Conventional wisdom regarding travel agents is that their services should be reserved for complicated international trips, but that you are safe doing everything else on your own. Even agents, or advisors as many today like to be referred to, will talk about how consumers do not necessarily need them for simple trips.However, when I was researching complaints about online travel agencies (in industry lingo, “OTAs” such as Travelocity, Expedia, Priceline, Hotels.com, etc.), I found that many were about fairly routine domestic roundtrip flights, and run of the mill hotel bookings.
For example, one traveler booked a trip with an OTA for a daytrip to a job interview with the outbound flight on one airline and the return on another; but the first flight was severely delayed or canceled, which caused a series of unfortunate circumstances. In another example, a woman wanted to buy a roundtrip ticket, but then stay in two different hotels during her stay. Her epic Instant Message chats with multiple OTA customer service representatives that she posted to Facebook seemed like the responses were coming from drones, or real people who simply had a series of cut and paste answers to use in these situations.
The biggest issues with the OTAs were their lack of customer service when something went wrong, and the inability to help make recommendations before you click the Buy button. What can go wrong? This typically revolved around things like strikes, cancellations and even bad weather. While OTAs were swamped with long waiting times, a good travel agent is always monitoring your itinerary and booking you on alternate flights before you even know that you have a problem. A good agent also has relationships with the hotels they book so if you, in fact, cannot make it there as scheduled, they are in a better position to help have the cancellation penalties waived. During last Fall’s series of Lufthansa cabin attendant strikes when consumers could not get through to the airline, there were numerous stories in the trade press of agents who were able to get all of their customers moved to other airlines. Agents played the same starring role after the Paris terrorist attacks.
One example of how you can lose a lot of money doing it yourself on a fairly simple trip is due to the complexity of airline pricing. For example, a family of four wants to travel from Dallas to London roundtrip, and is looking for the best fare. When you search online, the results generally posted are the best price applicable to all four travelers. However, a good travel agent may find two or three seats available at prices that are hundreds of dollars less than the fourth seat. Including paying a fee to the agent for ticketing, you can easily save hundreds, or in many cases, even thousands of dollars thanks to the agent knowing how to manage the system.
Cruises may seem fairly easy to book online. After all, you can now see deck plans and select your own cabin with ease. There are also some good review sites worth reviewing, such as CruiseCritic.com. Agents, however, can often offer upgrades and onboard credits, which can add up to hundreds of dollars. A good agent can also recommend specific cabins, and depending on the itinerary, which side of the ship gets the best view sailing into specific ports.
They can also be a huge asset when it comes to shore excursions, particularly if you want a private or customized experience, or just want to be on your own and not with fellow passengers. When I took my three children to Alaska on a cruise, my advisor arranged a great private salmon fishing daytrip where all of the kids could go home and tell fishing stories afterwards. We were also able to take our helicopter tour to a glacier while others on the ship had their trips canceled because of spotty weather; but thanks to our advisor, the operator was able to fit us in since it was just the four of us, and not a group of 40.
If you are thinking about just a single hotel stay, or perhaps cashing in frequent flyer miles, again the thought might be just to look online, particularly as you may already have in mind a specific destination or several hotels. Here again, travel agents often have some tricks up their sleeves. In the luxury arena, many agents belong to groups such as Virtuoso, Ensemble, Affluent Traveler, Signature Network or Travel Leaders – each of which negotiate perks on behalf of their member agencies, such as late check-outs, free breakfasts and upgrades.
Hotel groups also have loyalty programs for agencies that bring them a lot of business. For example, Four Seasons, Dorchester Collection, Peninsula Hotels and Mandarin Oriental do not have consumer loyalty programs, but they do have them for agents, as does The Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis, Luxury Collection, Fairmont, Raffles and many more. These programs offer similar perks for agent customers so that you can often get more extras when booking that weekend trip through an agent. With the costs of breakfasts running $40 per person and late checkout several hundred dollars, and a confirmed upgrade, you may be able to get $1,000 in free value on a two-night stay.
A primary reason that travel agents are hot again has been the trends toward wanting more experiences, soft adventures, as well as traveling in extended groups, such as families and friends – all of which are hard to arrange online. If you have not used an agent recently (or ever), you will find that many agents specialize in specific types of experiences, varying from villa rentals to safaris to river cruises, LGBT and pretty much anything you can think about.
Today’s better agents also travel extensively. If your agent has not been to your chosen destination, chances are that they will know someone in their network who has; meaning a good agent should have the resources to get direct knowledge about a destination before making the bookings.
At the end of the day, a relationship with a travel agent is really no different than your lawyer, doctor, dentist, accountant, landscaper or interior decorator; although planning a trip should be a lot more joyful than a root canal. Remember, like the other service providers I mentioned, travel agents are professionals, so do not just call an agency on the phone and expect them to be able to chat with you at length.
Call or email to schedule a time to talk. The point is to take the time to talk to friends for referrals, and also take a look at the agent’s website or profile before you contact him or her, and then see if the two of you click.
Finding a good agent can take a bit of work, but like other service providers you use, when you find a good one, they will save you money, create a better experience for the amount you want to spend, and have ideas and recommendations for things to do that you probably had not even considered.