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- Amazon recently launched Amazon Explore with interactive, one-on-one virtual travel experiences.
- Hosts live around the world and experiences range from $10 to $99.
- For some, you can even buy local items in real time and have them shipped to your home.
The other night I walked through the streets of Tokyo, stopping in at small shops, exploring handmade ceramics, saying hi to a local shopkeeper, and filling a basket with new treasures to display in my home – all while sitting in my living room in New Jersey. This was possible thanks to one of the new virtual tours from Amazon Explore.
For the last long year, I’ve been trying to scratch my travel itch with virtual experiences, with mixed success. I tried online cooking classes, virtually toured museums and historical sites around the globe, and even bought my son and his cousin a small group online tea ceremony with EF Tours. And I’ve followed along as Airbnb added online interactive tours with guides.
After all of that, I was surprised to hear that Amazon was jumping into the game. After a year of online experiences, why now? And how would this be different?
To find out, I bought a virtual ticket for a first-hand Amazon Explore review to see exactly what they were offering.
What is Amazon Explore?
Amazon Explore is a series of live, virtual one-on-one experiences with hosts located around the world. You can access the program on the Amazon website. However, as a brand new offering that is technically still in beta, it’s a little hard to spot tucked away as the very last entry on the “Programs and Features” tab.
Perusing Amazon Explore you’ll find experiences ranging from hands-on cooking to tours of Paris and Berlin to virtual trips to the beach. Before I jumped in and booked my own tour, I was given an opportunity to do a short media “sampling” of Amazon Explore for review purposes. Highlights included two cooking experiences (salsa in Mexico, $28, and pasta making in Italy, $52) and two shopping and culture tours (one in Tokyo for only $9 and Quebec City at a pricey $62). They were all fun and exciting enough that I was eager to sign up for a full experience myself after.
Other available options range from learning about the legends of alchemy in Prague ($56) to getting up close with sloths in Costa Rica ($27). No matter your travel interests, it’s easy enough to find an experience catered to it. You can also filter by place, price, ratings, experience duration, and more to help narrow down the options.
Everything takes place within the unique Amazon platform, and on the shopping experiences, you have the added benefit of being able to pick items out in real time to be sent to you later.
How much is Amazon Explore?
Prices run the gamut from $10 to $99. Sometimes you’ll find multiple prices for similar experiences (individual guides set their own prices, according to Amazon).
Before you get started, shop around to make sure you’re not overpaying, just like you would if you were actually in the destination.
Like purchasing any other item on Amazon, you can use your preferred stored payment method, add a new card, or use gift cards.
One additional way you can pay is with travel points – which is especially great since many of us have been sitting on a pile of unused points due to the pandemic. Hilton Honors has expanded its collaboration with Amazon so you can now use your Hilton points to book experiences. You just need to link your Hilton account with your Amazon one before you book.
I noticed that the charge for my session wasn’t processed until I had successfully completed my experience, and I also had the option to cancel right up until the time slot began. If there are tech difficulties that force a cancellation, you’ll automatically be refunded.
How is Amazon Explore different from other virtual experiences?
There are a few things that make Amazon stand out from other online virtual tours and experiences. First, every tour with Amazon Explore is a one-on-one experience. If you’re hoping to sit back with your microphone turned off, this isn’t going to be your cup of tea. However, if you miss chatting with someone new, asking questions about what you’re looking at, or trying out a few words of a new language, this is a great option.
Another difference you’ll notice right away is the high production value. While other experiences use a regular Zoom log-in, Amazon has created its own unique platform. This high-tech option has integrated graphics, including maps and labels; the ability to touch an item on your screen and have your guide see what you’re pointing to; and one-touch buttons for taking screenshots and to use a “megaphone” to talk to locals (for example, a shopkeeper) near your guide.
One thing to note: Currently, there’s no dual camera. Amazon’s platform allows you to see your guide, but they can’t see you. However, you can still easily converse in real time.
