Could a return of the travel agent be the key to stress free travel?

travel agent

The always excellent Joe Sharkey of the New York times has a fascinating article on how a travel agent could be your best friend when you are stranded.

Obviously, the nasty snow storms in December are what triggered his article, and in it, he describes how a travel agent can perform miracles most of us have to wait in line for at the airport.

Now, I can clearly remember the last time I used a travel agent – it was the year I got my first cellphone (1992). After that, I always took care of myself. First using a dumb terminal, then with primitive Internet based booking tools, and then moving on to the current generation booking sites.

And to be honest, I thought I’d never look back. In my opinion, the travel agent only did things I could already do myself. When I booked my honeymoon cruise, I tried walking into a local agency, but ended up finding a much better deal online.

So, why the sudden interest in the services of a travel agent? When people found out that the airlines don’t have the resources to deal with a large crisis, they got angry. And rightfully so – some passengers spent five hours on hold, only to be told that their next flight out would have to call back the next day.

[Photo from Flickr/adrian.acediscovery]

Of course, there is a price to pay when you hand over your booking requests to someone else – fees of around $37.50 per ticket. Add that to your baggage fee, fuel surcharges and other charges, and the price may simply be too high.

travel agent

Additionally, business travelers are usually already protected by their corporate travel booking service – which means the vast majority of customers for a travel agency would be consumers – a group most likely not too eager to fork over extra cash. And of course, there are also top-tier elite members of the airline that have direct access to their own service desk – usually bypassing any long hold times.

Gadling spoke with several travel agents for their views on why booking with them isn’t as crazy as it may seem. Luxury travel consultant John Clifford (@LuxTravel), President of
InternationalTravelManagement.com shares his expert tips:

The “internet information overload” has reached critical mass, and now aside from this overload, we have “crowd sourcing” to take into consideration such as recommendations from friends on Facebook, colleagues on Twitter, anonymous Yelp reviews and the like?

How in the world does anyone cut through the noise and make sense of it all? Sure they may espouse the greatest upgrade they got at a luxury chain hotel but that was because of all their loyalty points. It would not pertain to your stay, so how does that help you?

But trained, travel professionals, or “travel consultants” of today do. They/we’ve made it through the internet boom of the 90’s and redefined ourselves to be “lifestyle guides” that really take the time to listen & learn about each individual, and like a skilled artisan, carefully craft suggestions that are ONLY pertinent to travelers’ needs & wants.

If you consider only the facts of world developments, wars, strikes, natural disasters, storms, etc — that alone is proof enough for many to realize the old saying rings true, “without a travel agent, you’re on your own”.

Self booking is just that – it’s just the BOOKING or the very first step of a trip.

The entire travel cycle of experiences starts that moment and making wrong or uneducated decisions can reverberate through your entire travel experience and if you booked online, you have only yourself to get you out of a jam, out of a hotel room that looked cool on the web but in fact is a dump, or having accidentally booked yourself into Bucharest (Romania) instead of Budapest (Hungary) which a former client actually did and called me to help get him out of it.

Travel is becoming less transactional and more experiential. Even the harrowing experience of this last week where tens of thousands were stranded in NY during Christmas weekend were left without help, gate agents at airports reduced, call centers understaffed due to growth of online booking, web sites overloaded and not functioning and airline agents on twitter posing as customer service angels, when in reality only directing consumers to “be patient”, “wait it out”, and commiserate with those stranded.

I saved numerous clients from the recent storms, even my CPA who has never used me before as his wife likes to “play travel agent”

He was flying NYC-San Diego on an American Airlines flight (and a connection as well) and after holding for hours on the phone, American advised his wife it would be days before he could get home and he could sleep at the airport without any free stays, as “acts of God” are not covered.

After hours, he called and requested my help and getting his message on my iPhone,I immediately sprung to action and snagged him a low cost seat on the non stop JetBlue flight from JFK-San Diego, knowing they’re a smaller airline that is more creative & reliable in a pinch, and one that didn’t have to rely on a hub-and-spoke network to get him home like American did.

He did get home the next day instead of 4 days later.

And Deborah Peniuk, Owner & Travel Writer of AYA Life added:

The internet can be a great place to purchase certain travel products. I consult with clients on their best options for free; help them discover savings that don’t have hidden restrictions. There is a huge difference, so don’t confuse “transportation” with “vacation.” They are generally not interchangeable.

