Membership Has Its Privileges
There seems to always be something new in the world of online booking, and the newest trend takes your travel experience to the next level. And by level, we mean to some of the most exclusive properties in the world. Much in the same vein as fashion websites like Gilt Groupe who lure high-end bargain hunters for couture deals, private sales travel websites offer package deals and room rates to their members at well below retail prices. Those rates are even sometimes on par with (or less than) what you would pay for mid-level hotels in the same city.
Mr Guep, flickr
And the (usually free) membership comes with serious privileges. When travel broadcaster Rudy Maxa was recently stranded at a New York airport after a missed connection, he called a friend in the hotel business hoping to get a decent room rate in the city for the night. But everything was booked or very expensive, Maxa says. So he logged on to www.Jetsetter.com (the Gilt Groupe's private sales travel site).
"There I am, 6pm at JFK, with no hotel for the night," says Maxa. "I log onto my iPhone and go onto Jetsetter and find a room at The Carlton (a posh Madison Avenue hotel) for $180 per night. I was astounded." A recent search online for a mid-week rate in late April at The Carlton found the lowest rate was $305 per night.
Jetsetter.com is one of a growing number of private sales travel websites in the US offering "flash sales" on exclusive properties to registered members. Other private sales sites like Tablet Hotels and Mr. & Mrs. Smith entice members to sign up by guaranteeing impressive savings off retail rates found elsewhere on the Internet on very desirable properties.
"You look at sites like Travelocity and Orbitz that presume the traveler knows where and when they want to travel and gives them tools to buy it (their hotel room, plane ticket, etc.)," says Jetsetter's CEO and founder Drew Patterson. But Jetsetter, says Patterson, operates in a different way. "I think our site attracts folks who know they want to go somewhere but aren't quite sure where," he says. Patterson says Jetsetter has had a lot of success selling rooms at properties in Napa Valley and Big Sur as well as Mexico and the Caribbean. "Sometimes, trying to think about what island you want to stay on can be challenging," he says, "And we're hearing from members that they like us pointing them in the right direction."
Rue La La is another by-invite-only fashion site like Gilt Groupe that's segued to selling members decadent travel products, too. The travel arm launched in 2009 and now offers discounts of at least 20 percent off retail rates for packages that might include everything from breakfast and cocktail upgrades to a free boat with your private villa. The first deal listed on Rue La La -- a three-night package at the White Elephant hotel in Nantucket -- sold out faster than anyone imagined it would, confirming the enthusiasm for the niche, says Marka Jenkins Waechter, Rue La La's General Manager of Experiences.
And more and more members-only options are popping up. Main stream travel site Kayak.com also launched a private sales site in early 2010 (all you have to do is sign up for the Kayak newsletter to gain access), with the focus on discounted rates at large resorts in popular vacation destinations such as Orlando, New York City and Las Vegas. VoyagePrive, a French company, launched a US site in February, 2010, offering ten high-end resort and cruise packages a week in a format that reads more like a glossy magazine than a travel booking engine. Maud Pasturaud, in charge of business development at VoyagePrive, says many of the site's customers are last-minute travelers, as the nature of flash sales infer a certain spontaneity. "You have to come to the site and be open to the destination," says Pasturaud. Indeed, properties recently listed on the site in current or upcoming sales were in such diverse destinations as Morocco, Miami and New Zealand.
Most of these private sales travel sites are a variation on a luxury theme, with several factors in common: a limited period to book the offer (from 36 hours to a week), a window of travel of at least three months from the booking time (often longer), and a viral membership process that most often means getting an invite from a friend who has already registered with the site or entering your email on the site to request to be notified when a membership slot becomes available.
But don't let the by-invite-only aspect scare you off, says Nina Willdorf, Editor in Chief of Budget Travel Magazine. "There's sort of a false exclusivity to these sites," she says, "That's the open secret of the private sale market -- they aren't really going to exclude you, they'll take your money." Indeed, when a private sale site takes the money of the editor of a magazine with "budget" in its title, you know a good deal must have been had. Willdorf herself recently booked a room at The Opposite House in Beijing through Jetsetter.com for $120 a night after seeing prices elsewhere online of around $250, she says.
Any time you're purchasing on a private sale site, says Willdorf, it's imperative to be an informed buyer. In most cases, once you click purchase, there's no chance to change your date or get a refund on a cancellation (the exception is VoyagePrive, which offers a travel insurance option and re-credits a certain percentage of the sale if you cancel more than seven days in advance of your booking).
Private sale shoppers also need to keep in mind that luxury bargains are a relative term. "You're going to get a deal, but you might be getting a couple hundred dollars off a $900 room," cautions Willdorf, "It's not God's gift to hotels."
Read on to learn about more private sales travel websites, and follow the links for membership invites exclusive to AOL Travel readers.
Navigation Style: Seductive photography and editorial along the lines of a glossy magazine stoke wanderlust as you peruse up to 15 properties offered each week. Ancillary information about dining and entertainment near the property reads like an insider's guide to the destination. Sign up for reminders to stay current on upcoming sales.
