Here’s a fact seldom discussed when the topic of travel agents arises. When the airlines began cutting commissions to travel agents in the mid-90′s, the real problem wasn’t commissions. No, the airlines had another reason for wanting travel agents out of the picture. Travel agents told clients how to obtain the lowest fare. Call American Airlines directly, and they don’t tell you Delta has a lower fare. But a travel agent would.
Know what? They still do.
Because I’m obsessed with travel research, I believe in the value of a good travel agent. Well-trained travel specialists offer very valuable services and information almost impossible to uncover by yourself regardless of how diligently you search online. A good travel agent will save you time, save you money and provide insights into the logistics of your trip. Good travel agents keep their ear to the ground. They are researching travel every day and know which tour operators to use and which to avoid. They know the difference between a hotel in city center and a cheaper but far less convenient one on the outskirts of town.
I am an experienced traveler. Yet, I personally always consult a travel agent. Don’t get me wrong, I also like to research on my own. My travel agent welcomes my research and questions. I am always glad I asked for her assistance, even if what she is doing is no more than agreeing with my choices. After all, she is researching travel every day. She’s good at what she does, and that makes me better at what I want to do.
Let me give you an example of why. Let’s say I want a simple airline ticket and hotel for Bangkok. The published fare for an economy ticket is $1,534. I call my travel agent and tell her what I’ve found in my own research and what I’m trying to accomplish. She says she will call me back. About an hour later, she calls back with my flight and hotel for $1,360. She’s used a tour operator with bulk pricing to purchase the trip. She also points out that one of the days during my stay is a government holiday. I didn’t know that, and now that I do, I shift my trip by a couple of days. She makes some suggestions for sightseeing and has scored an upgrade on the room from the concierge.
That’s why I use a travel consultant. They are another research tool. Just like Google, only human and a lot more focused on my needs.
Most people think travel agents sell travel. The fact is, however, a great travel agent doesn’t sell me anything but instead helps me buy wisely. She researches along with me, and we discuss the options. She steers me away from obstacles and looks into nooks and crannies that I might neglect. She helps to ensure the quality of my trip. Time and again, my travel agents have saved me money, made good supplier choices on my behalf, and helped me purchase wisely.
How valuable is that?
I pay a fee, gladly, for that bit of insight and assurance. I value my time, especially my travel time. I want my travel to be logistically smooth as possible. My agent helps me accomplish all of that and still leaves room for the spontaneous, the pleasantly unexpected, and the unscheduled.
How do you find a good travel agent?
The best possible way is by word of mouth. A referral to a really good agent is invaluable. Ask around. Ask your best-traveled associates who they use. There are also nationally recognized experts for various destinations and activities you can access via popular consumer travel magazines. There are also matching services like Travelhoppers that put travelers together with travel agent specialists.
Interview prospective travel agents. Ask about their specialties. Ask about their fees. Does their support network, consortia or franchise have relationships with the hotel, cruise line or resort I want to use? A key attribute of a great agent is their ability to empathize, to understand exactly what you want to achieve from your travels. Look for intelligence, for the ability to think beyond your own immediate needs and for a sense of organization.
Finally, it is important to LIKE your travel agent. Find one with whom you resonate and can have a solid professional relationship.
If you find all of that in one package, hang onto them. And tell your friends. They will thank you for it.