Another intersection where Amazon Explore detours from Airbnb and other virtual tours is with the shopping experiences. Your guide will shop for you if your experience is marked with an “In-Session Shopping” tag.
On a shopping itinerary I tried, this was a revelation and an entirely new way of interacting with the destination. The guide entered a local store, held up items, and after we chose one, brought it to the register, photographed it, and purchased it for me. The itemized charges appeared in my Amazon orders immediately. Genius.
However, shipping is extra, so don’t assume you’ll have free Amazon Prime delivery for this program.
Additionally, for one of the cooking experiences, I was able to have all of my fresh ingredients delivered from Amazon Fresh. Although this service isn’t fully integrated into the program yet (it’s not a one-click option), it’s easy enough to copy and paste the ingredient list into your Whole Foods or Fresh shopping basket.
While you’re at it, you can also order any suggested kitchen equipment for your recipe from the Amazon site (if you’re wondering, like I was, why Amazon is getting into experiences, this was an “Aha” moment).
My experience with Amazon Explore
I was interested in trying Amazon Explore‘s live shopping options, and my son, who was joining me for this experience, is interested in Japanese culture, so it was an easy jump to choose a Tokyo shopping experience. There were three options that worked for us timing-wise (we had to choose a late-night time slot on the East Coast to coincide with stores opening in Japan in the morning) for $10, $20, and $39 price points, all 45 minutes long. I chose the mid-level option: Shop Like a Chef. It was a tour of Kappabashi, an area of Tokyo that specializes in cookery and kitchenware, and $20 for a 45-minute private session seemed like a good value.
Our session started out strong. Explore has an interface that can only be accessed via Amazon on a laptop or desktop computer. The graphics were great, and the short intro of technicolor experiences around the world created Disney-level excitement. This was definitely not a Zoom chat.
Our guide Giulia (a friendly, trilingual Italian, Japanese speaker), jumped right in with introductions and gave us a quick intro to the cooking district complete with a map of the area displayed across our screen and crisp graphics that showed four shop choices available to tour – Chopsticks, Ceramics, Fake Food, and Knives. Giulia said we’d have time for two, and we chose Ceramics and Fake Food, because plastic ramen was something we needed to see.
One note I quickly realized is that you need to be decisive on these tours. It helps to be able to pull the trigger quickly on a purchase since time is quite literally ticking while you shop. After I (finally) committed to a lovely hand-painted teapot and two teacups halfway through the session, Giulia brought them to the register and photographed them so she could return after the tour to process payment.
We then tagged along on a quick walk through Kappabashi, listening to the sounds of shoppers and background store music on our way to an “only in Japan” shop filled with hand-painted food replicas.
Several magnets and key chains shaped like raw fish later, our 45-minute tour was over and it was time to say sayonara. All around, it was a really fun, truly unusual, and rewarding virtual experience.
My receipt arrived immediately, and although shipping can take as long as four weeks, my package arrived in just five days. However, be aware that prices can quickly add up on top of the initial experience price. I ended up spending $80 while shopping and the shipping was an additional $25.
The bottom line
“Souvenirs are memories,” enthused guide Mizuki in Japan, which seemed to perfectly sum up why these experiences seem so special. Staying at home this year I have neither new memories nor new souvenirs, and I was happy for an opportunity to get both.
Overall, I found the Amazon virtual experiences I tried to be superior to other online travel options I’ve tried. From the unique interactive platform to the personal, one-on-one interactions to the real-time shopping options, these virtual offerings truly stand out in a crowded field.
I’m guessing that when Amazon Explore comes out of beta there will be a dual video option, which would be very helpful. And, based on a questionnaire after my “trip,” you may be able to tip the guide in the future. During a time when everyone in the travel industry has been adversely affected, I would have liked this option.
Still, I was thoroughly impressed by the quality of the Amazon Explore programming and the tech which delivered it to my home.