Travel Agents

LuxeGetaways - - Editor’s Note - By Doug Gol­lan

With so many the­o­ries sur­round­ing when it is best to

seek out a travel agent, Lux­eGet­aways ex­plores this

topic in de­tail.

Con­ven­tional wisdom re­gard­ing travel agents is that their ser­vices should be re­served for com­pli­cated in­ter­na­tional trips, but that you are safe do­ing ev­ery­thing else on your own. Even agents, or ad­vi­sors as many to­day like to be re­ferred to, will talk about how con­sumers do not nec­es­sar­ily need them for sim­ple trips. How­ever, when I was re­search­ing com­plaints about on­line travel agen­cies (in in­dus­try lingo, “OTAs” such as Trav­e­loc­ity, Ex­pe­dia, Price­line, Ho­tels.com, etc.), I found that many were about fairly rou­tine do­mes­tic roundtrip flights, and run of the mill ho­tel book­ings.

For ex­am­ple, one trav­eler booked a trip with an OTA for a daytrip to a job in­ter­view with the out­bound flight on one air­line and the re­turn on an­other; but the first flight was se­verely de­layed or can­celed, which caused a series of un­for­tu­nate cir­cum­stances. In an­other ex­am­ple, a woman wanted to buy a roundtrip ticket, but then stay in two dif­fer­ent ho­tels dur­ing her stay. Her epic In­stant Mes­sage chats with mul­ti­ple OTA cus­tomer ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tives that she posted to Face­book seemed like the re­sponses were com­ing from drones, or real peo­ple who sim­ply had a series of cut and paste an­swers to use in th­ese sit­u­a­tions.

The big­gest is­sues with the OTAs were their lack of cus­tomer ser­vice when some­thing went wrong, and the in­abil­ity to help make rec­om­men­da­tions be­fore you click the Buy but­ton. What can go wrong? This typ­i­cally re­volved around things like strikes, can­cel­la­tions and even bad weather. While OTAs are swamped with long wait­ing times, a good travel agent is al­ways mon­i­tor­ing your itin­er­ary and book­ing you on al­ter­nate flights be­fore you even know that you have a prob­lem. A good agent also has re­la­tion­ships with the ho­tels they book so if you, in fact, can­not make it there as sched­uled, they are in a bet­ter po­si­tion to help have the can­cel­la­tion penal­ties waived. Dur­ing last Fall’s series of Lufthansa cabin at­ten­dant strikes when con­sumers could not get through to the air­line, there were nu­mer­ous sto­ries in the trade press of agents who were able to get all of their cus­tomers moved to other air­lines. Agents played the same star­ring role af­ter the Paris ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

One ex­am­ple of how you can lose a lot of money do­ing it yourself on a fairly sim­ple trip is due to the com­plex­ity of air­line pric­ing. For ex­am­ple, a fam­ily of four wants to travel from Dal­las to Lon­don roundtrip, and is look­ing for the best fare. When you search on­line, the re­sults gen­er­ally posted are the best price ap­pli­ca­ble to all four trav­el­ers. How­ever, a good travel agent may find two or three seats avail­able at prices that are hun­dreds of dol­lars less than the fourth seat. In­clud­ing pay­ing a fee to the agent for ticketing, you can eas­ily save hun­dreds, or in many cases, even thou­sands of dol­lars thanks to the agent know­ing how to man­age the sys­tem.

