Do You Really Need A Travel Agent?

When 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

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.Buying 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]

Airline Travel Made Less Painful By Using A Travel Agent

Airline travel would seem pretty straightforward at first glance. We know we need a ticket from point A to point B, when we can fly, what airlines we prefer, what we would like that ticket to cost and when we are prepared to pay for it. The challenge comes from matching what we want to what is available. As airlines continue to cut available seating worldwide, choices are more limited than ever, making that perfect match more difficult. Adding in seemingly secret factors that consumers rarely come in contact have savvy buyers considering using the services of a travel agent again.

When it comes to finding anything even close to resembling a budget airline ticket for travel to holiday events, knowing when to buy, when to fly and what discounts and special offers are available is key.

“Many airlines compete with each other to have the lowest prices for their flights. Knowing when those ticket prices are the cheapest is a great way to save money,” says Mathias Friess, CEO of in a Wall Street Journal report, “10 Tips for Saving on Holiday Travel Right Now.”

Common tips for booking airline tickets for holiday travel usually start with not waiting too long to buy. Know that prices commonly rise as holidays approach, so book as far in advance as possible. Looking for website codes and discounts is a good idea and not relying on just one website is better.

That is if we go it on our own to buy air.

A growing number of travelers are using a travel agent for airline tickets. Not just any travel agent, but one that specializes in airfare. Expect to pay a fee of $20 to $50 per ticket on top of the ticket price, a charge that can be easily worth every penny if a problem comes up en-route.

But before you begin to develop what will hopefully be a lifelong business relationship with a travel agent or agency, ask one very important question:

“If there is a problem with my flight before travel begins or when travel is in progress, will you make alternate arrangements for me?

The answer needs to be “yes.”

Rather than stand in line at the customer service counter of any given airline along with 200 other people off the flight that was just canceled, your travel agent may be the go-to person to take care of that while you relax in a lounge area.

Next flight out not until the next day? That same travel agent can arrange a hotel room for you as well as information on getting there and back to the airport, even where to have dinner.

Some other situations that beg us to use a qualified travel agent include international travel (especially for the first time), flying on an unfamiliar airline and traveling with special needs flyers like the handicapped, children or the elderly. Simply a busy personal schedule that does not allow hours surfing around for fares is also a common reason to use a travel agent.

Surely, using a travel agent is not for everyone. Travelers flying common routes to major destinations, those with flexible travel plans or passengers flying direct without connections will naturally fare better than others. Still, having a travel agent in your back pocket when things go wrong can be well worth the time it takes to find one.

[Photo credit: Flickr user kalleboo]

Finding A Travel Agent Easier With New Tool

Finding a travel agent has never been a problem; there are plenty of them to go around. But finding a good one, an agent that can add value to our trip planning – that’s another story altogether. Now, a leading travel agency brand is providing us with an unconventional way to connect with its travel agent experts.

Travel Leaders is one of America’s top ten ranked travel companies with strong roots. The former Carlson Wagonlit Travel Associates, TraveLeaders and Tzell Travel Group joined together in 2008 to form one of the industry’s fastest-growing and robust networks of travel agents.

“Since its inception, has always provided consumers the ability to find the Travel Leaders location nearest them. Now, Agent Profiler takes the consumer experience much further and offers consumers an exciting new opportunity to browse for the travel agent specialist who most appeals to them,” Roger E. Block, president of Travel Leaders Franchise Group told Gadling in a statement.

Called their Agent Profiler, has a dedicated online page that promises to match the traveling public with a Travel Leaders travel agent who best fits their own unique criteria and needs.Experts agree that a travel professional focused on being there for us every step of the way during the travel process is a good thing to have. Like having an accountant to do our taxes or a good mechanic we trust to work on our car, someone who specializes in just travel is good to have on our side. In the past, travelers looking for an agent went with someone suggested by a trusted friend or took their chances with an Internet search for one or just stopped by the corner travel agency, fingers crossed.

“Those who are currently featured on our website provide a full representation of their expertise and knowledge, including all their destination and lifestyle certifications, along with photos and biography,” added Block. “This enables consumers to select the agent that best matches their individual needs for personalized service that no online travel site can touch.”

Travelers can select expert counsel based on biography, experience, destination knowledge, specializations, certifications, awards and even by appearance. Hundreds of travel agent profiles have already been loaded onto the page.

Is this as good as the recommendation from a trusted friend for an agent that has proven themselves? No, not hardly. But surely a step in the right direction, backed by a consortium of travel pros that know what they are doing. Might be worth a shot.

[Flickr photo by hugovk]

Why We Really Don’t Want Travel Agents To Die

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]