SECRET AGENTS’ BUSINESS
If you want to know about hush-hush discounts and VIP upgrades, it pays to pay an expert
Much has been written about the power of human connection in recent years. We know, for example, that reaching out to other people can increase your lifespan, strengthen your immune system and significantly reduce your risk of depression and/or anxiety. However, what isn’t often (OK, ever) touched on is that human connection can also help you book the holiday of your dreams for a lot less than anticipated.
“DIY when it comes to booking travel certainly has its place – particularly in cases where you may only require a straight interstate booking on a predetermined day,” confirms Tom Walley, head of leisure for Flight Centre Travel Group. “But if you’re looking for flexibility, options or to book a holiday, an experienced travel agent has a lot of inside information that isn’t often readily shared with the general public.”
Just what is this inside information? Prepare to be amazed.
SECRET #1 IT’S WHO YOU KNOW. ALWAYS.
Every so often, something magical happens in travel agency land: a heart-stoppingly cheap airfare, package deal or cruise will drop – unavailable and in no way advertised anywhere else – and agents will work like a stockbroker on a trading floor as they call their VIP clients to sell, sell, SELL. Want to be the first in line to hear about heavily discounted cruises such as the Regent Seven Seas cruise to Bali which was whispered in the ears of select Virtuoso clients just before Christmas last year? You in turn need to be in the ear of your travel agent.
It isn’t just the shopfront agencies where the bat phone rings hot either; at Luxury Escapes, in-house travel concierges have access to additional deals at many holiday hotspots that aren’t listed on the website. “We don’t make it widely known,” admits the travel company’s corporate communications boss, Peter Taylor. “But if someone is after a five-star property in Bali and can’t find the perfect match online, our travel concierge team might suggest a handful of additional, unadvertised options such as an eight-night stay for the whole family at Inaya Putri Bali at 66 per cent off.”
Exclusive deals aside, your travel agent will make the most of their relationships with tour operators, airlines and hoteliers to habitually gift clients room upgrades, tack on free meals, spa treatments or activities. At Flight Centre, for example, travellers can often expect room upgrades, meal vouchers, free nanny services in Fiji and free or discounted spa treatments and day tours as part of the service, while Helloworld customers might see a surprise romantic dining experience added to their itinerary. It won’t be any old booking either, but a particular table at a certain restaurant staff know first-hand has one of the best views to be found in the land.
SECRET #2 WHAT YOU SEE AND WHAT YOU GET CAN BE TWO DIFFERENT THINGS
Bought a “chef-led culinary tour of Paris” only to find yourself eating stale croissants at a train station with a guide whose industry credentials include “ran prison meal service”? The risk with researching and booking trips online is you’re taking travel advice from either an algorithm, strangers who don’t know a thing about your likes and dislikes, or tour operators who can, and will, use creative licence when it comes to the images and copy they use.
The beauty of travel agents is they travel all the time, to learn what’s hot, not and new, and road-test the services and tours they then go on to recommend with honesty. Simply put, with a travel agent, choo-choostyle dining with Gaston could have been easily avoided.
SECRET #3 AIRLINES CAN BE AS FLEXIBLE AS GUMBY
There’s nothing quite like having a digital clock in the corner of your screen counting down the 30 minutes you have to make your booking while you mull over the big questions (Will that payment you’ve been waiting on to pay for this trip finally come through? Are you really the type of person who wants to skateboard the Himalayas, or are you merely having a midlife crisis?)
While some airlines and aggregators will hold flights for a limited time (30 minutes to 72 hours in most cases), travel agents can hold flights, especially those bound for Europe, for a couple of weeks while you get your ducks in a row.
“Obviously it depends on the contact agents have with airlines,” says Tom Walley. “Most low-cost carriers have to be paid instantly so there’s little flexibility there but we can usually wrangle more breathing space from the big name carriers.”
Similarly, some holidays which have a deposit attached to them can sometimes be held for several months with Flight Centre offering nine months interest-free service as long as the holiday is paid off eight weeks before you depart.
SECRET #4 INTERNAL COMMUNICATIONS SYSTEMS ARE KING
Thinking about heading to that really obscure corner in Brazil’s Pantanal no one seems to know much about? Sure, you could chance the four flights and two days it takes to get there and fly by the seat of your pants … or you can consult travel agents who have at their disposal a large and detailed internal communications system where they can look back at reviews and personal stories from both previous customers and other agents and report back on that obscure corner accordingly.
