When it comes to happiness, social scientists say it’s not glossy, tangible objects that give us lasting joy — it’s experiences, be it wine tasting in Tuscany or snowshoeing in Vermont. A new crop of travel websites is making it easier to book those kinds of experiences — and even give them to someone else. After all, nothing says “I love you" like a gift certificate to swim with sharks.
Want to attend a bread-making workshop in San Francisco? Or spend a long weekend in Atlanta watching the Final Four and the Masters practice round? Whatever your pleasure, these slick sites allow you to create bespoke vacations by clicking on destination and activity boxes that call to mind the virtual storefronts of sites like Gilt and Rue La La. Some experiences are the centerpiece of travel packages that include hotel rooms, meals and airport transfers (usually not flights). Other experiences are sold separately. Most activities have some sort of exclusive element or are limited to small groups. The sites, while prettier than their predecessors, are still in their infancy so the inventory is not as vast as that of an established trip-planning site like Viator.com. And some experiences, like visiting the New England Aquarium, can be arranged on your own (although you might miss out on perks like skipping to the head of the line). That said, most of the trips on the sites appear to be priced fairly and are ideal for travelers who want to anchor their vacation with activities. Even if you don’t use the websites to book a trip, you can browse them like magazines to help you decide where to go and what to do when you’re there. Below is a guide to the newcomers.
Best for: Fans of luxury vacation packages. Sports buffs.
What you’ll find: Goviva.com bills itself as a “marketplace of once-in-a-lifetime experiences," all of which are handpicked by its staff. Visitors to the site can browse a few dozen packages — many of which include accommodations and other perks like breakfast and a gift bag — in eight categories: sporting events, active lifestyle, arts and fashion, celebrity, entertainment, film, food and wine, and music. (Some trips appear in multiple categories; for instance, a trip to Arizona to work with the Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug appears in both the “active lifestyle" and “celebrity" headings.) When users hover their mouse over a trip box, they see the starting price and some basic details. Clicking on the box brings up more information and prices, which are based on whether you buy a single (the most expensive rate per person), double, triple or quad room (the least expensive rate per person). The prices include taxes and gratuities.
On the home page I clicked on the “food and wine" tab and spotted “Cooking Up Trouble With ‘Top Chef’ Tre Wilcox." The trip beginning May 17 includes a cooking demonstration by Wilcox (from Bravo’s “Top Chef"), two nights at the Magnolia Hotel Dallas, a four-course dinner in a private dining area at Village Marquee Grill, and airport and event transfers, starting at $775 a person. When I selected the “sporting events" tab, I found a trip to New Orleans on Feb. 1 that included an upper-level ticket to the Super Bowl, three nights at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel in the French Quarter, a cocktail-and-autograph event with current and former National Football League players, breakfast each day and a gift bag. The price: from $5,030 a person. (Goviva’s president and co-founder, Robert Tuchman is the founder and former president of TSE Sports & Entertainment, so you’ll find a number of sports-themed itineraries.)
Under the “active lifestyle" tab, a trip to Oahu, Hawaii, included four days of surfing with Jamie Sterling, a professional surfer; four nights in Kuilima Estates West, adjacent to Turtle Bay Resort; a rental van; and a traditional Hawaiian dinner, starting at $2,305 a person. All packages include access to a personal concierge who can answer questions and arrange additional activities.
Bottom line: Vacation packages mean it’s practically one-stop shopping, although it also means you are locked in to certain trip details. And many Goviva trips are expensive. But if you want to go to the Super Bowl, here’s your chance to do it in style.
Best for: Travelers who like to design their itineraries. People who can’t decide where to go.
What you’ll find: “Hey, I’m Mr. Arlo," reads the text on the site’s home page. “Where would you like to go?" Type in the name of a city to browse. If it’s your first time on the site, you will be asked some questions about yourself: your interests, what sort of food you like, if you’re a big spender. MrArlo.com will then suggest hotels and experiences that can be booked right then and there (flights and car rentals will be offered in the future). The site remembers your answers going forward if you continue to use the same computer or if you sign in through Facebook.
Not sure where you want to go? Instead of typing the name of a city, click the “dream" tab on the upper left of the page. Then choose what it is you’re dreaming about: “sand, sun and surf," “winter wonderlands," “wide open spaces" or “bright lights, big cities." I chose cities, which pulled up more than a dozen, including Rio de Janeiro, Tel Aviv and Seattle. I clicked on Tel Aviv and several boxes appeared. One gave a little background about how to get around the city (by bus, taxi or bicycle). The rest showcased activities, like a day trip to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea for $125, and places to stay, like the Rothschild hotel for $264 a night. Mr. Arlo also allows users to see TripAdvisor hotel reviews and make restaurant reservations through Open Table without leaving the site.
Bottom line: This is one of the more a la carte sites: Users choose the trip components they want, then click an “add to trip" button. Easy. But there are more hotel rooms than experiences right now, which makes browsing less interesting.
Best for: Fans of California and Hawaii. Creative gift givers. Travelers trolling for ideas.
What you’ll find: “Book amazing things to do," declares Peek.com’s home page. And you can do just that in California (San Francisco, San Diego, wine country) and Hawaii (Maui, Oahu, Kauai, Big Island). Site visitors click on the yellow “choose your destination" bar to pick a location. I selected Maui and up came a page with activity options that I could narrow down by clicking on trip tabs that said “family friendly," “sights" and “adventurous." Each trip on the site, be it a volcano helicopter tour, whale watching or exploring Alcatraz, is presented as a clickable photograph. The prices are not only reasonable, you can also buy an experience for someone else by clicking the blue “gift it" button at check out (a lifesaver for procrastinators). Experiences on the site vary in length, scope and price, from activities like snorkeling in Maui ($36) that last just a few hours to a five-day Napa Valley Film Festival vacation that includes access to all regular film screenings and several wine tastings and tours ($499).
Yet you need not book a trip on Peek to make a visit to the site worth your while. A tab on each destination page says “Perfect Day." Here you can copy the itineraries of travelers like Tory Burch, the fashion designer (her favorite place to eat in Oahu is Morimoto Waikiki); Piers Morgan, the television host (his favorite place to eat in the San Diego area is Market Restaurant and Bar in Del Mar, Calif.); and Jack Dorsey, a founder of Twitter and an investor in Peek (his favorite place to eat in San Francisco is Zuni Cafe ). And no, his perfect day is not summarized in 140 characters.
Bottom line: Peek’s “Perfect Day" itineraries and gift-giving capabilities make it a site you want to visit again and again, that is, until you want to venture beyond California and Hawaii — although there are plans to add more locations in the United States and, eventually, globally.