Bring Your Augmented Travel Agent Along For The Ride

Often, planning a trip can call for using a travel agent. Venturing to unknown lands armed with the advice of someone who has been there before is always a good idea. Now, one travel organization is making it possible to take their agents along with you on your trip.

Travel Leaders Franchise Group will soon be releasing a travel app designed to arm their customers, and only their customers, with customized travel information.

At the time of booking, agents at Travel Leaders will provide a link that enables their clients to download the app prior to their departures. Armed with an augmented reality function, travelers point their devices at a landmark or location to instantly learn about the area’s top sites to visit, along with admission prices, hours of operation and reviews.

The app enables clients to “take their agents with them virtually on a trip,” Roger Block, president of Travel Leaders Franchise Group told Travel Weekly.

Destination content will be fully loaded at the time of the download so clients won’t incur any international roaming charges.

Feeling left out because you don’t have a Travel Leaders agent in your back pocket? Don’t. While this agent-loaded app is personal, so is the do-it-yourself version from TripIt.

The TripIt app takes travel-booking information – via direct entry or by forwarding confirmations from airlines, hotels and other travel service providers – and forms its own itineraries, complete with destination information.

[Flickr photo by U.S. Army via Compfight]

Escorted Travel Adds Value With Private Experience

When travel planning calls for first-class accommodations, airfare, and guidance along the way, travelers often use a travel agent to help. Commonly accepted advice is to use one that specializes in the method of travel or destination you choose. Better yet, use one that offers escorted tours for an immersive experience like no other.

In China and Asia, Wendy Wu Concierge is a premium service offering luxury vacations custom built by destination specialists and the traveler to create a personal and unique experience.

“As one of the world’s leading specialists in travel to China and Asia, we’ll listen to every ambition and aspiration to provide a private experience that meets specific interests,” says Wendy Wu Concierge on their web site.

Going first-class all the way has more benefits than one might imagine including:

  • Partnering with only the finest hotels, like Peninsula, Shangri-La properties, St. Regis and Banyan Tree hotels, ensures the highest levels of comfort and service.
  • Insider access includes a diplomatic airport transfer where clients are welcomed at the arrival gate with baggage assistance and fast-track service through immigration and customs.
  • A global partnership with Cathay Pacific with direct service from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New York, to Hong Kong with onward connections to over 18 cities across China with its sister airline Dragonair.
  • When travel calls for a cruise, Wu uses 124 passenger Yangzi Explorer, ideally equipped to host special groups.

A huge difference between going it on our own or using a service like Wendy Wu Tours is that professional, private guides escort travelers to each destination.

Along for the entire journey, guides provide a high level of service and attention to detail.

There’s a higher than average price to pay for this level of service but its a price that those who rabidly look for flawless arrangements and the best experiences are happy to pay.

Photo via Wendy Wu Tours

Travel agents on the rebound with insider information

Travel agents, once being run out of business by Internet travel buying options, are making a comeback. Experts agree that using one as part of an overall travel buying strategy is a good idea, if for no other reason than to verify that what we did on our own makes sense. But the ongoing big problem with travel agents is finding a good one that actually does add value to the equation.

“A competent travel adviser can be your greatest asset when you’re planning a trip,” says consumer advocate Chris Elliott. “Good travel agents have an edge over almost any other seller of travel. They know what you want. They speak your language.”

A good, neutral source of information for helping sort out travel agents might also be your local Better Business Bureau who will have a score on any travel agency that has been in business long enough. The Better Business Bureau received more than 7,000 complaints nationally last year against travel agencies and bureaus.

Most complaints relate to consumers being misled by travel offers that failed to deliver or had paid money for travel arrangements that were never made. The Better Business Bureau offers some tips on using travel agents:

  • Ask family and friends to recommend a company they’ve used.
  • Get all vacation details in writing.
  • Verify reservations.
  • Consider travel insurance.
  • Pay with a credit card.
  • Be on the alert for travel scams.

Looking for advice on how to find a good travel agent? Elliott recommends interviewing a certified local agent. “The only way to know for certain if your travel agent is a keeper is to see what happens when you run into trouble,” he says.
“If they leave you hanging or do nothing more than send you the company’s 800-number, they’re not your agent. Chances are, they’re just in it for the commission.”