Cruises may seem fairly easy to book on­line. Af­ter all, you can now see deck plans and se­lect your own cabin with ease. There are also some good re­view websites worth vis­it­ing, such as CruiseCritic.com. Agents, how­ever, can of­ten of­fer up­grades and on­board cred­its, which can add up to hun­dreds of dol­lars. A good agent can also rec­om­mend spe­cific cabins, and de­pend­ing on the itin­er­ary, which side of the ship gets the best view sail­ing into spe­cific ports. They can also be a huge as­set when it comes to shore ex­cur­sions, par­tic­u­larly if you want a pri­vate or cus­tom­ized ex­pe­ri­ence, or just want to be on your own and not with fel­low pas­sen­gers. When I took my three chil­dren to Alaska on a cruise, my ad­vi­sor ar­ranged a great pri­vate salmon fish­ing daytrip where all of the kids could go home and tell fish­ing sto­ries after­wards. We were also able to take our he­li­copter tour to a glacier while oth­ers on the ship had their trips can­celed be­cause of spotty weather; but thanks to our ad­vi­sor, the op­er­a­tor was able to fit us in since it was just the four of us, and not a group of 40.

If you are think­ing about just a sin­gle ho­tel stay, or per­haps cash­ing in fre­quent flyer miles, again the thought might be just to look on­line, par­tic­u­larly as you may al­ready have in mind a spe­cific des­ti­na­tion or sev­eral ho­tels. Here again, travel agents of­ten have some tricks up their sleeves. In the lux­ury arena, many agents be­long to groups such as Vir­tu­oso, En­sem­ble, Af­flu­ent Trav­eler, Sig­na­ture Net­work or Travel Lead­ers – each of which ne­go­ti­ate perks on be­half of their mem­ber agen­cies, such as late check-outs, free break­fasts and up­grades.

To­day’s bet­ter agents also travel ex­ten­sively. If your agent has not been to your cho­sen des­ti­na­tion, chances are that they will know some­one in their net­work who has; mean­ing a good agent should have the re­sources to get di­rect knowl­edge about a des­ti­na­tion be­fore mak­ing the book­ings.

At the end of the day, a re­la­tion­ship with a travel agent is re­ally no dif­fer­ent than your lawyer, doc­tor, den­tist, ac­coun­tant, land­scaper or in­te­rior dec­o­ra­tor; although plan­ning a trip should be a lot more joy­ful than a root canal. Re­mem­ber, like the other ser­vice providers I men­tioned, travel agents are pro­fes­sion­als, so do not just call an agency on Ho­tel groups also have loy­alty pro­grams for agen­cies that bring them a lot of busi­ness. For ex­am­ple, Four Sea­sons, Dorch­ester Col­lec­tion, Penin­sula Ho­tels and Man­darin Ori­en­tal do not have con­sumer loy­alty pro­grams, but they do have them for agents, as does The Ritz-Carl­ton, St. Regis, Lux­ury Col­lec­tion, Fair­mont, Raf­fles and many more. Th­ese pro­grams of­fer sim­i­lar perks for agent cus­tomers so that you can of­ten get more ex­tras when book­ing that week­end trip through an agent. With the costs of break­fasts run­ning $40 per per­son and late check­out sev­eral hun­dred dol­lars, and a con­firmed up­grade, you may be able to get $1,000 in free value on a two-night stay.

A pri­mary rea­son that travel agents are hot again has been the trends to­ward want­ing more ex­pe­ri­ences and soft ad­ven­tures, as well as trav­el­ing in ex­tended groups, such as fam­i­lies and friends – all of which are hard to ar­range on­line. If you have not used an agent re­cently (or ever), you will find that many agents spe­cial­ize in spe­cific types of ex­pe­ri­ences, vary­ing from villa rentals to sa­faris to river cruises, LGBT and pretty much any­thing you can think about. the phone and ex­pect them to be able to chat with you at length. Call or email to sched­ule a time to talk. The point is to take the time to talk to friends for re­fer­rals, and also take a look at the agent’s web­site or pro­file be­fore you con­tact him or her, and then see if the two of you click.

Find­ing a good agent can take a bit of work, but like other ser­vice providers you use, when you find a good one, they will save you money, cre­ate a bet­ter ex­pe­ri­ence for the amount you want to spend, and have ideas and rec­om­men­da­tions for things to do that you prob­a­bly had not even con­sid­ered.

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / rf­can­sole

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