In today’s complicated world of travel when delays, lost luggage, and sold-out hotels are the norm, elite travel advisors—the kind who say that they can handle any request or troubleshoot a dreaded trip snafu—are increasingly charging hefty fees for their help.
They want to be paid for access to their connections, relationships they say transforms another enjoyable vacation into the most extraordinary trip that their clients will take. Despite higher price tags, these prestigious advisors have never been more in demand.
Take the New York-based Fischer Travel Enterprises: In September, the company raised its membership fee by 50% from US$100,000 to US$150,000. Annual fees thereafter are US$25,000, and that’s before any trip costs are included.
The price gets clients a team that includes a manager and two junior advisors who are available 24 hours a day to manage practically any aspect of their lives, says Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal, Fischer Travel’s president.
“Our services go beyond travel,” Fischer-Rosenthal says. “Whether you need a doctor, a hotel room, an exotic skin Hermes bag, or a Michelin-starred chef to cook in your home with last minute notice, there’s no saying ‘no,’ unless it’s illegal.”
The company currently has 175 clients with another 17 on a waiting list, she says. The high fee is justified, according to her, for the level of service that clients get.
In October, for example, a client in Paris had her passport stolen. Fischer Travel was able to have an emergency document issued by the U.S. embassy in 48 hours, avoiding any disruptions to the client’s itinerary. In another instance, the company secured the personal trainer Daniel Craig used to get in shape for his James Bond movies for virtual training for a Bond-loving client. On top of this, Fischer Travel helped the client buy the famous Bond car directly from Craig.
A client who has worked with Fischer Travel for 20 years and wanted to remain anonymous says the six-figure fee is worth it.
“You pay for what you get, which is the huge amount of value their team adds,” they say. “We rely on them at least once a month, and they’ve pulled off magic, from finding us a hotel in 20 minutes in Honolulu when the island had a blackout to planning my milestone birthday for 25 of my friends in Japan.”
Four Hundred is another company with a membership structure that doubles as a lifestyle concierge and trip planner. The initiation fee to join is US$12,000, and the monthly dues are US$2,500— figures that cover a family of four, according to founder Tony Abrams. But good luck getting in: Abrams says that the 100 people on the waiting list are unlikely to be accepted as clients anytime soon. “We can only add members if someone leaves, which rarely happens, or if we ramp up our internal team, and that’s not easy to do,” he says.
Four Hundred’s staff includes employees who have worked at chic private clubs such as New York’s Zero Bond and upscale travel companies and hotels. Some also have experience in customer service for major global brands and are used to catering to over-the-top requests.
“We just organized a private tennis match for a client at Arthur Ashe Stadium with a former US Open champion and planned a trip to the Arctic tundra where everyone drove over frozen lakes in Mercedes,” Abrams says. “We charge our fees because we attempt to make the impossible possible.”
Then there’s Kareem George, founder of the Detroit-based Culture Traveler, who raised his fees by 30% after the pandemic and now charges US$6,000 a year to give clients unlimited help on their travel needs. (He also offers a per trip service fee that starts at US$200).
“I spend 30% more time in planning a trip and raised my fees accordingly,” George says. “I will need to raise them even more next year to keep pace with increased time requirements.”
While companies such as Four Hundred, Fischer Travel Enterprises, and Culture Traveler have always billed for their help, many advisors introduced fees during the pandemic, according to Misty Belles, the vice president of global public relations for the luxury travel network Virtuoso. The majority of its 20,000 advisors worldwide charge rates ranging from US$50 for a simple hotel booking to retainers that run in the thousands.
“Many went the retainer model during the pandemic—they were constantly booking and rebooking, navigating entry and testing rules and dealing with flight cancellations,” Belles says. “They became advocates more than advisors and needed to be compensated for their expertise.”
Erika Richter, the vice president of communications and marketing for the American Society of Travel Advisors, or ASTA, representing 14,000 travel advisors, also reported a rise in service fees over the last two years.
“Many used to not charge and earned money through commissions, but that’s changed as they’re putting in many more hours into planning trips,” Richter says. “A good travel advisor is like a good accountant. Sure, you can do your taxes yourself, but it’s a complex job, and who has the time?”
Travelers don’t seem to be flinching at paying these advisors: A recent survey from ASTA indicated that 44% percent are likely to use an advisor to plan their trips, compared with 29% pre-pandemic.
Case in point: Fatemeh Bandari, a real estate agent in Houston, and her partner, Roger Camp, a construction company owner, were happy to pay Ralph Iantosca, founder of the Dallas-based Iantosca Travel, his US$5,000 annual fee for 20 hours of travel planning in a calendar year. Iancosta charges US$250 per additional hour. “We’re always traveling, but it was my first experience with an advisor and didn’t think twice about the cost given what he does for us,” Bandari says.
On their recent trip to New York, as an example, Iantosca had them upgraded for free at the Mandarin Oriental hotel to a suite with a Central Park view. He also arranged for a cast member of the Broadway show Hadestown to have drinks with the couple at the hotel’s bar and managed to get them same-day reservations at the high-end French restaurants Jean-Georges and Daniel.
“It was a perfect, extravagant trip that we could never have planned for ourselves,” Bandari says.