So what exactly do we mean by “custom vacation planning”? And how is that different from (better than) just doing some online research and booking your own trip on a DIY site like Expedia?
Rather than just tell you what custom planning is all about, we thought it would be more interesting to show you. We’ll use Ann’s recent trip to the United Kingdom as a concrete example. Here’s her description of the planning process (and the trip). Please reach out if you’d like us to put together this kind of personalized adventure for you!
It was our first post-COVID return to Europe (first trip across the pond in two years). So my husband and I wanted to avoid crowded cities as much as possible and focus on scenic countryside instead. We thought that driving ourselves would keep us in a relatively safe “bubble”. Plus it would give us the flexibility to create a totally personalized itinerary. We would not have to work around available train routes or schedules. And we would be free to cover lots of ground in the allotted time – which is how we generally travel.
We knew we wanted to see England and Wales. But the question was which part(s) of each country would make the most sense. We’ve been to London several times but had not seen much outside the city. We’ve never driven on the left side of the road and had not dealt with the new COVID rules for Europe. So this felt like a trip that would benefit from working with one of my suppliers that’s based in the UK, to provide some extra hand-holding and local knowledge. It was also a good opportunity to experience the trip-planning process like a client. Since I was communicating with the on-location supplier the same way that I do after I sit down with a client to plan their trip.
STEP ONE: YOUR WISH LIST
When first meeting with a client, we like to go over your wish list. What are the things you’ve drawn inspiration from? Are there specific sites you absolutely want to see? What are your priorities when choosing a hotel? In that first meeting, we’ll discuss all the little details that are most important for your custom vacation.
Our wish list was pretty detailed. My husband is a history buff, and wanted to see the HMS Victory (in Portsmouth) as well as Cliveden House (outside London). I am in love with the Netflix series “Broadchurch”, which took place on the breathtaking Dorset coast, and I wanted to visit some of the filming locations. We like coastal scenery, charming little villages, easy-to-moderate hikes, and historic castles. We knew we wanted to end the trip with a couple of nights in London. Preferably with 4- and 5-star hotels, but we don’t mind a charming inn or two along the way in the smaller villages. And the food is very important to us, so we wanted help finding some great restaurants (and pubs) along our route.
STEP TWO: A PROPOSED ITINERARY
After discussing your wish list, we’ll work with our suppliers all over the world. We’ll put together a suggested itinerary and send it to you. We offer guidance for each stage of your trip. From what to see and do each day, how to get around, and where to stay! And, of course, we help you navigate all those ever-changing pandemic-related travel regulations!
I told my colleague in the UK that I needed his guidance on how much driving was reasonable each day (I wanted him to rein me in if he thought I was being too ambitious) and I wanted him to help make the COVID testing as easy as possible so that we didn’t waste precious vacation time trying to find places to get tested.
He came back with a 10-day itinerary that needed only very minor adjustments to feel completely perfect. We made some small tweaks and swapped out a couple of hotels for ones that looked more interesting to me.
STEP 3: FINE-TUNING
After you approve your itinerary and hotel choices, we can expand on the small details. We offer an optional concierge service. Where we provide restaurant suggestions and reservations and even research very specific local sites and attractions.
I asked Liz to do her concierge magic and put together restaurant/pub/sightseeing suggestions for each place we were staying. We used her pre-vetted list to make dinner reservations for every day of the trip, and it was SO much easier than starting from scratch. I only had to read reviews and look at menus for a handful of restaurants in each city/town, and it saved me hours of research time.
THE FINAL PRODUCT – THE TRIP!
If you’ve stuck with me this far and want to hear about the trip itself, here’s what we did:
We flew into London and spent the first two nights at The Langley, in Buckinghamshire. It’s a gorgeous luxury hotel in the countryside and I loved literally everything about it. The room was spacious, the staff was friendly and helpful, the included breakfasts were amazing, the parklike grounds were perfect for stretching our legs after the long flight, and I only regret that we didn’t get a chance to use the extensive spa facilities.
We took scenic walks, sipped cocktails in the cozy bar, and popped our mandated COVID self-tests in the mail. Then picked up our rental car and spent a day at Cliveden House, Windsor Castle, and Eton.
From there we drove to Portsmouth Dockyard to tour the Victory. My husband could easily have spent the entire day here, as the museums and exhibits were extensive. But we needed to get to Salisbury that afternoon. I’m really glad we didn’t miss our admission time for the Salisbury Cathedral, as this was a highlight for me. The architecture, the history, and seeing the Magna Carta!
The next day we explored the Dorset coast and I got my “Broadchurch” fix — including Durdle Door, Bridport, and West Bay – and then continued on to Taunton to spend the night at the Castle Hotel.
Our first stop was Cardiff, which we loved (my husband could easily have spent another day or two here). We stayed at the Hilton Cardiff which overlooks Cardiff Castle. A perfect location for exploring the castle and the huge park next door. There were many nearby pedestrian areas with arcades full of shops and restaurants to enjoy. We also had a fabulous meal of fresh seafood and clever cocktails at Le Monde. It’s the first time I’ve seen a fishmonger counter inside a restaurant. We really enjoyed choosing our own fresh catch and letting them know how we wanted it prepared!
From Cardiff we poked our way along the Pembrokeshire Coast, stopping in charming Tenby and St Davids (the smallest city in the UK). We spent that night in the coastal town of Aberaeron which, despite its size, offered one of the best hotels/restaurants of the trip. The adorable Harbourmaster Hotel would be worth the drive from anywhere in Wales, and we had a memorable dinner and breakfast right there at the hotel.
On our final day in Wales we drove through the mountains in Snowdonia National Park, before heading back to the coast to see Llandudno and Conwy. I’m almost glad that it was drizzling that day, because it really enhanced the beauty of the national park, with its waterfalls and lush green valleys. We toured Conwy Castle, marveling at how much remained from its Medieval walls and battlements, and we spent the night at the Castle Hotel Conwy.
London & Final Thoughts
We returned the car in Manchester the next morning and took the train from there to London. Our home base for the final two nights was the Chesterfield Mayfair. They even upgraded us to a lovely junior suite.
Our stay in London was short and sweet. We revisited some favorites (the Tower of London, Hyde Park, Westminster Abbey). Managed some early Christmas shopping at Harrods and enjoyed a fascinating Rock-and-Roll themed walking tour. Unsurprisingly we also had some amazing meals. Our last dinner was the best one of the whole trip! We had a multi-course chefs’ tasting menu at Coya Peruvian restaurant in Mayfair.
Overall, I would say this UK adventure was a smashing success. We saw everything that we wanted to see, without any overly-long days of driving, and we survived driving on the wrong side of the road through countless roundabouts and single-car-width rural lanes. We stayed in some beautiful hotels, ate some memorable meals, and quickly forgot any that were just “okay”.
The testing logistics were quite simple, and we appreciated the insider tips that we received! We had a UK company deliver our self-tests to our first hotel so that they were waiting for us when we arrived. And we brought our own monitored self-tests so that we could do those in our London hotel room before we flew home to the US.
My husband and I both felt “heard”. There were elements of the trip that were specifically designed for each of us. And, best of all, I did not have to spend hours figuring out the timing and the routes, pre-ordering all the admission tickets, re-confirming hotels, researching restaurants, etc.
That is what custom travel is all about!