Some good reasons to use a travel agent, once you find a good one, include:

  • They may have access to deals you can’t get– Travel agents are notified of the latest offers, bargains and discounts first. Connected agents know even more, including what travel options are likely to go up or down in pricing and/or availability, and what can be critical information in a buying decision.
  • They speak the language of the service provider– Anyone who has ever tried to work with airline fare codes, codeshare rules or other cryptic travel speak meant for behind-the-scenes travel pros knows having one in their back pocket can bring huge advantages.
  • They almost always result in a better value- They may not be able to get a ticket to paradise for less than Discount Joe’s Travel Barn but they’ll probably be able to match it and throw in a perk or two that Joe knows nothing about.

Flickr photo by PinkMoose

Be sure your cruise travel agent is not a crook

Its becoming an all too familiar story: A group of friends or family members buy a group cruise through a friendly local travel agent who handles everything for them. The group makes payments on their cruise to that travel agent, paying in full, right on time. Then the group goes to the ship on embarkation day all excited about the cruise only to find out something is wrong. Some or all of them don’t actually have a booking on that sailing or any other sailing as their travel agent ran off with the money and never paid the cruise line. Lets take a look at how this happens and what we can do to prevent it.

The Freeport News describes a recent scam that happened to the Edden family from the Bahamas:

A family decided to take a vacation together this summer, but some were hugely disappointed.

Thirty-nine persons were set to go on an eight-day Carnival Caribbean cruise to St. Thomas, Tortola, Antigua and Nassau and were all excited.

But, according to family members remaining, the cruise was not for all.

When the group flew to Ft. Lauderdale, where they were to board the ship for their vacation cruise, as the group began the checking-in pro-cess, it was discovered that only 29 of the 39 persons were booked in the system for the cruise. According to reports, that was the amount of people for which the cruiseline allegedly received payment.”

The story goes downhill from there. Everyone had already checked their luggage with porters which was now mixed in with the luggage of 2500 other guests on the ship. At this point the whole mess was thought to be a big mistake so the group contacted their friendly “travel agent” for help.

Eunice Morris of Morris Travel was contacted but the ship had only four remaining cabins on-board which they then sold to the travel agent that reportedly used a credit card to secure.

Of the 39 members of the family only 29 were able to go, and the remaining 10 could not get their luggage because it was mixed in with 2,500 others.

One family member left on shore said this was to be her daughter’s first cruise and when they saw the boat leave her daughter began to cry uncontrollably.

It was a heartbreaking moment for the 10 who were not only left stranded at the harbour but also without luggage, no transportation and had already checked out of their rooms.

So now we have 10 people left ashore while the rest go off on their cruise vacation. Morris Travel promised to send them money to help with expenses while they were in Florida, waiting for the others to return along with a full refund when they returned home.

At least those on the ship were having a good time? Not so much.

For the family members onboard it was not a good trip either as they found they did not have the types of rooms they had paid for.

Then, before the ship made its way to Nassau, the family were called in and told that the credit card (that the travel agent used to pay for the cabins bought on the day of sailing) was fake and they were asked to pay the full amount of $14,612.00 right then.

Their passports were held and they were blocked from leaving the ship, but former Member of Parliament for West End and Bimini David Wallace, who was also on the cruise was said to have pleaded for the family and they were allowed to get off the boat in Nassau, but had to leave their passports.

The story ends with the news that Morris Travel has done this several times and gotten away with it. Their story was that payments had been sent to a processing center who made a mistake and did not forward the payments on to the cruise line.

Our research has revealed that there was an error in processing and due diligence to correct and inform did not take place in sufficient time to avert a problem at Wenthworth Agencies (WAA) which has contributed to the distress of all parties concerned. Ms. Morris paid for a service to be rendered and we did not follow through to ensure that her request had been met.

“We have compiled points of noted interest on what transpired to cause denied boarding and payment re-call … We again apologize to the clients of Ms. Morris that suffered through an embarrassing ordeal and to Ms. Morris as she struggles to bring reason to the situation caused upon her unwarranted.

“Again our sincerest apologies, Mr. Daniel Wenthworth, Managing Partner.”

