It turns out that this may be true. Several "members only" luxury lodging sites have gained momentum in the past several months, perhaps partly in response to the recession outfall of empty hotel rooms and partly in response to the general public's fascination with how the other half lives. Some of these private sale travel sites require an invitation, or at least an approval step, while others let you in with a mere e-mail address "ID check."
Not surprisingly, a few of the discount luxury travel sites are affiliated with or grew out of discount luxury apparel sites; Jetsetter is owned by Gilt.com, and ideeli.com sells clothes, home furnishings and travel under one roof. Others are pure travel plays: Vacationist was launched by travel auction site Luxury Link, and SniqueAway is owned by SmarterTravel.
When faced with invitation and members-only sites, most people have three main questions:
The answers in most cases are no, not really and yes, respectively; read on for more.
15 Ways to Get the Best Hotel Rate
Is It Free, and Can I Get In?
Membership in each of the sites mentioned here is free. The ways you can get past the bouncer vary greatly at each site; in my case, out of the blue some months ago I received an invitation at the e-mail address I use for this column to join SniqueAway.com. I accepted and signed up, and have been receiving the weekly SniqueAway deals by e-mail ever since. A couple of weeks ago, our editor requested admission without an invitation, and was accepted within 48 hours -- although she did use an IndependentTraveler.com e-mail address, and let's be honest, it may have influenced her acceptance.
To find out if joebagadonuts would be let in, last week I requested an invitation from SniqueAway using an e-mail address no one would mistake for that of a travel writer or editor. It took a little over three days, not too bad. (I am also told SniqueAway will send some of its Twitter followers an invite code by private message if asked directly.)
If you don't want to wait and wonder, it turns out that invites are floating around the Internet for the taking, simply by Googling "SniqueAway membership." I tried it, and it works -- though you may just want to sign up the old-fashioned way if you don't like creeping around the Internet with bogus invites.
Vacationist.com has a similar approval/acceptance step, while at Jetsetter.com, you are merely required to register with a valid e-mail address. My request for admittance to Vacationist was sent on a Tuesday night, and came back in the affirmative on Sunday.
Where Can You Stay for $100 or Less?
Once I Am In, Are the Deals Any Good?
I did a heap of price comparisons on SniqueAway, and saw savings in the 30 - 40 percent range in most cases, with maximum savings as high as 70 percent. The average discount brought luxury lodgings within range of a higher-end regular hotel -- for the most typical offers, price quotes right around $200 -$225 a night were pretty common for lodgings that typically go for $335 or more. Some deals came in much lower -- I saw rooms for $125 - $145 per night, an extremely good price for a luxury hotel -- typically for smaller or perhaps less well-located rooms.
The very best deals can be hard to resist: $110 for swank hotels in the best spots in major cities, $125 for a gated beachfront Caribbean resort, $135 a night in Crete ... if you are an impulse travel buyer, you might find yourself in trouble using these sites.
However, I also saw some deals that were great deals for the specific room, but perhaps not for the specific hotel. For example, SniqueAway offered a "Historic Wing Room" with one king bed or two queen beds at the Harbourview Inn in Charleston, SC for $225/night, discounted from $359. This is a good deal, but you can book a "Traditional King Room" or "Traditional Room, Two Queens" on the hotel site for $229 for the same dates. The Traditional room will be smaller, and you won't enjoy the 14-foot high ceilings of the Historic Wing Room, of course -- so perhaps this deal is best considered more akin to a "free upgrade."
This brings up an important point: to make sure you are really saving money, everyone I have spoken to about these sites strongly recommends that you compare all offers to prices you can find through regular searches on the hotel's own site or at online booking engines.
On Jetsetter there were approximately 30 offers at any given time, although some seem to be sold out at times -- when I tried to advance through the booking process, no prices appeared, and the Book Now button did not work. This was a rare event, though; among the better bookable deals I saw just last week:
These are very modest prices at pretty nice properties.
