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One of the most appealing benefits of high-annual-fee credit cards like the American Express Platinum, is the exclusive “Fine Hotels and Resorts” (FHR) program. Pay the card’s hefty $550 annual fee, book a participating 4-star hotel through American Express, and you’ll get:

  • A Complimentary Room Upgrade
  • Daily Breakfast for Two People
  • 4PM Late Checkout
  • Free WiFi
  • A “Unique Property Amenity”

Sounds pretty sweet, right? But is it worth the $550 annual fee for travel hackers looking to get more for less?

Absolutely not. You can get the exact same—or sometimes better—benefits by booking your room through a luxury travel agent, for free.

Behind the Scenes of Luxury Hotel Bookings

Here’s why this works. Even though more travelers than ever before are booking through online travel agencies like Expedia, or booking direct, high end travel agents are still very popular.

At high end travel agencies, a normal two-week trip can easily represent $20,000 in potential travel-industry revenue. With numbers like that, these travel agencies represent a very appealing group of consumers for 4-star and 5-star luxury hotels.

So, these hotels offer unique perks to the travel agents—like free breakfast, hotel credit and complimentary upgrades—in exchange for their loyalty.

Which brings us back to the American Express FHR program. American Express’ travel division has been around since the early 1900s and has operated as a separate subsidiary of American Express since 1982. In many ways, it’s a traditional travel agency that happens to be associated with a credit card brand.

But, there are alternatives.

The three main luxury travel competitors that offer similar perks to the American Express FHR program are: Signature Travel, Virtuoso, and Ensemble.

Each one has its own network of luxury hotels and resorts, with its own specific benefits. But typically, the benefits from one network to another will be very, very similar, and many hotels that belong to one network, belong to all three.

The Travel Hacker’s Guide to Booking a Luxury Hotel with a Travel Agent

Now, there’s nothing wrong with walking into a travel agent’s office and booking a trip. But the fact that you’re reading this probably means that you enjoy planning and hacking your own trips.

So, here’s how you can combine your love of travel hacking with the benefits of a luxury travel network’s hotel perks.

Step 1 – Compare Benefits

Once you know your destination, pull up each travel network’s site to compare benefits at the hotels you’re interested in.

Here are the links for each network’s list of hotels and benefits:

A word of warning: These aren’t the world’s greatest websites, and finding your destination, especially on Ensemble, can be a challenge to say the least. If you’re having trouble, you can just skip this step and contact a travel agent for that particular network directly.

Here’s an example benefit comparison we tested for the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on the Big Island of Hawaii:

Signature Virtuoso Ensemble FHR
  • Full Buffet Breakfast for two daily
  • $100 Resort Credit, per room, per stay
  • $200 Resort Credit, per suite, per stay
  • Complimentary WiFi
  • Complimentary Room Upgrade When Available
  • Early Check In / Late Checkout When Available

 

  • Full Buffet Breakfast for two daily
  • $100 Resort Credit, per room, per stay
  • $200 Resort Credit, per suite, per stay
  • Complimentary WiFi
  • Complimentary Room Upgrade When Available
  • Early Check In / Late Checkout When Available

 

  • Full Buffet Breakfast for two daily
  • $100 Resort Credit, per room, per stay
  • $200 Resort Credit, per suite, per stay
  • Complimentary WiFi
  • Complimentary Room Upgrade When Available
  • Early Check In / Late Checkout When Available

 

None

In our example, the traditional travel networks actually offer significantly better FHR-style benefits than does FHR itself.

Book with a Signature, Virtuoso, or Ensemble agent, and you’ll get free breakfast, either $100 or $200 resort credit, and the possibility of a complimentary upgrade. Pay $550 for a platinum card and you’ll get none of that.

More often, all four travel networks will offer similar, if not the exact same, benefits.

Step 2 – Check Prices

Only Virtuoso and FHR will give you live, online prices with their travel network hotels. Even with those two, there are exceptions that mean you’ll have to get in touch with a travel agent for pricing.

Otherwise, your best bet is to do some estimating before you pick up the phone. Start at the hotel’s website.

Usually, booking through a travel network will be the same price as booking direct through the hotel, provided you select a standard rate with free cancellation. Practically, what that means is if you find a discounted prepay rate, or a rate that’s only available through a third-party site, it won’t be eligible for travel network perks.

For example, we picked a sample date for the Mauna Kea above, and the Virtuoso rate was the same as the “Regular Rate” displayed on Marriott’s site for the same dates. If you compare that to what you’d pay for a package that includes breakfast direct from Marriott, you’re saving about $70 per night before adding in the $100 resort credit. If you booked a prepaid, discount rate on Marriott’s site, you could save about $15 per night. In our minds, that makes the luxury travel network’s rate a great value.

Once you’ve decided on your property and network and confirmed that you’re getting the best value possible, it’s time to find a travel agent.

Step 3 – Contact a Travel Agent

You’ve got a few options for finding a travel agent. You can either search for one near you, one that specializes in the type of travel you prefer, or one that specializes in the destination you’re looking for.

Even though it might not fit with your travel hacking tendencies, we recommend trying to find an agent you can establish an ongoing relationship with. And if they’re close enough that you could stop by their office for a chat, all the better.

Here are links to search for agents from each travel network:

Once you’ve found an agent, give them a call, or send an email with the destination and dates you want, and the rate and network perks you saw online.

Here’s where the good stuff happens. Good travel agents really are experts. There’s a good chance they’ll know quite a bit about your destination and the hotel you’re interested in, and that they’ll be able to offer some advice on your trip.

They might even have personal relationships that mean you get an extra special touch on your trip. The last time I booked a 4-star hotel through a luxury travel agent, she said, “Oh, I met the manager last year. I’ll let him know you’re coming.” When we arrived, we were greeted with a plate of French macarons from a local bakery, and a personal note from, you guessed it, the manager.

Other Tips

If you’re booking a standard rate at a 4-star or 5-star hotel, there’s really no reason not to book through a luxury travel agent. Unlike Expedia or TripAdvisor, travel agent bookings typically include all the benefits of a direct booking, meaning that you’ll earn points or loyalty benefits with the hotel’s loyalty program.

The agent can also step in when things go wrong. Travel agents represent an enormous amount of potential revenue, so there’s a good chance that if your agent calls the hotel on your behalf, the hotel is going to listen.

Finally, travel agents really can be amazingly helpful at planning the rest of your trip. The best ones are treasure troves of information that you just can’t find anywhere else. Develop a relationship with a great travel agent, and they’ll likely become a valuable part of your travel hacking team.

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