Further investigation by The Freeport News did not find a Wenthworth Accounting Agencies Boston, Cambridge and East Central Massachusetts. Big surprise.

The heart-breaking part of all of this is that the whole situation could have been easily avoided if a few simple rules of booking had been followed by the Edden family:

Always pay with a credit or debit card- Never pay with cash or a check. Paying with a credit or debit card affords some protection to consumers in the case of fraud like this case appears to be, just as if that card were stolen or the card number compromised. Cash is impossible to track down later. Checks deposited in the wrong place are not much easier. For efficiency and security, nothing beats a credit or debit card.

Insist that payments go directly to the cruise line- There is no reason for any travel agency to hold payments. In this case, had payments been processed properly and the Edden family used a debit or credit card, they would have seen “Carnival Cruise Lines” on their statement, verifying that payments went to the right place.

Register with the cruise line as soon as you have a booking number- Cruise lines are required to collect certain personal information like how passengers are planning to get to the pier, what credit card they will use for onboard purchases and the correct spelling of their names, etc. If booked passengers go to the cruise line website and attempt registration using the booking number provided by the travel agency and it does not work, something is wrong. It may be as simple as an innocent spelling error of a name or it may be that the crooked travel agent never made the booking.

Ask for an official cruise line invoice- After the initial booking is made, travel agencies commonly send out their own in-house booking confirmations. There’s nothing wrong with that and those travel agency invoices often show details of when payments were made that the cruise line invoice does not.

If it does not sound or look right, ask a trusted source– The Better Business Bureau (BBB) is a great source to start with, before buying. That an agency is not listed with the BBB should be red flag causing concern on the part of buyers. The BBB rating of an agency is also a good indicator of how things might go. In another scam reported this week by the Orlando Sentinel, the crooked agent involved scored an “F” rating.

Be aware of the travel agency/cruise line relationship– Complying with the agreement made between travel agents and cruise lines, cruise lines will not talk to passengers about their booking made through a travel agent. By booking with a travel agent, passengers give up the right to discuss your booking with the cruise line.

Does that mean everyone should simply book directly with the cruise line? Maybe. If it was their first time going through the process, booking directly with the cruise line would have eliminated the intentional fraud we saw with this case.

But booking directly with the cruise line also removes the opportunity for a good, honest agent to work on the behalf of passengers over the life of the booking. Those efforts most often result in consumers getting the best value as well as a seamless package that only a qualified agent working with their best interests in mind can provide.

Any state Attorney General’s office and/or Division of Consumer Affairs is also a good one to give a call early in the process of booking. They maintain records of these things and are eager to help.

The situation is sad but very avoidable for groups that have planned their cruise-of-a-lifetime family reunion, anniversary, graduation or wedding cruise for quite some time. Trusting the local travel agent, they may have skipped dining out, made their shoes last a bit longer than normal or done without something else to make those payments on time. They had no reason to believe anything was wrong. After all, their travel agent is a pro and knows all about cruise vacations. Just this week, another group fell prey to a “travel agent” who would be more accurately described as a “felon on the run”.

Flickr photo by gurbisz

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Time for a career change? Become the personal travel agent for the British Royal Household

Out of work, or in desperate need of a career change? How about becoming the personal travel expert for the Queen and her family?

The job requirements are simple – you need to be legally allowed to work in the UK, and you’ll need to make sure all travel for the Royal Household is “appropriate and efficient”.

Bottom line – you’ll be the private travel agent for the entire Royal Family.

Pay is quite generous – up to £75,000, or about $121,000. Your fleet of available transportation methods includes helicopters, trains, chartered aircraft and commercial flights.

Part of your responsibilities also includes ensuring the safety of the Royal Family and that their trips are environmentally friendly. CO2 reports will be expected on time each month.

You’ll be in charge of almost 3,000 official trips each year, working with a £7 million budget.

You’ll also need good negotiating skills, because nobody likes paying rack rate for hotels and flights. Your ability to talk the price down will probably have a positive impact your salary.

You have till March 14th to apply for the job. Oh, and we have no idea who gets to keep the miles for all their travel but chances are you won’t be putting any of it on your private credit card.

[Photo: Indigo/Getty Images]