Do You Really Need A Travel Agent?

angry travel agentsWhen Anne Roderique-Jones compiled a list of “Ten Things Travel Agents Won’t Tell You,” for Women’s Day Magazine a week ago, she couldn’t have known that her piece would generate nearly 1,400 comments, many of them from irate travel agents. But travel agents are a beleaguered lot, their ranks thinned dramatically since the dawn of the digital age, and they don’t like getting kicked around. In addition to the avalanche of critical comments from travel agents beneath the story, the American Society of Travel Agents responded with a list of their own, “Eight Reasons Why Travel Professionals Create Value.”

I think the Women’s Day list, which was pared from 10 items down to 9 after the magazine admitted that a point about travel agents collecting commissions from airlines was inaccurate, is mostly common sense stuff that wouldn’t be news to most savvy travelers. Obviously travel agents do receive some commissions, may not have been to the place they are recommending and cannot always secure the best prices, but does that mean that they serve no real purpose in the Internet age?

I’ve traveled all over the world and have very rarely used travel agents, even before the invention of the Internet. But I still think that travel agents serve a useful purpose, particularly for infrequent travelers. A good travel agent can do a lot more than just get you the best price. They can offer advice on the best routes, pitfalls to watch out for, baggage restrictions, how to travel with pets and 1,000 other things. If you have all the time in the world to research every last detail of a trip on your own, you may not need a travel agent. But if you’re short on time and don’t travel often enough to know all the nuances, it makes a lot of sense to trust a professional to plan the trip for you.

Saving On Travel: New Reasons To Use A Travel Agent, Wisely

travel agent

We have debated the notion of using a travel agent in a number of ways here over the years. The general consensus of opinion verifies some of the strategies you may very well use to book airline tickets, rental cars, hotel rooms and more. But a recent move by a major cruise line should drive home the notion that using a travel professional, be it an online source or an actual agent we have come to know personally, can maximize travel savings.

Internet Cruise Brokers, the used car salesmen of travel, are on the way out.
Recently, Norwegian Cruise Line put travel agencies trolling for clients through low-price website CruiseCompete on notice: shape up or ship out.

“Norwegian Cruise Line has severed ties with CruiseCompete, a website where travel agents bid for consumers’ cruise business. The cruise line has also warned its agent partners that participating in CruiseCompete is a breach of contract,” notes travel expert Fran Golden in a recent article on Travel Market Report.

For those unfamiliar with CruiseCompete, it’s a website where consumers can go, enter the ship and sailing date they have in mind, then wait for travel agents to bid for their business, often giving up a portion of their commission in order to offer the lowest bid.

“What’s wrong with that?” one might ask. Plenty.travel agentBuying Cruise Travel Is Not Like Buying Air
First, buying cruise travel is not like buying an airline ticket, flying from point A to point B. In that case, as long as the flight gets us there and brings us back, the lowest price is probably the best choice. An online service like Airfarewatchdog can help direct us to the best sources too.

But with cruise travel there are a great many other variables to consider. Take the passengers personal cruise history, for example. Carefully considered by a travel professional that has the passenger’s best interests in mind, that “low price” offered through bidding may not be the best option.

Paying a bit more might take advantage of a past-guest promotion that has an end value far greater than that “low price” bid, giving onboard credit, free drinks, free prepaid gratuities or other valuable benefits.

Down The Road Come The Benefits
A stronger reason for using a travel professional is what happens throughout the life of the booking. This goes for all types of travel, not just cruises. The Internet travel broker is busy bidding as many potential clients as possible to yield a net profit that will pay the bills. They have little, if any, time to consider promotions, deals and offers that come up after the initial booking.

A travel professional does.

In the case of cruises, even booking directly with the cruise line will not yield the potential benefits of booking with a travel professional that we have spent the time to develop a good business relationship with. No cruise line will notify you, “Hey, a new promotion has started that will lower your price by hundreds.” It just does not happen.

An alert travel pro considers the initial sale as just the start of the process, works your booking throughout its life and follows up after sailing. They are investing time in their clients and will gladly work with the cruise line to lower the fare when some new promotion comes up that applies.

