In the first two parts of this article, discussion focused on increasing traveler frustration and the growing importance of travel agents who can help ease that frustration. The actual planning of a trip can be a major source of headache, but agents are here to help.
Although consumers started to shy away from agents once they started charging fees for their services, many are returning to agents and are finding these fees are worth their weight in gold anyway. And despite feeling nickel-and-dimed to death by the airlines for charging fees for services that used to be free (checking baggage and choice seating, for example), the amount of money that can be saved by using an agent is well worth his or her service fee.
Agents know who flies where and when. If you are looking for a nonstop flight online and don’t find one, it doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist. Lately, some airlines have pulled their flight info from some of the online travel agencies because of contract disputes. An agent would know that. An agent would also know that if you are flexible with travel dates, a nonstop flight might operate on an alternate date. And if you must take a connecting flight, a good agent will advise you NEVER to connect through Chicago in the middle of winter. And a travel agent will always try to find you the best airfare – their reservation systems are equipped to do so. If you are not happy with a fare on flights you’ve picked, he or she will recommend other options to save you money; some will even keep an eye on fares and alert you when the price lowers.
How to sort through the maze of hotel options? A popular website, tripadvisor.com, lists traveler reviews of hotels. Although this is a good source of information, allegations have surfaced that these reviews are not totally unbiased. A disgruntled ex-employee could have written a negative review. Or a hotel manager could have written a favorable review. You’d really need to read ten or fifteen reviews to get a general sense of the quality of the hotel. But what happens when you are interested in a hotel in Paris, where there are hundreds of hotels? Are you ready to read several reviews for each of them?
Most hotels have their own websites, but note that all hotels will absolutely have nothing bad to say about themselves. So you may be tempted to book the one that promises that it is steps away from major attractions or minutes away from nightlife. But what happens if that hotel is really twenty thousand steps away? Or that nightlife is actually an expensive twenty minute taxi ride away? What if the pool you were looking forward to is actually closed for renovations? What if the room you booked is next to an elevator or ice machine, or worse, faces an alley filled with garbage pails awaiting a 5am pickup? And worse still, what if you arrive at the hotel and your reservation is “lost”?
Enter the travel agent. Most are well-traveled, and odds are they have been to the destination you are interested in. Many also go on “familiarization” trips that are sponsored free of charge or at little cost by tourist boards or hotels. An agent, during a three- or four-day “fam” trip, may visit numerous hotels (known as “site inspections”), taking notes and snapping photos for general use in the agency. A good agent will be able to make a recommendation and will usually know the “real deal” about a hotel or its neighborhood. In addition, agents attend local trade shows and oftentimes meet representatives from the hotels, providing an “in” – most useful if a special request or favor is needed.
Let’s say you make a simple travel booking on your own – air, hotel and car rental – and then you need to cancel it. You have to go to three websites or make three phone calls to do this. Or you can make one call to one agent and it’s all done for you.
On the other side of the spectrum, if you’re planning a complex, customized itinerary, let a travel agent help you. Many have contacts with hotels, limo companies and personal tour guides all over the world. In exchange for that service fee, all emails, faxes and phone calls necessary to make that vacation happen are done for you.
And what about that dreaded canceled (or delayed) flight? While most travelers will never be affected by airline problems related to earthquakes, political uprisings or volcanic ash, all will at some point in their lives face an issue related to weather (snow, thunderstorms, fog) or a mechanical problem. And while others scramble to long lines to re-book, your quick call to your travel agent will have you rebooked ahead of everyone else. And if you can’t rebook, let your agent get that refund for you. Have you ever tried to call an airline or get onto its website when the entire eastern seaboard is blanketed by a blizzard?
Yes, it’s time to give travel agents their well-deserved and long-awaited credit. And yes, a fee may be involved for their expertise. But other professionals – accountants, lawyers, and so on – charge fees for their services. And you may be surprised – some agencies will even waive their fees if it’s a simple cruise booking or tour package, relying only on its commission for the booking as its compensation. Others may have value-added incentives (free limo transfer, a “welcome” bottle of wine in your cruise cabin) that you will not get if you booked on your own.
Notice the connotation between the words “travel agents” and “professionals” in the preceding paragraph. Agents are no longer the simple order-takers that everyone used to think they were. They are indeed “Travel Counselors”. And they may just save you A LOT of frustration the next time you book a trip.