Travel 101

Booking a drama-free getaway!

Welcome to December; winter has arrived. And if you’re like us, you’re gazing longingly at the calendar and dreaming of an escape to warmer climes. To get one step closer to making that holiday in the sun a reality, we chatted with local travel experts about their insider tips, which help take the guesswork out of booking a hassle-free getaway.

Don’t go it alone

If there’s a slew of travel websites running through your mind right now, and you’re thinking that booking with a travel agent is so 20 years ago, think again.

“The Internet is great. For a hobbyist, it’s a great resource. But people should put a value on their time,” says Jim Bendt of Pique Travel. He estimates it takes 40 hours to plan and book a typical week-long itinerary. He notes that while there are indeed powerful open-source travel sites out there, some are too simple. For example, sites like compile comments and ratings but don’t take a user’s own preferences into account.

“The best search engine is the knowledge of our staff,” says Bendt. Each Pique travel agent is well-traveled, and the team does hundreds of face-to-face meetings with hoteliers, cruise lines, and other service providers each year to stay apprised of what’s available. A local travel agency like Pique offers “the best of the high-tech world in a high-touch environment,” says Bendt.

Kathy Skadsberg of Skads Travel also notes that travel agents have access to wholesale prices and resources that are available only to those in the industry. “We’re the shoppers!” says Skadsberg. “We all love to travel. We can save people a lot of time and money. And if we haven’t been there, we know an expert who has.” Travel agencies also provide support while you’re traveling. If disaster strikes—you get stranded by a bad storm or end up with unpleasant neighbors at your hotel—they’ve got connections and can help make it right.

Elliott Sirota spends summers in Minnetonka and has booked trips with Skads for 30 years. He began using Skads to book golf outings with clients, has booked many family trips, and even did an around-the-world trip with his wife Judy. The Sirotas have moved on to multi-generation getaways that keep their 11-year-old twin granddaughters and 13-year-old grandson interested. “[At Skads], they’re very competent and have great attention to detail; they take us door to door,” he says. “They keep us current on unique trip ideas and trends. Whether we decide to go that way or not, they keep us apprised.” Tapping into Skads employees’ knowledge of wider trends— and the unique access they have to wholesale rates and specials—has benefitted the family, even when they have special requests in mind.

Bendt at Pique Travel says that it’s definitely possible to book a stand-alone cruise or group tour online for a standard price. He says an agent can provide a “cruise comparison,” which will compare the package a customer is considering with other comparable ones, so the buyer can see what’s included and understand the full price, including sneaky fees. Because Pique agents don’t receive commission, there’s no incentive to pressure a client into booking. However, cruise line representatives sometimes steer customers toward daily specials in search of commissions, even if the cruise in question is off-season.

Know your goals

“If everyone who’s traveling can come in—including kids—that’s helpful,” says Skadsberg. “We get a feel for what everyone’s looking for. If the kids are happy, Mom’s happy!” She adds, “We listen to the traveler to find out where they’ve been and what they want. Our first job, if we don’t know them, is to really get to know what they like. If you’re used to a certain lifestyle, you should continue that on your vacation.”

Suzanne Kochevar and husband Rich Heck of Excelsior are long-time Pique clients. They once called on Pique to help plan a trip with 13-year-old granddaughter Justice, who lives in Los Angeles and dreams of becoming a chef. To make Justice’s dream vacation a reality, they worked with Pique to put together a New York City itinerary that included gourmet dinners at famous restaurants and a back-of-house tour with a restaurant manager.

“They can make things happen that are next to impossible for us to make happen,” says Suzanne Kochevar. She and her husband also booked a dream Alaskan vacation that included lunch at the home of Jon Van Zyle, the artist of record for the Iditarod dog sled race, and a National Geographic cruise with Lindblad Cruises. “They can design something that fits how we like to travel,” says Kochevar. Heck adds, “They truly customized the trip to our interests. It was the trip of a lifetime.”

Give it time

Half the fun of a trip is the anticipation of it, right? Skadsberg recommends giving your travel pros six to 12 months’ notice if you have a specific cruise destination in mind or want to use frequent flier miles, reward rooms or other incentives that might have blackout dates or limits. But sometimes, travelers can’t avoid planning a trip at the last minute. “That’s why we’re here,” says Skadsberg. “We say, ‘Let’s get you out of town!’ ”

Whatever you do, don’t put it off

We’ve all got a Pinterest board chock-full of lofty travel dreams. It’s another thing entirely to put together a list of real-life places we’d like to actually see someday. The trick is making a plan and sticking to it.

“You could look at websites and travel books for years and never settle on one,” says Skadsberg. “Talk to an expert who knows the field and can talk through options quickly.”

Unsure where to start? Check out Pique’s WanderList service. “We’ll take your messy bucket list and organize it into a strategic, long-term travel plan—like a financial advisor for travel,” says Bendt. WanderList is ideal for clients wanting to plan out a particular stage of life: Places to see before kids, places to bring the kids before they leave home, retirement goals and so on. “Regret is a lousy place to visit,” says Bendt. “It’s true. Life gets in the way of travel.” //

Out of Town
(but under the radar)

Dreaming of a getaway but not so keen on crowds? Our experts, Jim Bendt of Pique Travel and Kathy Skadsberg of Skads Travel, recommend lesser-known destinations for every stage of life. On the following pages, find their top places-to-go for couples, families with teens, and families with young kids. Bon voyage!

For couples

Opt for a luxury African safari with a side trip to Cape Town, says Bendt. Because of recent World Cup-related investments, South Africa’s airports are some of the best in the world. “There’s also an emerging food and wine culture; Cape Town is a melting pot of cuisines,” says Bendt.

Honeymooners or young couples might enjoy Paris, the Amalfi Coast in Italy, or New Zealand, says Skadsberg. For older couples, she recommends wine country or a river cruise with a lot of ports. “Unpack once and see a lot of places easily,” she says.

For families with teens

“Go for a short haul, like Belize. It gets fewer visitors than Costa Rica, with just as much culture. It’s a little bit of Indiana Jones and Jacques Cousteau,” says Bendt. Enjoy Mayan pottery and ancient pyramids without the crowds of similar destinations. Bonus: It’s just a three-hour flight from Atlanta.

For families with younger kids

“People are taking kids a lot more than they once did,” says Skadsberg, who insists that booking the perfect family vacation is all about knowing your expectations and limitations. Some families are about quality time, so booking a home through VRBO (Vacation Rental by Owner) or AirBnB is the perfect option. Skadsberg adds, “Cruises are always good; they can be a great value. At Skads, we love Disney World; they take care of everybody!”

“When we started in the industry, people wanted to veg out on a beach with a book. Now people want to do something and learn something on vacation,” says Skadsberg. Places like Paris or Washington, D.C. are great options for families that want to have fun—while also learning a thing or two.

Bendt recommends Puerto Rico, because it’s relatively close and doesn’t require a passport for U.S. citizens. Check out the fort in Old San Juan. “Kids love the walls and cannons,” says Bendt. Be sure to see Vieques, an island 20 minutes by air from San Juan, which is home to natural beaches and thousands of wild horses that roam free.

Our travel pros:

Pique Travel
362 Third St., Excelsior

Skads Travel
6250 Excelsior Blvd., Mpls.