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Music, movies, meals and even shaving supplies have all successfully been sold by subscription. But should you subscribe to your next vacation?
New subscription travel services are on the rise, with offers of discounts, special access and streamlined planning. There are different ways to pay for a subscription plan, though they often involve an annual or monthly fee. The plans themselves may be called memberships, clubs or subscriptions.
Subscriptions in the travel realm aren’t new, of course. Think of airline credit cards that charge an annual fee in exchange for free checked bags and early boarding when you use the card to buy a ticket. But pressure from the pandemic has inspired companies to experiment with new ways to sell and engage people in travel, say experts.
“Travel and tourism have historically been linked to free points or free miles programs,” said Adam Levinter, the author of the recently published book “The Subscription Boom.” “With paid programs, customers are incentivized to spend because they have skin in the game.”
But there is more to ordering up a beach day in Hawaii than watching a movie on Netflix.
Among the challenges, said Robert Li, the chairman of the tourism department at Temple University in Philadelphia, is the fact that travel isn’t an everyday purchase and that trips consist of many elements, including accommodations, rental cars, flights and activities. “Customers can find subscriptions for one thing, but they don’t get everything they need for the entire experience,” Mr. Li said.
But within those specific areas, new subscriptions aim to solve old problems. “There are elements of friction and complexity in booking travel and actually traveling that a subscription model can help alleviate,” said Amy Konary, the founder of Subscribed Institute, a think tank on subscriptions at Zuora, a subscriptions platform. As examples, she cited Clear, which allows members to expedite security at airports, and TSA PreCheck, which circumvents the standard security line.
Just as travel takes many forms — work-from-anywhere stints, family vacations, quickie business trips — so do subscriptions. Most aim to streamline travel through savings, curation or both.
Saving time and money
Many existing subscription services dangle discounts and efficiency. Scott’s Cheap Flights, for example, sends flight deals of 40 to 90 percent off to subscribers who pay $49 a year, a fee that is often made up in one booking, and, fans say, saves substantial search time.
Alaska Airlines’ new Flight Pass charges $49 a month at the entry level, entitling subscribers to six round-trip flights a year. Those $98 trips reflect discounts of 20 to 30 percent on average, according to the company. The pass targets travelers in California with flights to 13 destinations within the state, plus Las Vegas, Phoenix and Reno, Nev.
Among newer entries, Tripadvisor, the travel guidance platform, launched Tripadvisor Plus in 2021. For $99 a year, subscribers get discounted hotel rates at roughly 300,000 properties globally and 10 percent off theme parks and activities, including tours booked through Tripadvisor.
CitizenM, the Netherlands-based hotel group with locations in 16 cities worldwide, including six in the United States, recently launched mycitizenM+. For $12 a month and a minimum 12-month term, members get 10 percent off room rates, late checkout and upgrades, if available.
In its first month, more than 1,500 members joined, according to Ernest Lee, the chief growth officer at citizenM, noting that the offer is aimed at frequent business travelers, especially the self-employed. “These are people who need to be frugal but still want a high-quality travel experience,” he wrote in an email.
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The 2022 list highlights places around the globe where travelers can be part of the solution.
Travelers can compare flights, rental cars, resorts and activities on the internet, but those searches take time. Think of the hundreds of short-term rental listings you might peruse before finding the perfect cabin near Lake Tahoe, Calif.
A subset of new subscription services aims to reduce search time by narrowing results for things like hotels and travel packages by using filters either tailored to your interests or the service’s point of view.
Among those services is Safara, slated to start up later this month by invitation. (Members can refer others; otherwise, join the wait-list to be considered, though the admissions criteria are not defined.)
“The online travel space is due for a shake-up, and it’s a good time for innovation,” said Doug Schuessler, the chief executive of Safara.
At the entry level, which is free, the club offers a 10 percent credit on bookings at hotels like Public in New York and the Ned in London that can be used on future stays booked through Safara. By paying $199 a year, members get even lower rates at some hotels (25 to 30 percent off, according to the company) and perks like upgrades. But Safara’s real usefulness, according to Mr. Schuessler, is in identifying hotel gems — which it defines as stylish, hospitable and a good value across all price levels — from the flood of candidates triggered by a normal hotel search.
Last fall, the parent company of the magazine Travel + Leisure introduced Travel + Leisure Club, offering discounted rates on more than 600,000 hotels and 345,000 activities for $14.95 a month, as well as room upgrades, concierge services and other upgrades.
“We have access to all this travel content and inspiration from the magazine,” said Fiona Downing, the chief membership officer at Travel + Leisure Club, which is independent from the publication, though packages are often based on its stories. “People who join want to bring that travel to life.”
