Consider the last three trips you took. Ready? Okay: Regardless if they were short or long, domestic or international, chances are, you did all of the planning yourself or with the help of your travel buddy. You likely searched for hours reading reviews on various hotels or resorts, set up a flight alert to get the best price on your voyage, and updated your Facebook status asking for recommendations from friends. After all that research, you hit book.
What if you could skip all of that and let someone else do all the hard work, while all you have to do is show up at the airport with a packed bag? Enter the world of travel agents. Right, the people whose whole industry you thought died around the time the Internet became a thing.
Yes, while millennial-types often consider travel agents archaic, the pros might save you time and money — and they have access to some tools you don't have. So before you roll your eyes in protest, consider this look into the industry.
1. Their relationships can get you a better room.
“Travel agencies work with preferred suppliers. The OTAs — online travel agents — work on ‘distressed’ merchandise. For example [when] a hotel is only 35 percent full, it will offer special rates to the OTA,” explains Marcy Gelber, a travel agency owner. “It is also not only the price. Most rooms that online sites have are run of house, meaning it’s the smallest room, limited view, far or too close to the elevator, [or the like]. Where ours are always guaranteed view and possible upgrade. Ours will also have amenities, gift in the room, spa or dining credit, and free parking, depending on the hotel. Travel agents are about relationships with suppliers and clients. That is what separates us from the OTA.”
2. They're free to work with.
Your first concern when you think about hiring a travel agent is how much that’s going to cost on top of your vacation. The answer? Most of them don’t charge a dime. Instead, they make money off of the destinations, airlines, and hotels that they provide customers for. “There is no cost to work with a travel professional," explains travel agent Robyn Lanci. "They get paid a commission by the hotel — or tour operator, cruise line, et cetera — that you booked with.”
3. They're always standing by.
While they might not be at the airport in France to greet you with a glass of sancerre and a baguette, your travel agent is likely to be a lot more present in your experience than a travel search engine. “Travel professionals are with you every step of the way, from the time you spend deciding where to go to the time you return home. They don't disappear after you leave a deposit. And because travel professionals are familiar with so many destinations, they can provide excellent insight on what to do, where to go, etc. on your next vacation,” Lanci says. And that personal contact can be helpful if you run into an obstacle or issue — say, in a place where you don't speak the language.
4. Some are better than others.
Some agents might get wrapped up in the perks from bigger hotel chains and oversell an experience or a trip, and it doesn’t meet your expectations. “A general travel agent is not always interested in your experience. He or she is interested in the commission he’ll earn from your hotel or cruise reservation. I’ve seen people’s itineraries that an agent has pulled together, and I’ve been taken aback because I can see immediately that that agent has never been [there] based on the hotel they booked. I find that infuriating," says Allison Scola, owner and curator of Experience Sicily, a boutique tourism company that specializes in custom designing experiences in Sicily. Scola notes that she calls herself a "specialist" instead of an "agent" because she is catered to one location where she’s an expert and can give her customers a truly authentic experience.
Another tip to remember is to check on your travel agent before hiring him or her. As an example, Elyssa Antonelle, the managing director of Mickey Travels, specializing in trips to Disney World, says there are certain regulations and recognitions an agent needs to be trusted. “Do your research with travel agencies. It's important that they are recognized by the destinations you are traveling to. For instance, Disney recognizes their travel agencies as Authorized Disney Vacation Planners. It is highly recommended you use a travel agency that Disney trusts with this designation,” she says.
5. A local agent might serve you best.
To that end, if being part of the culture of a new town or city you’re visiting is at the top of your priority list, you might consider hiring a local agent from your destination. “I have walked the steps that [clients] will be walking on their itinerary. I’ve met the guide, I’ve eaten at the restaurant that I am suggesting, I’ve slept at the inn or toured it — and smelled the bathroom and heard the noise on the street,” Sicily-based Scola says of her local connections.
6. They don't get paid if you don't book.
Owner and chief memory officer at Family Travel Boutique Kimberly Milnes is among some of the agents who do charge a small fee for her services. However, she notes that many agents rely on client bookings to pay their rent or mortgages, so it’s important to practice reasonable etiquette when inquiring. “We are paid by commission from the suppliers as well as the service fees we charge to cover our personal services — this is like a lawyer charging an hourly fee,” she explains. “If you do not book with us we do not get paid. So it is not cool to go to an agent get information and then book on your own.”
7. They might save your a**.
Ever traveled to an international airport in a country whose language you don’t speak and your reservation was lost? Or the hotel you booked a room at was suddenly under construction? Mishaps happen, no matter how much you prepared. If you use a travel agency to book your trip, then you have someone who you can call, no matter what or questions asked, to help you out. “You are leaving the country, you need to have a live person available to advocate for you when you get to a hotel, and they don’t have your reservation, want to collect money, or will deny you your room,” Gelber says.
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