And it’s not all about saving money. Do you need/have the right documentation to enter Russia? Which is the best choice for travel insurance? Is it safe to travel in Egypt? These are questions our travel professional will have the specific answers for and have time to be sure we have that information.

Same Song, Different Singer, New Lyrics
But the argument for using a travel agent is basically the same as we have been reporting for years. In 2011’s “Travel Agents: The Dinosaur You Might Just Need,” Gadling sang a similar song, noting, “A travel agent is ‘your friend’ in the travel business. They are your friend who knows what is going on in the travel industry.” That is still true now.

What is different now and builds a stronger case for using a travel agent is how cruise lines are operating. As they continue to differentiate themselves from one another, cruise line pricing has become more sophisticated, offering more fare codes that have more requirements and qualifiers than ever. Keeping up with pricing policies alone can be a full-time job, something click-to-buy options fail miserably at considering and consumers simply don’t have the time to do effectively.

Try It For Yourself
The idea of using a real travel agent as opposed to an Internet cruise broker is going to take an investment of time. Finding a good agent can be as simple as following the recommendation of a trusted friend or relative. But what if we don’t know anyone who uses a travel agent? Where can we find a good one?

A good start for finding a travel agent would be your local Better Business Bureau or even a local sourcing option like Angie’s List. Good search results for a travel agency would be ones with plenty of activity but very few, if any, complaints. Another option would be the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) website, which lists agencies and the agents associated with them along with their credentials. Their Cruise Expert Finder brings a list of local agencies.

To drive home the value of an agent, go to a price comparison website like CruiseCompete, pick a ship and sailing date at random, and begin the bidding process. At the same time, call a local agency, tell them you are trying to decide between using an agency to handle all your travel needs or simply using online booking sources to plan your travel. See what happens.

Odds are very high that the end result will be the beginning of a beneficial relationship yielding great savings over your lifetime and a richer travel experience too. Travel agents have a lot of “been there, done that” experience, helpful destination information and contacts of their own to share.

Not to discount online tools altogether in the travel buying equation – an online service similar to Airfarewatchdog called CruiseFish, which is independent of cruise lines or travel agencies, can help. CruiseFish is a price, stateroom and cruise monitoring system that does all the browsing for you and sends email alerts when prices change. The $.99 per listing fee may very well be worth the peace of mind buyers gain from knowing a third-party source is also looking out for them.

Yes, doing business with a live travel agent can yield the best results.
Yes too, stacking the deck in your favor can also be beneficial.




[Photo credit – Flickr user elmada]

Why We Really Don’t Want Travel Agents To Die

travel agents

Travel agents were once considered the dinosaurs of travel, something used before the Internet took over and eliminated the need for them. True, we can book airfare, hotels, car rentals, even cruise vacations online either directly with the supplier or through discount operations like Travelocity, Kayak and others. But should we? These days, the tide seems to be turning as individual and business travelers are turning to a new, relevant travel agent that is good to have around.

“There is no doubt that today’s travellers have more options than ever before; from destinations, packages and pricing to booking methods and itineraries,” Debra Maher, owner of Cruise Holidays said in a Northern Life report. “One of the most important decisions a traveller can make is selecting the right travel agent, to help them get started on the right foot.”

Case in point: American Airlines.
This week, American Airline pilots are expected to authorize their union to call a strike, effectively grounding the airline. In reality, a work stoppage would be weeks off and the White House can intervene to stop a strike, citing the interests of U.S. commerce. But these are the things that make travelers nervous and has those who use travel agents for something as simple as booking an airline ticket happy they did.

“Travel agents are there for their clients before, during and after the trip and when the unexpected happens,” added Maher. “We provide value, expertise, convenience and personal service to our customers and understand that travel planning isn’t just about places, it’s about people.”

It’s not all about handling emergency situations though. For example, the world of business travel is re-discovering the services of travel agents and the benefit of using them as we see in this new video from CNN released this week:



The decision to use a travel agent comes easy when concerned about traveling to places around the world where political unrest, riots or other security matters are of concern. In those situations, sure, we want that extra level of protection and guidance – someone to call to handle it for us.

More commonly, travel agents can offer value that travelers could not get on their own.
That value may translate to lower prices, complimentary upgrades, bonus amenities when traveling and other good things down the line, after booking. That “after booking” part is the unknown, difficult-to-measure factor that eludes many travelers.