Sample hotels: From boutique lodges to bastions of big city chic, recent sales have included such properties as Canoe Bay on the lakes of northwestern Wisconsin and Bryant Park Hotel in New York City.
The promise: Anywhere from 30 to 65 percent savings off rates booked elsewhere.
Recent sale: Rooms at the ultra stylish and centrally located Beijing property The Opposite House for $120 per night versus upwards of $230 for a similar date when booked through other websites.
Sign up: Friends invite friends to join the site, or you can get invited via Jetsetter's Facebook page. Jetsetter is extending a limited time invite to AOL Travel readers. Follow the link to sign up: www.jetsetter.com/register/promo/aoltravel
Rue La La
Navigation Style: Big name fashion offerings still rule the homepage of this by-invitation-only site. But an increasing number of travel "boutiques" are entering the mix, too. Beautiful property images stoke the senses as you peruse "lookbooks" with short, punchy details. Once sales are announced you have just 48 hours to reserve, but that time period may be increased in the future, according to site sources.
Sample hotels: Take your pick from weekend-escape properties like the White Elephant in Nantucket to a super-exclusive private villa located on remote parkland in the Galapagos Islands.
The promise: Savings of at least 20 percent off exclusive package experiences.
Recent sale: Weekend nights at the posh Equinox Resort & Spa in Vermont were $199 a night via Rue La La (including a $25 resort credit) versus $349 a night if booked directly through the hotel's website.
Sign up: Friends invite friends to join the site or you can list your email online to get waitlisted for an opening. Rue La La is extending a limited time invite to AOL Travel readers, too. Follow the link to sign up: www.ruelala.com/invite/marka
Navigation Style: Follow the "private sale" link on the homepage for guidebook-style descriptions of current sales, including scores and reviews from past Tablet guests. A booking window of 36 hours means you have to act fast (there's a handy clock feature to tell you how much time is left on the sale), with dates of at least three months out available for each offered property.
Sample hotels: From predominantly room-only rates at big city boutique properties like New York's Ace Hotel to desert decadence in the United Arab Emirates at Anantara's Qasr al Sarab.
The promise: Sales are 30 percent to 60 percent off the lowest rate found elsewhere on the Internet.
Recent sale: A fireplace room at the Ventana Inn & Spa in Big Sur for $315 per night versus $575.
Sign up: Friends invite friend to join the site, but Tablet Hotels is extending a limited time invite to AOL Travel readers. Follow this link and use the promo code AOL to sign up: http://www.tablethotels.com/community/Enter?pc=AOL
Navigation Style: Click the US flag at the top of this French-owned site to be directed to sales geared toward the American market. The ten packages offered each week include hotels and cruises, and new sales open on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Straightforward descriptions enhanced with dreamy images impart property FAQs and make very clear what is and isn't included in the price.
Sample hotels: Packages usually include your choice of one or more nights and often feature inclusions such as breakfast, room upgrades and resort credits at popular vacation spots such as the Viceroy Miami and Kona Village Bungalows in Hawaii.
The promise: Between 30 and 60 percent off what you'll find elsewhere on the Internet.
Recent sale: Two nights at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City for $495 (excluding taxes and fees), with free wireless Internet (usually $16 per day) and the possibility of a complimentary room upgrade. Regular price, $962 (before taxes/fees).
Sign up: Friends invite friends to join the site. VoyagePrive is extending a VIP invite to AOL Travel readers. Follow this link to sign up: http://www.voyageprive.com/vip-invite
Navigation Style: You can access private sales right from Kayak's homepage. Between five and ten offers are listed every Thursday and run for a week. The site features cut and dry editorial commentary and easy to find links to TripAdvisor reviews and official property websites. The booking engine is pretty much identical to what you see on Kayak.com, with private sale savings prominently posted.
Sample hotels: Classic resort properties around the world, from big name Las Vegas properties (Hard Rock Hotel) to megaresorts near the theme parks in Orlando (Gaylord Palms).
The promise: Up to 50 percent off retail room rates.
Recent sale: Accommodations in an 18th century manor house at Glasson Hotel & Golf Club in central Ireland from $95 per night, before taxes and fees (versus $127).
Sign up: Register your email address through kayak.com to be signed up for regular newsletters and you'll automatically gain access to the private sales site.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith
Navigation Style: Member hotels are listed by country on this popular UK luxury site. Enter your destination and travel dates to find the best available offer. Trip inspiration comes in the form of beautiful photography plus hotels are broken into categories such as Dive Destinations, Luxury City Breaks and Beach Retreats to help you focus.
Sample hotels: They offer some of the most exclusive and buzz-worthy hotels in the world, from Six Senses Hideaway Samui to The Bowery Hotel in New York City.
The promise: At least 25 percent off retail rates and occasional free nights for members, as well as a free gift at every hotel upon check-in, ranging from a bottle of champagne to late check-out.
Recent offer: The Townhouse Hotel in Miami for two nights for $295 (including all taxes and fees) versus $508.50 (including all taxes and fees) when booking directly through the hotel by phone.
Sign up: Follow the link to sign up for annual memberships with exclusive member deals, from $20 per year for US customers: www.mrandmrssmith.com/members