“In terms of cost savings, it’s been tremendous,” said Jeffrey Eisenberg, a member living in Orlando, Fla., who travels often for his job in advertising and for leisure. On a trip to Las Vegas with friends, he saved each of them $400 by booking through the club, and on another business trip there his hotel rate was, “so cheap that basically the room cost less than the resort fee.”
Since it launched last year, the subscription platform VIP Traveler, which sends members accommodation deals, has added 75,000 members. The first tier is free — members complete a questionnaire that helps VIP Traveler narrow down the discount offers it sends — and the paid version, at $495 a year, includes the services of a human travel planner for custom trips and service around the clock.
Its co-founders, Joshua Borenstein and Mark Hoenig, formerly ran Luxury Escapes, a flash sale membership service in Australia. “The industry is geared to serve people at the end of their own decision-making process,” Mr. Borenstein said. “No one was doing a good job of serving travelers before that last mile.”
Promising luxury for less
Many subscriptions cater to those looking for luxury. Consider Exclusive Resorts, which charges a one-time initiation fee of $175,000 for a 10-year membership, and then makes its 350-plus global portfolio of luxury vacation homes available for stays at $1,465 a night at places that it says often start at around $4,000.
Travel Trends That Will Define 2022
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Looking ahead. As governments across the world loosen coronavirus restrictions, the travel industry hopes this will be the year that travel comes roaring back. Here is what to expect:
Air travel. Many more passengers are expected to fly compared to last year, but you’ll still need to check the latest entry requirements if you’re traveling abroad.
Lodging. During the pandemic, many travelers discovered the privacy offered by rental residences. Hotels hope to compete again by offering stylish extended-stay properties, sustainable options, rooftop bars and co-working spaces.
Rental cars. Travelers can expect higher prices, and older cars with high mileage, since companies still haven’t been able to expand their fleets. Seeking an alternative? Car-sharing platforms might be a more affordable option.
Cruises. Despite a bumpy start to the year, thanks to Omicron’s surge, demand for cruises remains high. Luxury expedition voyages are particularly appealing right now, because they typically sail on smaller ships and steer away from crowded destinations.
Destinations. Cities are officially back: Travelers are eager to dive into the sights, bites and sounds of a metropolis like Paris or New York. For a more relaxing time, some resorts in the U.S. are pioneering an almost all-inclusive model that takes the guesswork out of planning a vacation.
Experiences. Travel options centered around sexual wellness (think couples retreats and beachfront sessions with intimacy coaches) are growing popular. Trips with an educational bent, meanwhile, are increasingly sought after by families with children.
Inspirato, another luxury-oriented subscription, charges $2,500 a month — plus a one-time $2,500 initiation fee — for the Inspirato Pass, offering access to pricey vacation homes and hotels. No additional rental accommodation fees are charged, though there are some restrictions on how often the pass can be used, and users pay other travel expenses, including flights, rental cars and food.
One of the more expensive cars to rent these days — if you can find one — is a Tesla. For those looking for a long-term rental, Kyte, the car rental service, launched its subscription program for Tesla electric cars in San Francisco and New York City in April, charging between $1,350 a month for a three-month rental and $995 a month for a year. The plans beat the roughly $200 a day charged by Hertz for a rental Tesla in San Francisco. Both travelers and the E.V.-curious have subscribed, according to the company, which plans to expand to Los Angeles and Miami this summer.
Free for the first year, Manifest travel club costs $2,500 a year, offering travel planning and high-end trips with fellow members, including a three-day bourbon-focused tour of Louisville, Ky., including guided distillery tours and a progressive dinner involving several restaurants, from $1,952, excluding flights.
“I believe the majority of consumers want to travel, but don’t like to plan,” said Jeff Potter, the chief executive of Manifest.
The rise of digital nomads, especially during the pandemic, has inspired subscription services to simplify working from anywhere. In 2020, Selina, which offers affordable lodgings — most with co-working spaces — in more than 145 global locations, started CoLive, a $450-a-month plan allowing subscribers to stay for 30 days at up to three locations. Participants can go month by month, rather than committing to a longer term.
Subscribers to Landing, who pay $199 a year, can rent an apartment for a minimum one-month stay in more than 375 U.S. cities. Rents vary, starting at $1,250 in Austin, Texas, and $3,050 in San Francisco.
Kendyl Cochran, who works remotely in information technology, and her boyfriend have been moving around with Landing for the past six months, temporarily residing in Atlanta, Baltimore, Austin, Dallas, Denver and, currently, Tucson, Ariz.
“It’s definitely in line with, if not cheaper than, Airbnb,” Ms. Cochran said, noting that the apartments are reliably furnished with good linens and fully equipped kitchens, amenities that often vary with short-term rentals.
“It’s allowed us to carry on with normal life while we get to travel the country,” she said.
Elaine Glusac writes the Frugal Traveler column. Follow her on Instagram @eglusac.
Audio produced by Kate Winslett.
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