As posted to Condé Nast Traveler:
We recently traveled to Paris for six days with our 6-year-old son. Both my wife and I have traveled extensively around the world and have stayed in everything from the Peninsula Hong Kong and Villa Feltrinelli to B&B’s and hotels we would rather forget and from Mombo Camp to a camp in the middle of the Amazon whose name I can’t even remember. Especially with the advent of the Internet, we take some pride in making almost all of our own travel arrangements.
Having said that, being long time readers of Condé Nast Traveler, we have always wondered exactly what these A List travel agents bring to the table and if they would be worth the premium we were certain they would charge. So when we decided to take a trip to Paris this summer, we started our research, took the plunge and ended up getting in touch with Bob Preston.
Although we booked our own hotel, Bob arranged the following for us:
– VIP airport transfers including plane side pick up
– half day trip to Giverny
– private after hours tour of the Opera Garnier
– full day for fashion and jewelry shopping
– half day for shopping at Clignancourt
– private kids tour of the Louvre
Needless to say the trip was outstanding. Everyone we worked with was professional, knowledgeable, personable, etc. However, I would like to point out that at this level, those were just my minimum expectations. Again, we have never worked with an A List travel agent before so I have no reference as to what is “normal” at this level. I can only give feedback on my expectations (which are pretty high) and what Bob delivered.
Here are what I think were the highlights of Bob’s services and what he brought to the table:
1. Efficiency. This trip was probably the most efficient trip we have ever taken. We read a lot about how a travel agent can make your trip “seamless” but it is something that we had to experience to truly understand. It was so efficient that I think we were probably able to knock two days off the trip, which was a savings for us both financially and perhaps more importantly time-wise.
The time efficiency is important to us in two ways. (1) We cannot afford to go on vacation for a month so our time is important and efficient use of that time without getting exhausted is crucial. (2) We were also traveling with our 6-year-old son and we have always believed that if you travel with a child and you bring him to places like museums, you need to plan your day – especially transfers – carefully because the kids will get tired and exhaust their attention span. The extra 30 minutes you spend on a bus or hailing a cab could have been better spent inside the museum.
In a nutshell, time is money and Bob certainly maximized whatever time we had, without exhausting us.
2. Part of what I think contributes to the above mentioned efficiency is having an “efficient team” working with you. It is a great help when the driver knows all the guides and they can call each other to make arrangements for you on the fly.
For example, during our “shopping” day, we decided to make an extra unscheduled stop at another store. This is nothing that we could not have done if we had our own private car. However, getting to the store required the crossing of a square. When coming out, our guide noticed that the store had a back door to the street. She called our driver to come around and pick us up at the back entrance so we would not have to walk back to the parking lot.
3. Pre-screening and selection of “appropriate” guides. We can go to a city and select guides from recommendations on the Internet, books or magazines. However, there is always an element of uncertainty as you never really know what you will get. And even if you get a “good” guide, you never really know if that person is the best or not.
Bob did a fabulous job selecting guides for us. They were all obviously very qualified but also importantly, completely fluent in English. It may not matter as much if it were all adults on the trip but as we had a child, complete fluency in English is more important so that he has easy communication with the guides to maximize his experience.
Our guide for the fashion shopping day was superlative. Bob told us that he felt that she was the best in Paris and I find it hard to disagree.
But perhaps the bigger surprise was how I was equally impressed with the guide we had at the Opera Garnier. As I mentioned, we were with a 6-year-old. When touring a “non kid-friendly” place like the Opera, a 6-year-old presents a challenge to the tour guide. Needless to say he had his moments of running around or otherwise just acting like a 6-year-old. The guide was amazing in that not only did she try to make the tour interesting for our son, but at no point could you ever see any sign of irritation or bother on her that there was a 6-year-old “disrupting” her tour. I think it is different for something like the Louvre kids tour which is really meant for children. But giving us someone who can handle a 6-year-old was the perfect example of not only choosing an excellent guide but an appropriate one as well.
4. Access. One of my expectations from Bob was to give us access to things that we otherwise would not have access to.
Our visit to Cartier was highlighted by their bringing out items from a special exhibition they were having of vintage pieces from the 1910s and 1920s. Hermes and Chanel treated us like royalty even if their stores were filled with customers and were literally like markets. And perhaps most impressively, Bob was able to get us access to the showroom of Joel Arthur Rosenthal, which is something we had asked for but were not sure he would be able to deliver.
At the end of the day, I think the obvious questions are if I would recommend Bob to someone and if I would use him again.
Recommend? I think it depends. As is often pointed out in the magazine, the use of A List travel agents is not for everyone. It is for a specific clientele. But for that clientele, without a doubt I would recommend his services.
Would I use him again? Absolutely. As I emailed him after our trip, he has demonstrated to me that it is worth our time and money to enlist the services of an A List travel agent, with the caveat that he has set the bar extremely high for anyone else that we might consider engaging with in the future.
Miguel R. from Manila (Philippines)