Independent Travel to Europe With a Twist

Ireland // photo by Chris Lofqvist via Flickr

Boomer clients may shy away from traditional escorted tours in Europe, but they still appreciate a little hand-holding. Independent travel with a twist may fit the bill. Travel Agent spoke with several tour operators about trends in independent travel and why agents should reach outside their comfort zone when selling Europe.

“Fully-escorted touring experiences are the heart and soul of Insight, but we find that guests who have traveled with us in the past sometimes want to return and explore their favorite cities on their own,” says Phil Cappelli, president of Insight Vacations.

“Our independent City Breaks are the perfect hybrid: guests stay in our hand-picked signature hotels, all of which are conveniently centrally located, while avoiding all hotel service charges and taxes. Travelers also receive personal concierge service, destination briefings and included sightseeing in some of Europe’s most magnificent cities. Currently, we offer City Break stays in the perennial favorites of London, Paris and Rome,” says Cappelli. 

Abercrombie & Kents new Tailor Made Elements program is designed to provide clients with the building blocks to create an inspiring trip. It even features the services of a “Guardian Angel” available to monitor progress of the journey. They’re reachable by phone around-the-clock.

“With so much culture, cuisine and history to offer, Europe is ideal for a custom itinerary. We find that many guests are doing extensive research ahead of time, but when it comes to making the final decision, they want the peace of mind that comes from knowing their itinerary has been planned by a specialist. Someone with first-hand knowledge and local contacts,” Phil Otterson Abercrombie & Kent USA president tells Travel Agent.

Tour operator Monograms, part of the Globus family of brands, specializes in the independent travel niche. It’s the fastest-growing brand in the Globus portfolio that includes Avalon Waterways, Globus and Cosmos. Europe is its best-selling destination.

Sales at Monograms were up over 15 percent in 2014, and the company expects to top that by an extra five percent this year, according to Steve Born, vice president of marketing for the Globus brands.

Born tells Travel Agent that the rise in independent travel is spurred by the evolution of the boomer mindset. Boomers, said Born, are used to doing things their own unique way. They’re interested in both support and freedom when they travel. That is, freedom to set their own agenda and schedule. But they also have a healthy respect for experts.

With its hybrid of escorted tour and FIT-style travel, Monograms has found a sweet spot in the market. Agents are still wrapping their heads around it, said Born. But the concept is catching on, as evidenced by Monograms’ sales growth.

Typical Monograms tours combine three-night stays in two or more cities. Guests enjoy the services of a local host to welcome them and get them acquainted with their surroundings. A full- or half-day sightseeing tour is included, with transportation and paid entrance fees. Daily breakfast at the hotel is included as well.

The Monograms local host keeps lobby hours; it’s a bit like a private concierge. Guests can choose optional excursions or explore completely on their own. At the end of the stay, the host accompanies guests to the train station to help them get to the next city. It’s a formula that’s working well, especially in popular packages such as a London-Paris combo.

Destinations such as Ireland are especially known for appealing to independent travelers. Monograms hopes to tap in to the market with a new Ireland by rail tour.

In a similar vein, Alexander + Roberts’  popular seven-day Italy by Rail trip combines local services, choice of city-center hotel and first-class rail. Clients can personalize the trip with a choice of sightseeing.

“We are seeing an increased popularity of this type of travel – with support and assistance on the ground, but without the structure of a fully-guided or escorted trip,” says Mickey Huang, marketing manager for Alexander + Roberts.

The company’s Private Journeys are also riding a wave of increased interest.

“Private Journeys are not necessarily independent in the strict sense, but because all arrangements are exclusively for our guest and his/her traveling party, there’s a degree of flexibility and independence that one doesn’t find on a typical group or small group program. They offer the value and on-the-ground attention of a group tour, but they mimic the freedom of independent travel,” says Huang.