Such data bases mean agents have insider information at their fingertips at all times, from which dinner and show you must enjoy in New York City, to which galleries in Rome will need to be pre-booked to avoid daily visitor capping measures.
SECRET #5 THINGS CAN (AND DO) GO WRONG
Whether there’s an illness or an emergency requiring an urgent dash back home, travel agents have seen it all, and what’s more, they’re prepared for every possible situation. “If a client receives devastating news, for example, we can action the reissue of tickets before ensuring the message is filtered through all crew from the check-in counter to the flight attendants so they are assisted on their return trip accordingly,” says Debra Carr, director and owner of Helloworld Travel in Surrey Hills, Victoria.
Travel insurance can only cover so much; a quality travel agent will not only provide countless methods of 24/7 contact so you’re only ever one phone call or email away from assistance; they will move mountains to get you home to your family as quickly and painlessly as possible.
SECRET #6 A CHEAP DEAL AND VALUE FOR MONEY ARE TWO VERY DIFFERENT THINGS
So you’re dreaming of hitting up NYC and you come across two options: fly direct to NYC at a slightly higher fare, or fly cheaply with a low-cost carrier to Los Angeles and book a separate onward flight to New York, saving you a few hundred dollars in the process.
When you put it like this, there’s no denying option B sounds like the most palatable – until you discover that in the US, all travellers moving from international to domestic flights are subjected to local baggage limits and charges which could cost you even more. A good travel agent will help you avoid such situations by booking a trip through to NYC as one ticket, even if at a slightly higher rate.
And don’t believe the myth that flights booked yourself online will always be a cheaper option; travel agents are privy to a host of options
THEY CAN HOLD FLIGHTS, ESPECIALLY THOSE BOUND FOR EUROPE, FOR WEEKS WHILE YOU GET YOUR DUCKS IN A ROW
not available anywhere else, says TravelManagers personal travel manager Frances Cream. “We have access to a number of discounted international corporate airfares, including to Europe and the US, and these fares often have more flexibility, increased luggage allowance and are often better priced than what you can find online,” she says. “Some airlines also have fares that are only available through travel agents, saving you thousands on a round-the-world fare, for example.”
Convinced you’ve found the best possible fare online? Travel agents such as Flight Centre have a lower fare guarantee so it’s always worth checking whether they can match or beat the price you’ve found.
SECRET #7 TIME IS OUR BIGGEST LUXURY
It can be painful for a travel agent to watch on as travellers try to book their own trips. As Carr tells it, “One of the biggest things a travel agent can save you is time,” she says. “We save on the hours of research because we have the knowledge and experience, we construct the airfares to include as much on the one ticket and save on backtracking and additional purchases.” They know the quickest routes, which airline flies where and if they know you well enough, which airline you would prefer to fly with. If you need to fly between Sydney and Brisbane on a determined day, locking it in online is easy, but if you plan a holiday with connections, your travel agent can quickly sort the chaff from the grain and make the booking process quick and seamless.
SECRET #8 WHO YOU ARE AND WHERE YOU LIVE
Yes it sounds creepy (and admittedly, we made it intentionally so), but a truly great travel agent will work hard to develop a long-term relationship with clients, over time memorising their likes, dislikes, preferred price points and special considerations they may have when they travel. So should they hear of a truly great deal or happen upon a new hotel they think you’ll enjoy, they’ll get straight on the phone to gauge your interest.
They also have your passport details so that not only can they iron out any potential visa or passport expiry issues before they arise (a problem quite common with DIY travellers who don’t realise a 10-year passport is only valid for 9.5 years), but a good travel agency may also send you a bottle of champagne or gift you a birthday cake if you’re travelling around or on your special day. “Our job isn’t so much about booking you a holiday because anyone can do that,” Tom Walley admits. “Our business model is about listening to your needs and giving you an experience you’re never going to forget and that’s what we aim to do.”
FIJI PARADISE Agents’ knowledge and experience can save hours of research for travel as diverse as Machu Picchu in Peru (main picture); Fiji at the Sheraton Resort & Spa, Tokoriki Island; luxury aboard Seven Seas Navigator; and soaking up Bali at the...
Cheap fares to destinations such as New York can end up costing you extra. Travel agents will help lead the way to a more economical result. BROOKLYN BRIDGE