $350 per hotel stay, and that “most members recover the annual fee on their very first trip.”
“I’d recommend people [enroll in Tripadvisor Plus] around a time that they already have a trip they’re planning, so that if you don’t get your money back within those 30 days that you’re planning something, you won’t feel jipped,” she says.
And in the time of coronavirus, it’s also important to consider losses you could see due to unexpected cancellations or illness, which Abigail says she is protected from separately of Tripadvisor Plus, through travel insurance that comes with her credit card. Putnam, of Custom Travel Solutions, says that travel insurance and flexible booking options will typically depend on the service, and that some travel clubs or subscriptions do offer add-on insurance for an extra fee. For now Tripadvisor Plus recommends users acquire their own travel insurance, and most flight-deal subscriptions, including Scott’s Cheap Flights, leave booking the actual reservation up to the member, which means cancellation terms vary depending on the airline.
But the major added bonus of enrolling in a travel club across-the-board, Putnam says, is having someone to talk to should you need help with a booking as you return to travel, whether it’s a flight cancellation the service can remedy for you or a hotel upgrade you’re hoping to snag.
“Right now people really appreciate, when something goes wrong, if there’s someone you can call,” Putnam says. “Especially during a time when there’s so much uncertainty in the marketplace and in travel overall.”
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