The travel guy: Who needs a travel agent?
By Michael Downer
In this age of do-it-yourself Internet travel sites, no one needs a travel agent anymore, right?
Well, if you’re booking a quick flight to see relatives in San Diego, maybe not. But for cruises, tour packages and more complicated itineraries, travelers are rediscovering the true value of travel agents. If you can save time, have access to professional knowledge and experience, get personal and customized service and pay the same or even less than online … why wouldn’t you?
Sure, an hour spent searching for the ultimate deal online might give you a sense of accomplishment or bragging rights among your bargain-minded buddies … or it might just leave you exhausted and frustrated. The sheer number of online travel sites makes it hard even to know where to start. If a five-minute phone call to your personal travel agent yields the same or better results than a seemingly endless online search why not make the most of your valuable time? Let a professional do the searching for you and use the rest of that time to make that big sales call, play with your kids or enjoy a rare quiet moment with a good book.
Take advantage of expertise and experience
The great thing about the Internet is that it presents infinite options. The bad thing about the Internet is that it presents infinite options!
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, and worse, to be lured by price or advertising into a vacation that will bring only disappointment. With a few quick questions, a good travel agent can help match your needs and wants to a vacation that will meet your expectations. An agent can draw from the experience of other clients, and frequently from personal experience, with particular cruise ships, travel companies and destinations. Agents offer “one-stop shopping” with the ability to easily add components such as airport transfers, sightseeing tours and stopovers to create a comprehensive, customized travel package. Moreover, you’ll get quick answers about details such as airline weight restrictions and local currencies.
Don’t be left alone in a pinch
A common complaint I hear from people who book travel online is that they were left high and dry when they missed a flight, or when a hotel had lost their reservation. When something goes wrong you’ll want someone with experience and maybe even influence on your side. At the very least an agent can give you support and advice when problems arise, and in many cases can resolve such situations on your behalf, saving you repeated frustration calling dead-end voice response systems.
Here’s an extreme example of this type of support. Last fall a longtime client of mine was in the middle of a two-month Asia cruise with his wife when he had a stroke aboard ship. He was taken to a hospital in Bangkok, where he spent a month getting well enough to fly home. During that time I managed the couple’s travel insurance paperwork and follow-up, and arranged flights for visiting family, for the couple’s eventual trip home and even flights for the Thai doctor who had to accompany them. I served as “information central” for the couple and their family, maintaining constant contact. While they had so many important matters to concentrate on I was able to handle their details.
It’s as simple as this: An agent is a person. A website is not.
A good travel agent should be able to beat, or at least match, most deals you find online. Plus agents will sometimes add on their own extras, like shipboard credits, or have access to group rates not on the Internet. They’ll know the “tricks” to finding a lower fare — suggesting a different time to travel, for example, or identifying special discounts such as repeat-traveler offers. Also, a conscientious agent will watch to see if your rate goes down after booking. When you book directly with a cruise line or tour company, you’re taking their word that you are getting the best price, whereas an agent can make sure.
Do travel agents charge service fees? Much of the time the answer will be no, but to avoid surprises, check with your agent in advance. Most agents will not charge fees for arranging cruises and tour packages; however, changes in the airline industry in recent years have led many agents to charge a service fee for air arrangements and complicated itineraries. As an example, I personally do not charge a service fee for arranging cruise or land packages, or air travel when booked with these packages, but do ask a small fee for air-only bookings or unusually complicated work.
Finding a good travel agent
As with most professional services word of mouth is a great place to start. Ask friends and family members if they have used an agent who provided truly excellent service. (Be aware that travel agents are also known as travel professionals and travel counselors.) Of course, you can always give me a call!
Spread the word
When you find a reliable, responsive agent, let friends and relatives know. Not only does this show your support for a hard-working agent in a referral-driven business, but more important, it’s a service to other consumers: a good travel agent will save them time and money!
Michael Downer, the “Travel Guy,” has been helping people see the world since 1986. An affiliate of America’s Vacation Center/American Express, he can be reached at (916) 933-2360 or by email at [email protected].