How to tell if you have a qualified travel agent

Yarisa Smith knows she has a good travel agent.

“He’s made cruises and European trips special,” says Smith, a manufacturer’s representative from Dallas. “His itineraries and attention to detail have made every trip flawless. He’s even managed to successfully intervene when acts of God have waylaid my plans.”

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Yet you might not know by looking at Clark Mitchell, who works for Dallas-based Strong Travel, whether he’s the real deal. Yes, his agency is cited as a source for its travel expertise by mainstream news outlets. It also prominently lists its membership in Virtuoso, an exclusive travel agency consortium.

But until now, there’s been no instantly recognized certification that says an agent is legit. That may be about to change.

At its annual convention in San Diego this summer, the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), a trade organization, introduced a new certification called the Verified Travel Advisor (VTA) program. Agents must successfully complete courses in ethics, law, marketing, sales and negotiation, among others, to display the ASTA VTA check mark logo on their sites or business cards.

“The Verified Travel Advisor program is our standard for educational excellence,” says Zane Kerby, ASTA’s president. “Earning the VTA certification is another way to increase trust — to show the consumer that you’ve demonstrated your ability and willingness to put your customer first.”

In a world of confusing — and often meaningless — agent certifications, will VTA stand apart? It’s too soon to know, because the program is brand new. The key will be enforcement, industry observers say. Most of the current certifications are pay-for-play. In other words, an agency can purchase all the badges and memberships it needs. To become the travel equivalent of a “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval, ASTA will need to hold agents accountable to a high standard, which would mean removing the check mark from a bad agent, if necessary.

In the meantime, there are plenty of other signs that your agent is on the up-and-up.

A Travel Institute certification: This is the rough equivalent of having a degree in travel. The institute’s most common designation, CTA, or Certified Travel Associate, requires at least 12 months of experience and builds sales and planning skills, such as creating travel itineraries, handling customer service requests, building destination knowledge and understanding business ethics. Another Travel Institute designation, Certified Travel Counselor (CTC) focuses on management skills such as conflict management, negotiation and behavior training. Keeping your certification means completing annual continuing education classes, but there’s no formal, consumer-facing process for identifying and expelling agents who fail to meet institute standards. In other words, a CTA or CTC designation means agents are trained, but not necessarily competent.

An IATA number: The International Air Transport Association, a trade group, accredits travel agents by issuing them a numerical code. The code gives agents access to the group’s billing settlement services and also acts as a kind of seal of approval for consumers. But all you have to do to get an IATA number is qualify and pay. The organization doesn’t attempt to verify any of your agency skills. Instead, an IATA number is just a sign that you’re a serious agent.

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A consortium or franchise membership: Belonging to a major travel industry consortium, an organization of agencies that have joined to increase their buying power, can also be a sign that your agent means business. For example, Virtuoso bills itself as an “invitation only” consortium with “established criteria for sales minimums.” Also, being part of a franchise such as Travel Leaders can be an indication that your agent is for real. These large travel companies have a valuable brand to protect, so they have a vested interest in making sure their employees and members provide quality service.

Is there a way to know for sure? No, at least not yet. Consider an agent’s membership in ASTA. The logo may mean the agent is serious enough to spend $330 a year on membership and that he or she has agreed to abide by the organization’s code of ethics. But there’s a vast gray area between extraordinary customer service and unethical practices. The ASTA logo doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve found a highly skilled agent, which is one reason the organization has developed the new program.

The real seal of approval is yours.

“The best credential you can have is a referral from a friend,” says Elaine Carey, a travel agent affiliated with Travel Experts, which is based in Whispering Pines, N.C. Indeed, a little due diligence can take you a long way. And once you’ve found someone you like, your word-of-mouth referral is worth more than any certification, seal or endorsement.

That’s what Ann Wolfer discovered when she decided to use a travel agent at a large international travel company for her vacation to Cozumel, Mexico.

The agent looked good on paper and had all the right credentials, but when it came time to book, the adviser simply ran a Web search for available hotels in Mexico.

Talking to the agent “changed nothing,” says Wolfer, who works for the military in Aberdeen, Md. Looking back, she wishes that she had found an expert on Mexico, perhaps someone recommended by one of her friends.

In the long run, no check mark is likely to replace word-of-mouth.