Reed Travel Features
NEW YORK -- During the past decade, the U.S. traveler to France
increasingly has been described as "independent" and
"sophisticated," as reflected in French Government Tourist Office
figures that show more than 75% of Americans now travel with FIT
arrangements. Furthermore, more than half are repeat visitors who
often go into a travel agency knowing where they want to go, where
they want to stay and what they want to see and do. Although Paris
remains the leading destination, the French government's efforts to
encourage U.S. travelers to discover regional France are paying
There is no doubt that servicing today's clients requires that
an agent get to know as much of France as possible, according to
Eileen Hughes of Linden Travel Bureau in New York, "and, of course,
the best way to do that is just to go." Whether getting acquainted
or being reacquainted with France, "every trip cannot be just a
sightseeing vacation but one that helps form opinions of services
clients will need," Hughes said, "and when I am in France, I leave
plenty of time to look at hotels."
According to Hughes, her clients book mostly upscale trips of
between two and three weeks. They go to Paris and beyond to
Burgundy, Provence and, nowadays, the Dordogne, in the southwest;
they rent their own cars, very often picking them up in towns such
as Dijon, Lyon and Bordeaux, to which they have taken the TGV from
"Traveling by TGV to the French provinces, then renting a car at
the rail station has become more popular than flying from point to
point," she said. Taking the Channel Tunnel train from London to
Paris is also a favorite with her business clients, who, using an
open-jaw ticket, then fly home from Paris.
Repeat travelers "have gotten into barging and more actively
into walking and biking," said Hughes, "and I am talking about
clients over 50 and well into their 70s who are having a wonderful
time walking in Basque country and the Pyrenees, biking in the
She pointed out that although biking tours, car rentals and
Relais & Chateaux accommodations can be booked from the U.S.,
many of the small and charming hotels that today's traveler
requests don't pay commissions; for handling those bookings, she
charges a $25 reservations fee.
"The American traveler is indeed more adventuresome, moving
nowadays not from city to city but town to town to village," said
Sue Reinach, travel counselor at Traveler's Choice, a Carlson
Wagonlit agency in Atlanta. "Our bookings for France are mostly
fly-drives, mostly with Kemwel and AutoVenture, which have the best
prices," she said.
According to Reinach, her first-time FIT travelers head mostly
for Provence, the Riviera and the Loire Valley for 10 to 14 days.
"I am always plugging for Normandy and the western Loire, the
Dordogne and the Pyrenees," said Reinach, "and it works, because I
am selling what I know."
Traveler's Choice clients like noncommercial hotels, from three
stars to the Relais & Chateaux properties. "Clients often find
dining at the chateaux hotels is very expensive," she said, "but I
tell them to enjoy the experience of one meal at the hotel, then
eat at local restaurants and cafes the rest of the time."
She also pointed out that agents will have to count on three
months' leeway in collecting commissions at the small regional
hotels. As for travel tips she gives to clients: She tells those
who know any French at all to use it; it breaks the ice in a
country whose people feel strongly about their language.
The current specialty at Sibyl Wild Travel of Scarsdale, N.Y.,
is cruises departing from Monte Carlo, combined with pre- and
post-cruise arrangements. The agency, according to president Sibyl
Wild, sells lots of self-drive travel to all parts of France,
particularly the south, Burgundy, Brittany, Normandy and
"For all fly-drive clients," she said, "I recommend the
following: Plan with a map, and don't plan on covering more than
150 miles a day. And avoid one-night stands, or you won't remember
where you were when you get home."
According to Wild, her clients book a lot of four- and five-star
Relais & Chateaux stays, "although they are very often shocked
by the prices." She books these through the New York reservations
office when she can, although often, because there are so few
rooms, clients cannot get the space.
At any of France's choice small hotels and inns, she pointed
out, May and September are the two worst months to get confirmation
of the space you need. When Wild books hotels directly, she prepays
France is almost totally an FIT, upscale and repeat-travel
destination at Thompson Travel in Santa Monica, Calif., where
Kattie Cadar said that planning trips that meet client expectations
is a cooperative effort between client, agent and the agent's
associates. "To get it right," said Cadar, "you have to listen very
carefully to the clients' interests and expectations before
starting any travel planning. Our office has a wealth of
experience," she said, "and I am a member of Professional Women in
Travel, and we do a lot of information networking with each
Cadar said that special-interest FITs need more meticulous
planning than ever, and the example she used was biking. "There
seem to be a lot of people with a more active streak than there
used to be, although often those people want a mix of biking and
car or rail touring," she said. For biking arrangements, she has
gone to specialists such as Backroads, Jet Vacations and
Butterfield & Robinson, she said.