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When and Why to use a Travel Agent

In this Internet age it is tempting to think that you can book all of your travel on your own. And many times this is true – such as buying a simple round-trip flight, or grabbing a last minute hotel room or a package resort deal. However, for your more interesting and complex travel, once you’ve found a good agent, you’ll wonder how you’ve managed until then. Remember this golden rule: an agent is only as good as the information you’ve given him/her – so be prepared to work with your agent as partners in the process.

FOR STARTERS:

  • Travel Agents are your allies: When things go wrong before or during a trip – be it a last minute flight schedule change, a flight cancellation, a compromised hotel room or other booking – you’ll be happy you have an agent on your side. Not only can they help fix things before you go or once en-route, but they can also help get refunds after the fact for things that didn’t pan out.
  • Travel Agents like what they do and know how to do it: They’re in the business because they enjoy travel. Good agents invest in their education including site visits to hotels, cruise ships and more. They have relationships with the right people — be it a hotel chain, cruise line, sometimes even an airline, and you benefit from their connections. They network with other travel professionals, and they listen to their savvy clients. It’s their experience and insights that can make what might have been an okay trip a perfect one.

WHEN USING AN AGENT IS A MUST:

  • Adventure Travel/Exotic Travel: Trips to exotic lands should be extra special experiences, and a good travel agent will help make it so. If you’re planning travel to a distant land and wish to travel independently, using a travel agent is an absolute must. He/she will have relationships with reliable quality tour operators in foreign countries and will put together an itinerary that includes cars, drivers, guides, hotels, and local transportation. Importantly, your agent will know the unique places to stay that will make the trip that much more wonderful. If you know where you are going, but need some associated services (cars, drivers, guides) your agent can still be a big help in putting the finishing touches on your trip. And, if you do want to take a group tour, your agent can help you select the right one and make the necessary air and other arrangements.
  • Complex Itineraries: Most airline web sites cannot accurately compute multi-city airfares nor can they ticket flights on different airlines. You’ll need your agent to sort it out. Note that agents will charge a fee for ticketing air travel as airlines pay little or no commission to them. On the other hand, agents often have negotiated deals with airlines, such as upgrades to business class for nominal costs. Agents will also be savvy about the airlines’ complex rate structures, helping you find the best value for your needs. And if, in addition to multi-city air travel, your trip involves trains, car rentals, and multiple hotel stays, you will be happy you have an agent to make sure everything connects correctly.
  • Cruise Bookings: Being savvy about the best choices in cruising – a balancing act between itinerary and which cruise line/ship to pick – is best left to your travel agent (based on your input, of course). Cruise line companies do not undercut travel agent rates, so there is no benefit to going directly to them. However, a travel agent can help you sort through the myriad of choices including itineraries, ship size, cabin types (which one is the best location, best value?), quality of service and amenities, etc. Your agent will probably have made visits to various ships and/or cruised on them so he/she can guide you first hand.
  • Hotel/Resort Bookings: Agents keep current with what’s hip and what’s not and have seen a lot during hotel visits, so their recommendations count. (They also profit from feedback from their clients.) If the agent knows a particular hotel manager, VIP treatment often awaits you. Also important, an agency may have relationships with hotel chains that can result in room upgrades, better room locations and other benefits. Often the agency has a negotiated room rate that is quite attractive. (Always check the internet rate as well, as your agent can usually get the lowest published rate even if he/she books it for you.)
  • Other Agent Benefits: Working with an agent often allows you access to other agent negotiated rates for everything from car rentals to trip insurance (as well as good advice on the kinds of policies to have, why and when).

HOW TO FIND AN AGENT:

  • References: Speak with friends, office mates, and anyone you know who travel quite a bit (and seems like-minded) to find out that they use. This is usually the best route to finding an agent you will like.
  • Travel Associations: There are two associations of travel agents which specialize in high-end travel, and whose members network to stay on top of things. These are: Ensemble and Virtuoso. Even if you’ve found an agent by reference, check to see if he/she is a member as these associations often offer negotiated deals with various hotels and resorts and offer benefits on selected cruises and guided trips. On a broader basis, there is the American Society of Travel Agents which has two web sites: www.asta.org, where your can search for travel agents by location and www.travelsense.org, where agents are listed by area of specialization.
  • Match Expectations: Once you’ve found an agent, make sure he/she has experience with the travel you want to do. To see that the agent “gets it,” explain how you travel in terms of style, types of trips you want to take/have taken, destinations you enjoy … If you feel you’ll need a lot of hand holding, find out how accessible the agent is 24/7 or who you can contact if the agent is not available. Find out what fees are involved for various services. Try to sense the personality involved. If you don’t feel comfortable with this person initially, you won’t feel any better during the trip planning process. It’s fine to be “up front” with the potential agent, as he/she doesn’t want a bad working experience any more than you.

TIPS FOR WORKING WITH AN AGENT:

  • Travel Agents Are Not Mind Readers: Tell your agent what you want out of a trip (couples retreat, family vacation, time with friends, historical/cultural sightseeing, adventure travel, beach time and snorkeling, etc.); the types of hotels you typically like (cite some you’ve enjoyed, some you haven’t in terms of style, size, etc.); how you like to get around (car with driver, self-drive, train, inter-city plane, etc.); how much you like to move around (or not); length of trip, etc. If you’ve already done some trip research, share your thoughts with the agent, and let him/her come back with recommendations for you.
  • Be Comfortable Making Changes: If your agent gives you a trip proposal that makes you uncomfortable with selected hotels, overall price point, number of days per location, etc., it doesn’t mean you have to jump ship and find another agent or try to do it yourself. It’s okay to ask for revisions. Give your agent a chance to get to know you better. And, if your expectations are unrealistic, a good agent will tell you so and provide alternatives – so trust this input. Work with your agent to make your trip the one of your dreams.
  • Communicating with your Agent: Find out how he/she likes to work with clients. Be reasonable with your requests – not everything is an emergency. Generally, you can work through many details via e-mail, saving conversations for the most critical things. Making it easy for your agent (who has lots of other clients calling him/her too) will make you a client with whom your agent wants to work — and perhaps go through hoops for.

Many of you may have had bad travel agent experiences, but don’t let that discourage you from trying again. Find another agent with whom you are comfortable, and you may become a convert!

As always, share your experiences with us at snoety.com!

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3 Comments
Lynn says: January 24th, 2008 at 4:54 pm

While I’m not a big fan of travel agents, I have found that when I visit a country for the first time, an in-country agent can be especially helpful in arranging a first-day tour, helping with tickets to special events, even with transportation to/from the airport.

Barbara says: January 31st, 2008 at 11:34 pm

I couldn’t get the web sites for Ensemble, Virtuoso, or ASTA to open. Any ideas why?

Harriett says: February 1st, 2008 at 12:10 am

Barbara,
Thanks for letting us know. We just fixed the links, so try again now and let us know if any problems.

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