Why you should use a travel agent

Next time you travel somewhere, consider talking to a professional first.

That’s what Seth Beckerman did when he needed to plan a recent trip around the world. His travel agent, Joe Kiernan, charged him a $35 consulting fee to create a seamless itinerary and was on call to make sure everything fell in place. And when it didn’t, he quickly fixed it.

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“When I was stranded in the Auckland airport because of a missed connection and Air New Zealand balked at accommodating me, I called Joe,” says Beckerman, a retired editor from Pittsburgh. “He made it happen.”

I know what you’re thinking: Here comes another story about how travel agents are making a comeback.

Except they’re not. The number of travel agents has shriveled from 124,000 in 2000 to 74,100 in 2014, according to the government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. But that’s good news. Many of the mundane tasks travel agents used to do, such as writing airline tickets, have been automated by travel websites. Today’s travel professional is far likelier to have expertise, knowledge and deep connections that can ensure your trip is a smooth one.

But agents are not for everyone. Ian MacDonald, an entrepreneur from Toronto, stopped using a travel agent when he added a $75 consulting fee to his services. MacDonald went the do-it-yourself route and has no regrets.

“It is easy, fast and has saved me thousands of dollars,” he says.

For years, travel agents privately scoffed at the DIYers, deriding them as “amateurs” and calling the sites they used, such as Expedia and Priceline, “travel vending machines.” But the real professionals have shed that attitude and are zeroing in on a more positive message. Yes, there are lots of folks such as MacDonald out there, and most of them will be just fine planning their own simple trips. But if you ever need an expert, agents will be there, ready to help.

“The value of a travel agent is immeasurable,” says Annie Scrivanich, a senior vice president for Cruise Specialists, a Seattle-based travel agency. Today’s travel agent is highly trained, well-traveled and has an extensive Rolodex of industry contacts, just in case they need to call in a favor. You’d have to spend half your free time online and the other half on the road to come close to that level of expertise.

Don’t confuse confidence with arrogance. Years ago, before travel websites became popular, the only way to book a cruise or a complicated vacation such as a honeymoon was to go through an agency, and some agents behaved as if they were the only game in town. Now, they know they have to be more than order-takers who collect a commission check. They have to work for you, and their loyalty must be to you.

Here’s the real shift: For the better part of two decades, travel agents claimed they worked for you but their loyalties remained with the suppliers, who paid them generous bonuses that covered their expenses. To many travelers, their words were compromised by conflict of interest. But last year, the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), the largest professional organization for travel agents, stunned the travel world by shifting its focus to the consumer. It relaunched Travelsense.org, a consumer-facing website, and began promoting agents as advocates for the traveler.

A few weeks ago I had an opportunity to address an ASTA conference and meet with agents. I wanted to find out if this was for real or just another marketing gimmick. Most of the pros I spoke with told me what I’ve been waiting to hear for years: That they are agents for you, the traveler. If push came to shove, they’d throw a travel supplier under a high-speed train.

On my return from the conference, I had a chance to experience the benefits of an agent when I was stuck in New York on a stopover. My return flight to Orlando was canceled, and they couldn’t get me back home for another 24 hours. While two codesharing airlines argued over who was responsible for the mess, my travel agent stepped up and found me a hotel and an early morning flight home.

You can’t go wrong by taking care of your customers. After years of precipitous declines, Americans are slowly discovering the new travel agent. According to consumer spending data from Bank of America, the average traveler spent $117 on agencies overall in 2016, up 4% from a year before.

The small number of travel professionals that remain still have a way to go before they can truly say they’ve returned. But when they do, they’ll be working for you.

How to find the best agent

• Ask a friend. A personal recommendation remains the best way to find a competent travel professional. Make sure you do your due diligence before you go with an agent. Ask for a list of references and check to make sure they’re licensed.

• Use an agent finder. The American Society of Travel Agents publishes a directory of its agents at Travelsense.org. Also, check a consortium such as Virtuoso (virtuoso.com/advisors), which specializes in luxury travel, or Travel Leaders, the largest traditional travel agency company (travelleaders.com/travel_agent/find-a-travel-agent.aspx).

