Julia Douglas was traveling the world almost as soon as she could walk. Every time her father, a Coca-Cola executive, would get a promotion, the family would move to a different state or country. When they settled in Germany when she was in the third grade, Julia really caught the travel bug.
At the International School of Düsseldorf, where she spent her elementary school years, her sporting competitions were either in Holland, Belgium or Luxembourg. Ski trips would be in Switzerland and, when the family bought a Volvo, they went to Sweden to pick it up. In high school, she accepted a photo scholarship in the Galapagos and ran cross-country in Turkey. The pattern continued through college where she studied abroad in Italy and after graduating, pursued a fellowship at insurance giant Lloyd’s of London. While in London, she seized every opportunity for weekend trips—from Ibiza in the summer to Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day.
It only made sense that she would start a luxury travel concierge service of her own. In 2005, at the age of 24, Julia created Jet Set World Travel to design far-flung trips for other people. Utilizing her phenomenal network and extensive experience, she broke the mold with a fee-based model that compensated agents for their time, much like you would for a lawyer or designer. Where traditional travel agencies employed a more reactive approach, Jet Set focused on being proactive—creatively addressing their clients’ needs. “Historically, travel agents were order-takers and specific requests were directed by the traveler—whether it be airfare or booking a cruise or an all-inclusive. There were few travel consultants I could find who had tremendous destination expertise, thought creatively and were interested in getting to know the client,” says Julia. “We are a more consultative, concierge lifestyle management firm as opposed to a high-volume transactional agency.”
Constantly trying to innovate the travel experience led Julia to her next game-changing venture. After planning a particularly complex itinerary for a family of six traveling in Europe for six weeks (“We planned everything from shipping their golf clubs from course to course in Scotland to plotting out preseason running paths in Marbella to notifying every restaurant in Italy that their son had nut allergies,” Julia says), she handed them an inch and a half binder with all of the compiled information. Digital itineraries were not common at the time.
The fact that the eight-pound binder would have to be lugged around by one person on the trip and would collect dust on a shelf post-trip was a problem for Julia. Not only that, but since travel is “so dynamic and fluid,” their flight times and dining reservations might change and there would be no way to update the documents in real-time. Once the traveler was at their destination, it would be difficult to engage with them. Since the world was becoming increasingly mobile, Julia decided to create an app that would help travel planners collect confirmations, organize details and communicate updates with clients on the go.
Launched in late 2014, AXUS is a comprehensive itinerary building system. Creating paperless itineraries that can be accessed anywhere (and even offline), the tool allows clients to review plans collectively as a multigenerational family or group of friends through a unique URL on a laptop or smartphone and view them once they are confirmed. With destination guides, in-app messaging and flight tracking, AXUS houses multiple functionalities of other apps under one roof. It is also a way to form a montage of memories travelers can return to years later.
Just off a trip to Lanai in Hawaii, you’d be hard-pressed to find a place Julia hasn’t been. Let her help you plan your own dream trip with these wanderlust-inducing tips:
Let the reason for the trip inform the destination
We talk about the why before we talk about the where or the what. A lot of times, people think they know where they want to go and where they should be going is actually totally different from the destination they’ve initially proposed. A client of ours decided he wanted to take his eight-year-old daughter away for a long weekend of volunteerism. He asked, “Where could we go in North America for three nights where they’ll have a volunteer activity that she can participate in and we can give back to a local community?” Their destination, New Orleans, was really decided by a deep desire to help a distressed community.
Allow your priorities to dictate the time of year you travel
The best time of year for some people might be the time in which accommodations have the lowest price. For other people, it may be the weather. Even if a location is equatorial and doesn’t have a pronounced winter or summer season, you need to look at rainfall. When you’re on a safari in the summertime, the vegetation is very green, which is aesthetically beautiful, but sometimes it’s harder to see game because there’s more hiding places. The other thing to consider is that your days are actually longer then, so your game drive could be until 9pm followed by a late dinner and an early sunrise. You’re not going to get as much sleep.
Book in the order of what’s most important to you
When the goal is to utilize miles or have some sort of reward redemption, airfare precedes the land arrangements and maybe even decides the destination. This is where planning travel becomes a puzzle. You have to ask yourself if it’s the destination, property, experience, date or personal milestone that is giving rise to the trip. If you want to go to Bermuda for America’s Cup, you would need to start with availability of hotel and look at airfare afterwards, as it is the least flexible component once it’s confirmed. For a family, confirming air is sometimes the hardest part because you can’t always get six seats in the same class of service with neighboring seat assignments.
Work backwards to set a budget
Since airfare is a fixed price, we prefer to obtain a budget independent of it. For example, if a couple says their budget is $10,000 to $15,000 for two people for ten days in Europe, we’ll look at what they might be spending on all flights combined—perhaps, $2,500 a person. When you deduct the airfare expense of $5,000 from the budget provided, you’re left with only $5,000-$10,000 for all other arrangements over a ten-day experience. Then, you have to account for the exchange rate, which can further reduce the budget, especially when you review hotel rates in Rome, Florence and Venice in July. Even for three and four-star hotels, it will be hard to find anything under 300 euros. You’ve already exhausted the low-end of the budget before incorporating any touring, transportation outside of flights or dining. If you shave off two or three nights and/or eliminate one destination, you can have an experience that’s more in line with your budget.
Research routing schedules for transportation on multi-city trips
Some carriers, like Icelandair, offer lower fares into Europe because they want to encourage you to include a two to three day stopover in Reykjavik. If people don’t know the Eurostar schedule, they wouldn’t know you can do Amsterdam to Paris by train or even Amsterdam to Brussels to Paris. In Europe, you’re spoiled for choice with the rails system and Rail Europe is a consumer-friendly site to look up train schedules. In Africa, you’re dependent on flights and in Croatia, ferries. Kayak gives you great insight into what’s available for certain modes of transportation and has filtering options where you can search by time of day, lowest fare to highest and least number of connections.
Find a hotel that aligns with your interests
Focus on where you plan to spend your time and what interests you. If you’re in New York and going to spend a lot of time at the 9/11 Museum, go to the Statue of Liberty and explore Tribeca, you wouldn’t want to stay on the Upper East Side because you will spend a lot of time in taxis or on the subway. Some people prioritize hotel experience over tourism so if they love Upper East Side shopping and want to stay at The Mark and see NBC, that makes perfect sense. Looking at how recently hotels were renovated is also important. Sometimes properties have great brand recognition, but not all things are equal. If they haven’t had a renovation of soft or hard goods since sometime between 2005 and 2010, there’s going to be a lot of wear and tear. For families, an important consideration might be whether there’s 24-hour room service or if you’re at a resort that’s ADA-approved so you can wheel strollers without carrying them up stairs.
Research spots to eat, drink, shop and sightsee
Some people love Goop for their insider tips. Afar and Travel + Leisure both have really robust information on destinations. Afar has a local expert that explores coffee shops and gelaterias as opposed to bigger restaurants. Travel + Leisure just came out with their guides in an app. LUXE has an app and physical guides. I’m old school and love paper, presentation and design. They’re an accordion fold with a slip that holds them. You can buy a whole box as a cool collector’s piece. They’re tongue-in-cheek and there’s an edge in how they write. It’s a little more current and not going to be your Rick Steves travel guide.
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Image courtesy of Ivanka Trump
Illustration by Jonny Ruzzo