“The bottom line is that they know more than you do, they are better connected than you,” said travel expert Larry Olmstead in Forbes, “they have access to benefits you can’t get otherwise, they can often beat any other prices available (even online, yes), and after you have planned everything, they provide a safety net during your trip that you simply won’t get by booking yourself or buying insurance.”

But how do you find a good travel agent?

The process is quite similar to finding a good real estate agent, insurance agent or even a accountant or investment specialist to handle personal finances. Word-of-mouth recommendations from friends are a good place to start but the name of the game is building a long-term business relationship and that takes time.

Looking at a travel agent as the ‘person who handles travel’ like your accountant is the person who ‘handles your taxes’ is the way to go and with every success they have on your behalf, the more their stock goes up as a trusted personal advisor.

Checking with your local Better Business Bureau, a local chamber of commerce or other professional organization like the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) or American Society Of Travel Agents (ASTA) are also good places to begin, even with the recommendation of a friend.

Getting the thumbs up on a potential agent from multiple sources should head you in the right direction to finding one that can be of great value for life.

[Flickr photo by Dan Nguyen @ New York City]

Is Twitter The New Travel Agent?

travel agent Have you used a travel agent in the last year to plan or book a vacation? How about a social media website like Twitter? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “…the ability of travelers to research vacations and book their own trips using the internet is expected to continue to suppress demand for travel agents.”

More and more, travelers are turning to Twitter to make their travel plans. What’s great about Twitter is you can interact with people, regardless of whether you follow them or they follow you. Additionally, you can search for information based on a topic with a simple hashtag. For example, if you’re going on an around-the-world trip, you can search the hashtag #rtw. You can also post your own questions and hashtag the tweet, to make it easier for knowledgeable travelers to find your questions.beach Why Twitter?

Currently, there are over 140 million active Twitter users, with 400 million Tweets being sent per day. And in terms of getting diverse resources and advice, the social media platform supports over 28 different languages, with 70 percent of user accounts being outside the United States.

One main reason many people turn to Twitter for travel planning is because there is a wealth of information, and an endless supply of resources. While traditional travel agents set clients up with tours and packages offered by only their partners, Twitter aggregates millions of people giving advice, tips, deals, contest offers and packages. Moreover, you’ll be able to get lesser-known destination tips from people who’ve actually taken a similar vacation.

travel Businesses On Twitter

Businesses are also catching on to Twitter, as they see the potential to get their brand and deals out there. For example, Jetsetter tweets from @Jetsetterdotcom to build a following and converse one-on-one with members and potential members. They answer questions about tours and hotels on their site, and because they have over 30,000 followers, it’s easy for them to get helpful travel information out to interested parties.

“We use Twitter to share advice and expertise, but also to inspire, similar to the role agents play,” explains Jon Goldman, the website’s Social Media Manager. “Twitter enables us to talk one-on-one with our members. But, unlike agents, we can scale the conversation and inspire and assist thousands of people in one day. Our handle, @jetsetterdotcom isn’t limited to appointments or office hours. It’s a balance of high touch personal service, but at scale.”

Warren Chang, Vice President and General Manager of Fly.com, agrees that Twitter is an excellent way for the company to get their brand recognized, while also helping travelers find deals.

“The real benefit of Twitter is that it is lightning fast,” says Chang. “It takes less than 5 minutes from seeing a fare you want to take advantage of, to actually booking it. In many cases, the best deals disappear within hours or even minutes. For example, we tweeted three incredible Europe deals, which reached our Twitter followers about an hour before we published them via Travelzoo. These fares were sold out within only a few hours, so our followers had the leg up.”

It’s also a great way to offer feedback to travel companies for quick, sometimes real time responses. For example, when my luggage was recently lost on a United Airlines flight, I couldn’t get in touch with a real person via the phone number they provided. Hoping to speak with a non-robot, I sent a tweet to @UnitedAirlines asking them how to find out about my lost baggage, and was sent a response within the hour from a company representative.