• Look for the title. The Certified Travel Associate (CTA) and Certified Travel Counselor (CTC) designations issued by The Travel Institute (thetravelinstitute.com) are signs that your agent has taken the time to study up on the industry. Having these degrees is an indicator your agent is serious about being a professional.

38 thoughts on “Why you should use a travel agent

  1. For a complicated itinerary I would certainly use a travel agent. Obviously I’d check it was a real travel agent of course, not one of these scammy ‘travel club’ type affairs

    1. As an agent for over 20 years, I have to admit that over 80% of my bookings come from referrals – and that is something I am proud of — but I have ALWAYS put my client first, and do not give a whit what my commission might be from this vendor over that one. I am loyal to those who have the same mentality as I do, and who take good care of my clients, but I book a large variety of vendors as needed to perfectly match my clients’ needs. I look at it this way – I can make a few bucks more leading them to one vendor who pays me more, but not the best, or I can make much more on their repeat and referred business – just makes sense to me. After all, I am in this for the long run!

  2. Thank you for recommending Travelsense.org. If you have a problem with an agent that is an ASTA member, you can go to ASTA for help. Don’t just pick an agent out of thin air – interview them just as you would any professional you would do business with to make sure you are comfortable with them and they know what they are talking about.

    1. I agree 100%! You might book with an agent who is an expert at Mexico or the Caribbean, but if they do not feel comfortable or have travelled extensively in Europe, they might not be who you are looking for. Does not mean they are not a great agent – just not for your needs.

  3. Particularly when buying a cruise, assuming one is a neophyte needing advice on cruise line segmentation, it is challenging to find an agent who, as you suggest, puts their clients ahead of their commissions. In exploring a recent cruise booking after contacting an agency that is highly regarded (not some part time stringer working from home and affiliated with one of the large cruise agencies) and, knowing the cruise I was researching, the agent put a hold on a cabin (without first asking me). Where was it? Right next to the ship’s medical center, not a neighbor one would want. That’s a perfect case of an agent being an order taker. I ended up booking directly with the cruise line, happy to forego the extra perk cruise lines allow agents to offer, for the convenience and efficiency of a direct booking with the supplier. So, yes, for a complex itinerary, some agents can help, but one needs to do their due diligence and not just get a referral from ASTA or a large agency holding company.

    1. talk to friends who’ve used an agent, and who loved their cruise experience – and do not be afraid to try a different agent/agency — they might be JUST the fit!

      1. Maybe you should form an “association of competent travel agents”, and save us all a lot of grief. I realize these incidents would not have happened under your watch, but travel agents are not unlike computer guys…there are really good ones, and really bad ones…

        1. Agree 100%!! BNI groups who have a travel agent regularly vet them, so that is also a good source to find a local agent — but I have to admit I have clients in other countries who still use my services – thank goodness for all the tech, because we can cover you anywhere now! 🙂

  4. Reasonable article, although the headline should really be “circumstances when it might make sense to pay a travel agent.”

    FYI, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (the source for the travel agent employment figures in the article) expects travel agent employment to continue to shrink, although not as fast. They’re expecting it to decline another 12% between 2014 and 2024. As they note “Job prospects should be best for travel agents who specialize in specific destinations or particular types of travelers.”

    1. yep – order takers are unnecessary, and those of us with the knowledge, education and experience offer things you cannot find online — call me crazy, but I just LOVE building a whole trip from scratch, and building the perfect itinerary for my clients’ needs and budget, that will still give them the perfect experience. 🙂