How They Work, How They Differ
On most of the sites, the deals are available for purchase for a limited time -- perhaps a week, perhaps a few days. You could even be faced with making a purchase within hours at sites where deals are not batched by week, but are added and removed on an as-available basis. That said, in most cases the available booking dates can extend for several months into the future. The SniqueAway deals I saw had to be booked within the week, but were good for travel well into 2012, and offered truly hundreds of open dates.
See Our Best Hotel Deals
At SniqueAway, deals are sent by e-mail, and last one week only. Twenty-four hours before the deals expire, SniqueAway sends a "24 Hours Left to Book" reminder e-mail, and the deadline is firm; if you try to access an expired deal after the expiration, it is simply gone -- no extensions, no apologies, no regrets.
SniqueAway e-mails typically feature a selection of five hotels from a reliable cross-section of destination types: watching their deals for months now, I have noticed there is typically one in a major U.S. city (this week it is Chicago), one that is fairly exotic (this week Playa del Carmen Mexico), one at a "resort-y" U.S. city (Newport, RI), one at a less exotic beach destination (Dominican Republic) and one at a mid-tier U.S. city (Denver). They have more sales than the five they feature in e-mail weekly, but they do follow this general pattern; for example, there are also deals in Las Vegas; Fiji; Chittenden, VT; Islamorada, FL; and Charleston, SC. Rounding out the selection were deals in Whistler, Canada; Costa Rica; and Rancho Palos Verdes, CA.
In my experience, Jetsetter's offerings seem to be both more fluid and more broad, with some listings of what many folks would consider upscale hotels rather than true luxury properties. They also tend to appear and disappear in far less regimented fashion than SniqueAway's -- when you log in, you will see deals that expire in days, others that expire in hours, some that expire in minutes.
Jetsetter has a larger number of hotels listed, approximately 30 to SniqueAway's dozen or so. As such, the site may appeal to a larger number of travelers (and those who are a little less bent on luxury). But Jetsetter hasn't skimped on the online concierge offerings of many of these sites, with what they call "expert traveler" commentary and information specific to each location. Jetsetter's notification e-mails tend to focus on themes or geographical regions -- "Germany's Best" and the like.
Jetsetter also has a bit of hip cache; right now it's advertising a "Camping Concert Experience of Bonnaroo," a VIP package to the popular music festival.
Vacationist is structured a bit more like SniqueAway, with a smaller set of weekly offers, but tends to focus on more traditional upscale destinations. Current offers include three resorts in Greece, two in Italy, two in Mexico, and one each in Grenada, St. Lucia, Costa Rica and London; the only domestic option was La Jolla, CA. I have been a member only for a short time, but looking through their "Coming Sales" list, this seems very consistent; you don't see small resorts in Vermont here as often.
Vacationist advertises discounts as great as 60 percent, and I was able to find discounts this big in my searches. Prices can be extremely low; the Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa offer starts at $93 a night, as compared to $207 on Expedia for the dates I checked. Further afield, the Astro Palace Hotel & Suites in Santorini, Greece, cost $159 on Vacationist, $229 on Expedia -- about a 30 percent discount. As with the other sites, the number of available dates for these offers was impressive.
One very nice feature on most of the sites is booking calendars on which you can mouse-over a date and see the price for that day -- so you can avoid the dead-end searches on nearly countless dates that occur so often when booking airfares.
Poll: Have You Used a Private Sale Travel Site?
Additionally, a number of the sites dispatch staff and representatives to the resorts to write reviews and post photos, so you can learn a lot more about a property and the surrounding area than you would on most booking or hotel sites. On the sites reviewed here, the information was useful, and seemed reliable and honest; you might check the available properties against the countless lists of upscale and luxury hotels on the Web (such as Expedia Insiders' Select Best Hotels for any Destination).
With their very straightforward notification systems and liberal booking restrictions, these services could be useful even when you are not necessarily looking for a luxury experience -- for an overnight business trip, if the prices are the same as the local chain crashpad hotel, why not live the luxe life?
The Independent Traveler
Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, which also owns SniqueAway.com.