How To Use Twitter For Travel

Another way Twitter seems to be trumping traditional travel agents is the vast amount of different resources available on one website. When you go to a travel agent, there are a set number of trip possibilities and prices, because your agent is only working with select companies. With Twitter, however, there are a lot more possibilities to find unique information, deals and tips in one place, no matter where you’re going.

airplane Flights

For flight bookings and deals, you can search using @Delta, @AmericanAir or any other airline account name, with the search term “sale.” To stay on top of special offers, you can follow the airlines you travel with the most, who often post their sales to Twitter. Moreover, airlines like @VirginAmerica reward their Twitter followers by tweeting out deals, contests and sales – sometimes even before they let anyone else know. This means Twitter users will always be first to grab a seat.

  • @SouthwestAir: “Travel should always be #wrinklefree Enter to win a getaway & new travel wardrobe from SWA & @DockersKhakis social:southwest.com/Qoy” (tweet)
  • @JetBlueCheeps: “Getaways Cheeps! $215pp/dbl occ limited avail 2nt pkgs to Las Vegas w/air from BOS or JFK. Terms apply. cot/ag/KDuvlb” (tweet)
  • @airfarewatchdog: “#Philadelphia to #SanDiego $241 RT incl. all taxes. bit.ly/NROpxz on #Delta. #Travel thru Dec. 25 #PHL #SAN” (tweet)

hotel Hotels

To help people find trip accommodations, Twitter users can follow their favorite hotel brands, for example @Fairmonthotels or @Marriottintl, to find special promotions. Or, if they’re unsure of where to stay, searching via hashtag is effective. For example, searching #vegas #hotel together in the search box brings back a plethora of hotel promotions and deals. Some good Twitter handle and tweet examples include:

  • @Travelzoo: “Stay 2 wknd nts @HolidayInn, @CrownePlaza & other @IHG_Deals hotels, get a $75 prepaid MasterCard. ow.ly/bUV50 #travel #deals” (tweet)
  • @HyattConcierge: “@ThreeMiz For August 25-28, 2012 we can offer you a breakfast package for USD 627.00 plus 14.4% Tax total for all 3 nights” (tweet)
  • @hotelsdotcom: “Tweet a picture of your “perfect place” to @hotelsdotcom, along with #Bedventure, to be entered to #win 10 Welcome Rewards credits! #contest” (tweet)

party Trip Itinerary

Once you’ve secured air and hotel, vacationers can do a search to find tweets in the area. For example, plugging in search terms like “#party #nightlife Vegas” will show you tons of tweets from real people, brands, hotels, celebrities and others that give you an idea of where people seem to be having fun. This is also a great way to find links to articles on the topic from sources that are most relevant to you. Some good Twitter handle and tweet examples include:

  • @TheVegasFoodie: “**TONIGHT!** @ChefMichaelMina’s @STRIPSTEAKLV Hosts @The_Macallan dinner, @MandalayBay | #vegas #food #events — pic.twitter.com/g7HhRonA” (tweet)
  • @NY_Now: “Latest buzz for shows: sch.mp/aoxPt- RT @BigShotBand We start playing tonight at 8:30pm sharp at Brooklyn Fireproof East” (tweet)
  • @hummingbird604: “Love musicals? You should enter my giveaway for Altar Boyz (@TheArtsClub) bit.ly/KOhzyO” (tweet)

pizzaLocal Food

Using Twitter to follow local food bloggers and celebrities can help travelers get information they wouldn’t get from a travel agent, or probably even a guidebook. Once you figure out your destination, you can search for bloggers who tweet about food and that particular destination. Some good Twitter handle and tweet examples include:

  • @ericisaac: “This is Dom. He makes the best pizza ever. Have you ever tried the best pizza ever? fb.me/13QuxHnTK” (tweet)
  • @katieparla: “Banana, Pakistani mango and watermelon #gelato at Otaleg #rome #roma #food instagr.am/p/Mbr53Kn-d5/” (tweet)
  • @NEWWORLDREVIEW1: “Octopus & fish brochettes @hoteldco #mancora #peru pic.twitter.com/Xert8Khy” (tweet)

money Savings

Travelers can also take advantage of discounts in the city they are going to visit, by following that area’s @Groupon, @LivingSocial or other discount company handles. You can find deals on everything from sushi to seaweed spa wraps.

