The dollar is strong. The Dow topped 20,000. You’re feeling flush, optimistic. You’re ready to book your annual golf trip with your buddies.
Usually you schedule a domestic golf trip – Scottsdale, Bandon Dunes, something like that. This year you’re determined to take the plunge and schedule your first international golf vacation. St. Andrews. Ballybunion. The Scottish Highlands. Ireland’s Ring of Kerry. You want to check off as many of the iconic links as possible.
So how do you get started? Golfweek put that question to three seasoned travel professionals: Bill Hogan, director of international for Premier Golf; Gordon Dalgleish, president of PerryGolf; and Sam Baker, founder and chairman of Haversham & Baker.
Here is some of their best advice:
For starters, make sure every member of your travel party has the same expectations
“(Our) No. 1 rule is, choose your traveling companions with more care than you choose your life mate,” Baker said.
That means making sure everyone is comfortable with the budget and the itinerary. For example, if some members of your group are willing to spend $15,000 apiece on a trip and want to stay in Four and Five Diamond hotels, while others would prefer to spend no more than $6,000 and stay in B&Bs, you have a problem. If some members want to play 36 a day while others would prefer to play a leisurely 18 holes and spend more time sightseeing, you have a problem.
So a tour operator wants to make sure everyone is on the same page.
“Our job is to be their advocate and match up someone’s expectations with the reality on the ground,” Dalgleish said.
Decide where you want to go
A good place to start is by determining what Baker calls “the neck of the hourglass” – that is, the most difficult thing to schedule. Can you get a tee time at Muirfield? Royal County Down? If not, you need to audible.
“By a long shot, the single-most important thing to a traveler is playing famous, world-acclaimed courses on their first trip,” Baker said.
But be realistic. The most famous links will, of course, cost you more money. But the bigger concern is that they might not be available this year because of strong demand. That’s why the tour operators already are booking 2018 trips.
“If people want to go to Scotland in September and play St. Andrews, well, that’s out,” Hogan said. “There are no tee times at St. Andrews in September.”
If that’s the case, Hogan said, you might need to consider a trip to the Scottish Highlands. Nairn, Castle Stuart and Royal Dornoch aren’t exactly a bad fallback plan.
Golfers seem less inclined to do what Hogan calls the “commando tours,” in which travelers play a course, pack up, race to the next destination, play again, pack up, move on, and on and on.
“The old days of 14 rounds of golf in eight days and six different hotels – we don’t see much of that anymore,” Dalgleish said. “These guys feel confident they’ll be back, and they’ll bite off (more) over the years.”
The tour operators recommended minimizing hotel changes. Settle in a centrally located hotel and spend three or four days driving to nearby golf courses. That makes for a more relaxing trip and provides the chance to visit many of the pubs and restaurants in towns such as St. Andrews and Inverness.
Consider reserving a driver and motor coach
Dalgleish said 70 percent of PerryGolf’s clients reserve a coach. It relieves some of the anxiety of navigating unfamiliar roads; you know the driver will get you to the course on time, will be there when you’re ready to leave and will allow you to enjoy a post-round drink on the way back to your hotel.
Hogan insists on coaches with two seats for each client so they can stretch out. He noted that experienced drivers also can assist groups in getting checked in, arranging for caddies, scheduling dinner reservations on the fly or adjusting tee times. He said drivers also sometimes are called on to buy gifts for wives while the men are on the course.
This service isn’t as expensive as it might sound.
“At eight people, getting a luxury coach with driver is only slightly more expensive than driving yourself,” Baker said. “At 12 (people), a coach is less expensive than getting three vans.”
If you have a small group and want to drive, Hogan will book a large, automatic vehicle with GPS.
Decide whether to ship your golf clubs
Most travelers still travel with their own clubs, and for those flying first class or business class, golf luggage is included in the fare. For others, however, it might make sense to use a club-shipping service. Dalgleish and Hogan suggested doing so if, for example, you’re spending three days sightseeing in London before starting a golf trip in Scotland.
Decide whether you need travel insurance
Tour operators say a minority of their clients – roughly 20-30 percent – buy travel insurance. Hogan is a big advocate of insurance given the typical demographics of international travelers.
“A large portion of our customers are Baby Boomers,” he said. “As they’re aging and parents are getting older, we often find people who say, ‘Mom got sick’ or ‘I threw my hip out.’ If you buy travel insurance within two weeks of paying your deposit to any travel company, you’re eligible for preexisting conditions.”
Ultimately, however, it’s a personal decision based on your finances. Some people can cancel a $10,000 trip on the spur of the moment and not give it a second thought; others lie awake at night fretting over that scenario.
“If it’s a significant investment for you and you would feel uncomfortable not having protection on it, you need to buy insurance,” Dalgleish said. Gwk
Know before you go
Here are some other things to consider in planning an international golf trip:
Cost: “If you did things as cheaply as possible, you’re still looking at spending $5,000 at a minimum,” said Sam Baker of Haversham & Baker. If you’re not comfortable with that, you might want to put off the trip for another year.
Frequent-flyer miles: Should you use them or stockpile them? Gordon Dalgleish of PerryGolf said a good use of miles is to buy a last-minute flight or upgrade to premium seating for long flights. Otherwise, you might want to save those miles for another trip.
Extras: Some travelers might want to spring for something special – say, a haggis ceremony or an Old Tom Morris impersonator. For others, Dalgleish said, “The experience, the camaraderie of being with their friends, is sufficient enjoyment.”