When you can book every aspect of a trip online, in minutes, why would you use a travel agent? And how do you find a good one?
Erika Richter, communications director for the American Society of Travel Agents, joined the AP Travel podcast “Get Outta Here!” to explain how travel agents work and how to find one. Here are some excerpts from the podcast, edited for brevity and clarity.
Travel advisersRichter says the term “travel agent” is being replaced by the term “travel adviser” because of a “shift in our industry ... Gone are the days where travel agents are just ticket bookers. Think of them as holistic advisers.”
The American Society of Travel Agents has a consumer-facing website, TravelSense.org, which allows you to search a database of vetted, qualified travel professionals who follow ASTA’s code of ethics. You can search by expertise or even location if you want an agent nearby.
How agents workRichter says 40 percent of travel advisers “work from home,” but some are “digital nomads” who travel while they work. “The world is their office,” she said.
One agent she knows “only sells destinations that he’s lived in for six months. ... Right now, he’s in Southeast Asia because before he adds the destination to his list, he wants to know the ins and outs. He wants to know the people on the ground, to shake their hands. He wants to know the thread count on the sheets and the best cocktails on the menu.”
Other agents are geared to cultivating local customers and might even “meet a client for lunch” or visit them at home to get to know their family. Some customers simply shoot them a text when they need a flight booked.
Traditional brick-and-mortar locations still exist, too, but even those are changing. Richter says an agency called Departure Lounge in Austin, Texas, hosts events – like a tasting with a winery from a destination – to engage potential customers.
When to use an agentAre travelers wasting an agent’s time if all they need is a quick flight somewhere and they see a cheap fare online they can book themselves?
“If you’re just going on a routine visit to see grandma in New Orleans, you can probably handle that yourself. But what if grandma in New Orleans is on her deathbed and you’re stuck in Phoenix because you missed your connection?” Richter said. “It might help to have an advocate in your corner who can quickly fix that for you. ... No matter how short a trip or how small the budget, there are things that can be done to enhance the experience.”
She added that when things go wrong and you’ve booked your trip through a third-party website, “you are the last person anyone cares to assist,” Richter said. “You’ve chosen the price over guaranteeing the trip and customer service. When you book with a travel adviser, you’re getting personalized 24/7 support from a human, not a chat bot or website.”
How do agents make money?Some charge planning fees – as little as $25, or more depending on the complexity of the trip. Others get commissions.
So what do you say to consumers who worry that an agent working on commission will upsell their trip – book them into more expensive accommodations than they would otherwise want – in order to increase their commission?
First of all, travelers should let agents know what their budget is at the beginning of any trip-planning consultation. But Richter says consumers should also realize that an agent’s suppliers – hotels, resorts, airlines, cruises – are “often giving them better deals on inventory and that trickles back down” to the consumer, Richter said. “You’re going to get your money’s worth whether there’s a fee or no fee because you’re getting access that other consumers don’t get. You can get things like free breakfast or a room upgrade and that’s because the travel buyer has those personal relationships because they’re buying in bulk as a travel agency.”
Richter says travel professionals are also expert at making the most of your travel budget, whatever that budget might be. Typically, travelers look to save money on hotels, “but what about dining and excursions and other activities that add up?” Richter said. “What if you could save big in those areas with free breakfasts or better rates on tours that come with the perks of booking with an agent? That impacts the overall budget and maybe brings the cost of the hotel into perspective. Maybe you find a cheap hotel but your travel agent says you’ll end up spending most of your time in a taxi because the hotel is 30 miles away from anything you want to see or do.”
Agents can even help if you’re using points to book a chain hotel: “They know a whole heck of a lot when it comes to maximizing your points value.”
Customizing tripsWhat if you’re seeking a quirky itinerary with unique activities in offbeat destinations?
A good travel agent should be able to “recommend everything down to the best markets and local restaurants, to give you a mix of highlights and other off-the-beaten path sides of things. The whole itinerary should and will be customized based on the feedback and interest that you provide,” Richter said. “Sometimes, you just want to do things that you simply can’t Google. You want something that’s highly specialized and unique, and that’s what we’re here for.”