Would You Ever Turn Up at the Airport for a Perfect Trip, Not Even Knowing What it Was?

The Washingtpn Post travel section has a piece on a reporter who ‘secret shopped’ an innovative travel agency.

Perhaps the time I spent last week in Charleston at a Conde’ Nast Traveler gathering of their ‘World’s Top Travel Specialists’ (I’m fortunate that my award booking service has been included in that list that now hovers around 140 people since 2010) that I’m especially attuned to interesting travel agent business models.

The traditional travel agent is, more or less, dead — you don’t generally ring up an agency to book airfare any longer (although Cranky Flier‘s Cranky Concierge service will do it). You book on Orbitz, Expedia, or the airline’s website directly. Or you search your airfare on Hipmunk or Kayak.

Something has been lost in the process, there’s little guidance on things like connecting times and cities — what a travel ‘should’ do given their preferences and risk tolerances — but that’s made sense because of the efficiencies of online and the cost of bespoke bookings.

Travel agents haven’t died entirely though. While Google and others are trying to improve the information gap lost through online bookings, there are still plenty of specialists doing very well applying their unique local knowledge and contacts to craft those bespoke bookings — usually not simple point-to-point airfare, but certainly specific knowledge of time, place, and people matters for crafting the best safari experiences, finding the right villa in Tuscany or Cabo, or connecting with the right guide in Laos.

That’s mostly a very high-end service. So I thought the Post‘s piece was useful in highlighting a company that’s working with smaller budgets to craft perfect trips and do it in an innovative way.

In the ultimate act of letting go, I bypass traditional travel agents and sign up with . . . Magical Mystery Tours, a small Washington-based agency that specializes in trips that are, yes, a mystery.

In a concept that’s part “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?,” part Match.com and part “The Amazing Race,” your destination is a total secret until you arrive at the airport. It seemed like the kind of thing that, when done poorly, could go very, very wrong or, when done well, could be very, very awesome. I’m a glass-is-half-full kind of person, so even though it went against most of my instincts, I took the plunge.

The planning process begins with a lengthy online questionnaire. About a month before my intended trip, I find myself sweating over how best to fill it out. Some details are pretty straightforward: How long do I want my trip to be? What’s my preferred airport? Where else have I traveled? How much do I want to spend?

…Barrett, the dedicated travel planner among Magical Mystery’s three employees, studies the client questionnaires closely to get a good sense of the person. She takes the climate of possible destinations into account and triangulates that with airfare and traveler preferences. In addition to relying on her own globe-trotting experiences, she looks to sources such as Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure for inspiration. She also gleans wisdom from travel agent forums.

The amount of time she spends planning a trip can vary from a few hours for a domestic, limited-time and -budget vacation to the 15 to 20 hours so far that she has invested in a two-week journey through Turkey.

…Barrett had told me to expect an e-mail from her a week before my departure. I’d find out my flight time and get a weather report and a rough packing list.

The author does a 4 night trip for less than $1200 in transportation and hotel, and spills plenty of ink about her process of trying to guess where she was going.

Anyway, I share this because I love innovative travel businesses, people finding ways to add value to the adventure lives of others in what’s otherwise a very difficult industry to be in.

And because — as obsessive a planner as I am — I could probably use taking a ‘mystery trip’ and turning my trip over to someone else entirely. Except that I’d probably insist domestic flights on American, and that anything international have confirmable upgrade space using my 100,000 mile flyer international upgrade certificates.

Thinking again about the idea, it seemed familiar, and it looks like I even linked to the concept a year ago talking about how Qantas and Air New Zealand used to offer ‘mystery flights’. Here at least they take care of your hotels and tell you what you’ll enjoy doing once you’re on the ground!

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. While it sounds like a fun concept, planning is half the fun for me and I’d never want to turn it over and lose the anticipation that builds up. Clearly I’m not the niche customer 🙂

  2. It’s perhaps because we read blogs like this, but I’m with Anna and Becky – I think it’s a great concept but I love planning the trip too much! I create a Dropbox folder for each trip and put all my booking confirmations in it. For bigger trips I do a Word document to lay it all out, which is also handy for passing onto my folks!

  3. Western Pacific Airlines used to do mystery destination flights. I remember seeing one board once and everyone appeared quite excited. Hope you have a great time!

  4. Like Becky, not my thing. Planning and anticipation is half the fun.

    107.3 in DC did a bit on their AM drive show last week where they asked if people have shown up at the airport, intending to travel, without yet having bought a ticket. There were a few who have. Again not my thing.

    My record was leaving for Buenos Aries over Xmas/NYE last year, leaving within four days of deciding to take the trip.

    Me? I’m a 270-330 day in advance kinda guy. Even booking an impromptu trip to Australia for November thanks to UA flooding the market with LAX-MEL seats was a bit unnerving — booked it same day.

  5. Call me a cynic, but how do you handle getting visas? If you restrict it to no visa required (or visa on arrival) countries, you’d still have to deal with the logistics of making sure everyone in the party qualifies (no small feat when you travel with 3 nationalities of passports in 1 family!)

    And I have been interrogated by too many US CBP agents to go on any trip without knowing all the details. I suppose if I got them all before I left, that would be fine, but I wouldn’t agree to not knowing where to go next since the arriving customs agent will want to know how long you are staying and where you are departing to next.

  6. My fiance and I are taking the plunge for our honeymoon in June! There is so much planning that goes into the actual wedding that we decided to throw caution to the wind and see where Magical Mystery Tours sends us. Like many of you that posted, I am the one that plans a vacation to the T. I generally have to dig in and know everything. BUT, how often in life do you hand over the reigns and see what happens? When you keep an open mind and prepare for anything, the journey and adventure become that much more exciting. Full disclosure, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa living in a remote village w/o electricity/running water, ZERO English speakers and dealing with ground transportation for over 2 years… I can handle a little uncertainty and excitement in travel. Best of luck to all those who follow suit!

  7. My wife and I used this service to plan a trip to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. Neither of us had the time or inclination to research a destination, nor did we feel like negotiating preferences with one another. The trip that Alicia B planned for us was fantastic! We couldn’t have been happier.

  8. Like Dave and Rob D., we are taking the plunge! We submitted our Magical Mystery Tour questionnaire a few days ago and had our intake conversation with our travel consultant shortly afterwards. Given a recent promotion, I am unable to plan one of our two yearly trips. As 2 very busy professionals, working a minimum of 12 hour days, this service is absolutely worth the $300! No brainer!

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