As your travel agent, I can work to immediately reschedule or cancel your trip in the event of a natural disaster (or Mother Nature not playing nice). Less worries for you! I help my clients to avoid online scams and “false” advertisements that are rampant online. I also take considerable time to explain to my clients the logic of travel insurance and recommend it every time!

Good luck trying to get the flight that you are late for changed if you’re in transit. If the WiFi in your airport goes down you’ll need serendipity to successfully maneuver the online morass. I strongly suggest checking the FAQ section; cancellation penalties and restrictions are usually hidden in the fine print. I’ve had clients who have called in a panic with huge apologies, wishing they’d booked with me (for my minimal service fee) instead of the huge dollars they end up paying to change their online booking.

We are consumer advocates: if you have a problem during your trip, as your travel agent I can act on your behalf to see that proper restitutions are made. You have a real person who is a phone call away to go back and complain to. As your travel agent, I will work hard to rectify issues and fulfill the trust you put in me. I add a “personal touch” to your travel planning experience and I offer help and advice that no website can provide. Wouldn’t you rather have a travel expert plan your trip? My Blackberry is never far from my ear!

In other words – you need to determine how much your time is worth – there is no denying that booking through a travel agent will cost a bit more, and it may not be as convenient as heading over to your favorite travel website and clicking “buy now”. The best way to think of the travel agent is as just another insurance – you may make 20 trips without actually needing their additional services, but once a blizzard hits during that 21st trip, you’ll be happy you paid a bit more once your travel agent gets you rebooked in minutes rather than hours.

What do you think? Could the additional services of a travel agent convince you to try them out instead of booking directly with an online travel site or airline booking engine?

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10 travel related things you just don’t see any more

Feeling nostalgic? I’ve compiled ten travel related things that are no longer around, including a couple of things that really brought back some memories of trips from the past.

Read through the 10 things I could think of, and leave a comment with anything you no longer see when you travel.

Smoking or Non Smoking?

With the possible exception of a few smaller airlines, you won’t find an airline in the world that still asks whether you want a smoking or non smoking seat on your flight.

I’m not that old, but I can still remember sitting in the back of the plane with all the smokers so my dad could light up.

Smoking is banned on any flight in, or destined to the United States, and an overview of the rules on worldwide airlines can be found here. In 2006, a German entrepreneur announced he was starting an airline where anyone would be free to smoke, but the concept never took off.


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Travel agents

In ancient times, booking a flight involved making a trip to your local travel agent. You’d often pop in for a stack of brochures, then you’d head back in a couple of days to make the actual reservation.

The booking involved filling in forms, and an agent calling the airline to check for availability, or if they sold enough trips, they’d use their green screen computer to check for availability. You’d then pay, and 2 weeks later your travel documents would be ready to pick up. Usually neatly stacked in a nice vinyl pouch.

There are still some travel agents around, but most of them have disappeared. The local travel agent is just another victim of Internet booking sites and airline cost cutting measures. Those still around tend to cater towards specialty trips, package deals or cruise vacations, where they can still make a few bucks in commission.

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Color TV! Phones!
Cable!

Sure, some less luxurious places may still have the old sign out front, but “color TV” is not the big selling point it used to be. Nowadays guests want 100 channels of HD, as well as a nice variety of pay per view flicks.

Access to your own in-room phone is also no longer a perk worth advertising, even though the phone has now become a major money maker for many hotels.

I haven’t been around long enough to know when “color TV” actually became something worth advertising, nor have I ever been to a hotel where the TV was not in color.

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Payphones

Let me admit right away that this one hasn’t completely vanished – but the payphone is most certainly not as common as it used to be, nor do that many people want to use them.

In a way, I kind of miss the hassle they offered, because they meant people had to stop and drop some coins into the slot in order to make a phone call. Nowadays it seems like everyone is on their phone, and the worst offenders seem to have their Bluetooth headset glued to their skulls 24/7.

The last time I made a call from a payphone was in 1998, when I arrived at Dulles with a dead phone battery. Nowadays I can use my cellular phone in almost any corner of the globe.

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Real room keys

We can put a computer inside your phone, and develop a car that runs off battery power – but for some reason we seem unable to make a magnetic room key that always works when you need it.

