Planning a winter holiday? Whether trekking the Tibetan Himalayas or trolling the Clignancourt flea market, be sure to get onboard with the right travel agent.
With more people booking their own trips on the Web and airlines reducing fees paid to booking agents, travel professionals have been forced to specialize, hoping to become known for their expertise in particular niches. So that, whether your idea of a relaxing vacation means lacing up hiking boots and packing a snakebite kit or wearing dancing shoes and downing snakebite shooters, it's worth finding one that shares your obsessions.
Most "hard adventure" travel agents and tour companies are based in California and Washington state. For treks in Kilimanjaro, hikes through Nepal, or safaris in Kenya, the best in the business is Mountain Travel-Sobek in El Cerrito, California (800-227-2384; www.mtsobek.com).
Madeleine Newbauer, at Tzell Travel Specialists (119 West 40th Street; 212-944-2121; www.tzell.com), focuses on "soft adventure" for those in the over-50 set who want to trek through exotic settings by day and pitch camp at a nicely appointed hotel at night. She recently booked one customer on a 22-day Silk Route tour in Central Asia, from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan.
If your ideal vacation requires being insulated from potential hassles and meeting lots of other people like yourself, or if you're simply too stressed at work to deal with planning a trip, you need an all-inclusive package deal. Liberty Travel (877-999-2089; www.libertytravel.com), the all-inclusive clearinghouse, can see you off for seven nights at the Club Med in Turkoise, Turks, or Caicos -- airfare, room, and limbo contest included -- for $999, or six days at Whistler Mountain in British Columbia, lift tickets included, for $799.
Contiki Holidays (714-935-0808; www.contiki.com) organizes vacations for the 18-to-35 age bracket. Call them directly in Anaheim, or book their popular trips through any number of Big Apple agencies (Council Travel included). A fourteen-day, Greek-island-hopping tour that includes Santorini, Paros, and Mykonos, and includes breakfasts, dinners, hotels, buses, ferries, a tour guide, a welcome drink, and a backpack, costs $975, not including airfare from New York.
I don't remember The Love Boat's Captain Stubing and Isaac ever disembarking in Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica, or Valparaiso, Chile, but you can by calling Jacquelyn Wolfer at International Tours and Cruises (184 Fifth Avenue, near 23rd Street; 212-242-2511). The agency won the Cruise Lines International Association Travel Agency of the Year award in both 1996 and 1998, and handles such a huge volume of trips that it is able to deliver exclusive special offers and upgrades.
Edward Hasbrouck at San Francisco-based High Adventure Travel (800-350-0612; www.airtreks.com) scores rock-bottom, round-the-world airfares by finding out which airlines are offering the lowest prices on any given route and employing a worldwide network of brokers to buy tickets in the country where they're cheapest. (The lowest prices on New York-London nonstops are usually offered on China Airways and Air India.) And for excellent eleventh-hour deals, I have bought many a ticket over the years from Travelite Express (47 West 34th Street; 212-594-8844). There's no Website and the service is brusque, but with fares like New York-Honolulu round-trip for $580, so what?
The nation's leader in the "student travel" niche -- selling internationally recognized student I.D.'s, hostel passes, discounted fares, and loosely packaged tours on which college-age travelers can mingle with their own -- is Council Travel (205 East 42nd Street; 212-822-2700, www.counciltravel.com).
Special orders don't faze the folks at Linden Travel (41 East 57th Street; 212-421-3320, www.lindentravel.com). When a client who booked a penthouse suite on an Alaska-bound cruise decided, upon embarking, that she "could care less about fucking seals" and demanded to watch her Winds of War video collection instead, Linden overnighted a VCR to Vancouver, where an agent cleared the machine through Customs and delivered it to the ship before departure. Other requests, like last-minute reservations at of-the-moment restaurants like Antico Arco in Rome, are just as readily dispatched since the agency is on a first-name basis with concierges and maître d's worldwide.
Another luxury specialist, Danielle Gigante at the Travel Lady division of Rich Worldwide Travel (914-381-2500; www.richtravel.com), recently arranged an eighteen-day, whirlwind tour of China. With a guide waiting in every airport, a car and driver each day, the best hotel in each city, and tickets for a tribal-dance performance in the Tibetan-plateau gateway city of Kunming and for the famed Shanghai Children Acrobats troupe in Shanghai, the well-to-do explorers were able to tour the world's largest communist country in total bourgeois comfort.