Travel Tips

For those looking to get tips about a destination or just learn about the area’s safety, Twitter can provide this, as well. Twitter is best for real-time information. Travel alerts that may not be updated on websites are certainly being tweeted out from accounts like @151TravelTips or the State Department’s @TravelGov for up to the minute alerts on your mobile device. Some top travel bloggers and writers to follow include @earthXplorer, @Vagabondish, @nytimestravel, @PeterSGreenberg, @adventuregirl and @GotSaga.

Do you think Twitter is the new travel agent?

[images via stevendamron, Jessie on a Journey, mroach, Kuster & Wildhaber Photography, Son of Groucho, Jessie on a Journey, rob_rob2001, 401K 2012]

In Praise Of Service Journalism

service journalism - travel magazinesMy career in the travel world started out by pure luck. I was assigned to work a temp office gig in the PR department of Condé Nast Traveler for two weeks, which turned into two years at the magazine, four more at a PR agency for hotels and travel providers and two more here at Gadling. Before and throughout my career, I’ve always been a major consumer of travel media, whether I’ve used it to inspire and help plan my personal travels, as a resource for how and where to pitch my clients, or for story ideas and to keep up with industry news. Some of my favorite stories to read or write have been service pieces, the much-maligned but reader-popular side of journalism.

Service journalism has been called the “fast food” of journalism, providing the reader with “5 of the World’s Sexiest Beaches!” or a suggested itinerary for exploring the city as in the New York Times‘ regular “36 Hours in..” series. While a narrative feature might probe into a culture’s essence, or try to evoke the feeling of a certain place in time, a service piece gives you quick tips, highlights the “best” of a place and may include lists, bullets and infographics. I like the definition of service journalism as “informational“: it tells you not just about a place, but how to get there, where to stay, what to eat, etc.At Condé Nast Traveler we promoted many different magazine articles from investigative stories on airline security to roundups of romantic getaways for Valentine’s Day, and it was generally the articles on how to save money booking your next cruise, or hotel packages involving chocolate-dipped strawberries that got an editor booked on the Today Show or a mention on the Associated Press. At Traveler, I worked with Consumer News Editor Wendy Perrin, whom I might call the Meryl Streep of service journalism: well-known and beloved in the industry, frequently honored but not as much as she deserves. Wendy publishes annual guides to the best travel agents, vacation rentals, cruise ships and dream trips. She was also a pioneer in social media, as one of the first “old media” editors to start blogging, and an early advocate of social networking platforms like Twitter as an essential tool for travelers. While a guide to the best credit cards for racking up frequent flyer miles may not sound poetic, Wendy’s writing regularly affects readers in a very real way, and she maintains an open dialogue to make sure readers are taking the best trip possible.

While I might read a travel narrative or even a novel to be transported somewhere else, a service piece helps me actually get going somewhere else. It was a L.A. Times article on the Corn Islands that got me to go to Nicaragua in 2007; of the few other Americans I met there, most of them were there because of the piece as well. A recent post from Legal Nomads might look like a standard list of travel tips, but it’s peppered with anecdotes, insights and links to other travel stories, and I was transported around the world with Jodi (and craving oranges) while I read it. A Nile Guide roundup of decaying castles has me plotting a trip to Belgium. Some of my favorite and most heart-felt articles I’ve written for Gadling have included finding the expat community and tips on travel with a baby. The Society for American Travel Writers’ annual awards have a category for service-oriented stories, but a few service pieces have snuck their way into other categories, such as the deceptively simple-sounding “Ten Reasons to Visit New Orleans.”

Looking through several of the major travel magazines, most stories are now accompanied by some kind of service information: a sidebar on farmers markets to accompany an essay on eating locally, or a back-of-book addendum of hotels and practical tips for a feature on a changing city’s political landscape. Perhaps all travel media should strive for this mix of inspirational, educational and doable. Our own Features Editor Don George explains that a successful travel narrative should describe a “quest that illuminates a place and culture.” A top ten list of summer vacation may not provide such a point, but a feature on visiting the Seychelles on a budget just might. Not all service pieces have to be fluffy, or recycled from press releases, or lacking insight. They can contain mini-narratives and discoveries, and at best, give readers the tools to create their own.