I remember when the room key hung on a big board behind the front desk, and you’d hand it in when you left the hotel for the day. The large weight on the key would usually remind you not to go out without leaving it behind.

The best part about the real key is that it always worked. You never arrived at your room at 2am to discover it was encoded incorrectly by a clueless night desk clerk, nor would you be able to receive a key for a room already occupied.

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Carbon copy ticket stock

This one is closely related to the travel agent – remember when airline tickets did not roll out of your home printer? You’d get them on airline ticket stock, in a cool red carbon print.

The carbon copy ticket still exists for a couple of airlines, or for trips too complicated for online ticketing (usually round the world tickets with over 10 segments).

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Affordable duty free shopping

To many, a trip to the airport never took place without first passing through the duty free shops. The stores themselves are still around, but they are not the deal heavens they used to be. In the past, the duty free shop was where you’d pick up a bottle of the “good stuff” for about 30% less than the liquor store in your town. You could always tell who traveled a lot, by the size and quality of the booze in their cabinet.

Nowadays duty free is just another overpriced way the airport tries to squeeze some more cash out of you before you fly. In Europe, duty free shopping between EU members was abolished in 1999, and most duty free stores in European airports sell only regular priced (luxury) items. Airports like Amsterdam Schiphol and London Heathrow have 100’s of stores, but only a handful of true “duty free” options.

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Film roll kiosks

It didn’t matter where you were – if it was something tourists enjoyed looking at, there would be some poor guy selling rolls of film in his little kiosk. If you were part of the new revolution, you’d buy your Kodak Disc cartridges from him. If you were really hardcore, you’d carry your Polaroid 600 with you, and get instant gratification!

Once you got back home, you’d have to drop all the film rolls off at the local photo store, and wait a week to get them back. That then changed to same day processing, then one hour processing, and nowadays we just stick a memory card in our computer and make our own prints.

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The VHS video camera

I still remember hauling a large bag with us on our trips. It contained a JVC video camera and VHS recorder.

By the time we had loaded the padded bag with batteries, a charger and a stack of tapes, the thing weighed about 60lbs, but at the time it was a marvel of technology.

It went everywhere we did – to the zoo, to the bar and even to the beach. After years of vacations, we ended up with 100’s of hours of video we never once watched again.

Nowadays the video camera inside many mobile phones is able to make better quality video than this thing did, which is probably why you don’t see anyone dragging one around any longer.

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Cheap plastic luggage

Nowadays, the big unknown by the baggage carousel is to see whether your baggage actually made it to your destination, but I still remember the days when the big surprise was whether your cheap luggage made it in one piece, and how many of the handles were still attached.

These crappy bags were often made of vinyl glued onto cardboard, and you were lucky if they survived the trip to the airport, let along a long haul flight abroad.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I suspect luggage quality has improved in recent years, and very few people actually still travel with the old fashioned suitcase.

Ask Nan at BabyBoomersTrips.com. and you’ll get an answer

If you’ve ever had a travel related question and have been stumped about where to find the answer, there’s help. Her name is Nan. I just found out about Nan a couple days ago and thought, now that’s clever.

At BabyBoomersTrips.com, Nancy Zimmerman, former talk show co-host of WE TV’s StyleWorld, answers readers’ questions that range from ghost town jaunts to what in the world is going on with airline seats these days. It turns out that if I had read “Ask Nan” in December, I may have taken some time out to go to St. Augustine. (We were heading in a non-direct route from Orlando through St. Petersburg to Ft. Lauderdale.) St. Petersburg was a lunch stop off visit with my husband’s aunt. We could have combined this with a tour of the St. Augustine’s haunted hot spots. Evidently, there are plenty and the Ripley’s Ghost Train would have taken us to them.

About the airline seats. Nan’s news kind of makes a person never want to sit down again, unless, there’s something between the seat and you. Airline seats are a real germ carnival. She suggests bring along a stole or an airplane size blanket (cuddly) to put between you and the seat.

BabyBoomersTrips.com is also filled with other detailed tidbits divided into catagories of “Budget Boomers,” “Big Shot Boomers” and “Beauty Boomers.” Passport information, spa vacations and how to get the best travel deals are part of the offerings. It’s interesting to see what people want to know about. So, if you have any questions, “Ask Nan.” Or you can always ask us at Gadling. There are plenty of travel questions to go around.