  5. I understand what you are trying to say, Chris, and I do honestly believe that there are a couple or three reputable and capable travel agents out there. Somewhere. The problem is that there is an ocean full of travel agents who case serious, serious problems. About two years ago, my mother was kind enough to take the whole family to Walt Disney World in Florida. However, she wanted to book it all through her travel agent, who apparently was “pleasant” and worked for a major chain of travel agencies. The only big problem was that this woman did not know how to do things properly, and in particular, did not know how to sell Disney, which is a very particular thing since they have wrist bands, Disney accounts, including children’s accounts with some parental control etc. Time passed, and these things were not getting set up. My mother would insist that “Incompetencia”, the travel agent, knew what she was doing and I was told to just wait. Finally, I had to take the bull by the horns and we had a family conference call, got all of our Disney accounts set up, and then told my mother which information we had to have – NOW – from that travel agent. So we did get it set up, but it wasn’t without a great deal of stress, annoyance, and conflict. When travel day came, my sister’s family, and mother flew to where we live, and stayed overnight, then joined my brother’s family and headed to Orlando. Except they couldn’t. The 16 year old nephew had been booked as a child, and at the last minute they had to fix it. This was only one in a long list of issues that happened. However, I guess they didn’t want me to be “right” so they attempted to hid these mess ups from me, because I had told them I can tell when someone doesn’t know what they were going. However, amonsgst themselves, they would say “”Incompetencia” strikes again”. My sister’s family was not together in the hotel with us.

    My point is – what was supposed to be a once in a lifetime wonderful family trip – was significantly ruined by a travel agent who should have known better. A travel agent, whom, when she didn’t know how to sell Disney, should have gotten some help. However, I don’t know who could have helped her when she screwed up my nephew’s ticket. Bear in mind that the first flight he took was fine, and the second trip was somehow with the child ticket, the first was not.

    Although I realize that some people should never book on line and should seek out the help of a professional travel agent, my point is that this is an industry that still fails to cull the incompetent ones.

    My mother did not want this “nice lady” to get into trouble, but I have no doubt that she should have been at the very least fired, and perhaps banned from the industry.

    That was our only chance for a family trip before the kids grew up, and the stress she caused was inexcusable. So yes, there are times when the travel agent “saved the day” but I can tell many other stories where they “ruined” the day or the week or the trip. BTW, my mother lets me book things for her now, online. And so far, I am doing infinitely better than the travel agent.

    1. Was she an ASTA agent? Good find on that website for the organization, Chris. Experienced travelers develop an instinct for when they need to invoke professional help for an itinerary, but TAs are thin enough now on the ground that if you search on ASTA you just get the asta.org agent site, not one that is customer-oriented.

      1. The problem is that my mother picked the travel agent, not me. And the only way to have prevented this from happening would have been to have some sort of standards for travel agents, so that people like this can’t engage people like my mother. If I had my way, I would have filed a complaint and this woman would have been banned from selling travel for life, but sadly, my mother wouldn’t want to “offend” a nice person like her, even though she is probably screwing around other people as we speak. I think this has probably ruined the chance of us ever having a family trip again. The thing that people often don’t mention is that incompetent people cause conflicts, and the worse they are, the worse these conflicts become.

        1. Actually keep in mind that there are multiple training programs out there – a travel agent who is a graduate of the Disney College of Knowledge (which you can find online) would have been the right fit, as they are educated about selling Disney better than the average agent (I know it was a lot of work to earn MY ears!) 🙂

          1. I assume MEI are graduates of Disney College, but this person I had was clueless. And then I see that she’s writing articles for Celebrations magazine. Unbelievable.

      2. TravelLeaders and Virtuoso might also help — and try your local BNI chapters — the members of the group regularly vet them, and if they fail to provide the service they should, they get dropped. 🙂

    2. My once in a lifetime trip was also screwed up by the sorry excuse for a travel agent. It was complicated because I needed one who was experienced in travel to sporting events (this was for the Olympics) and I thought I had found one. They didn’t put us in a downtown London hotel, but one out by Heathrow. I toured other parts of Europe before we went to London, and they scheduled cities so that we had to backtrack with 4-hour train rides. They used hotels.com to book a roach motel in Brussels and when we got there I had a fifteen-minute “discussion” with the guy at the desk who said he didn’t have our reservation. We barely got our Olympics tickets, and for one event the three of us weren’t seated together. Their “tours” were a rented van and a third-rate tour guide who followed a cut-and-paste itinerary from a legitimate tour company that didn’t make sense for where we were staying. And they were so unresponsive, and sometimes sarcastic and rude. The only good thing to come out of it is connecting with another person who was also screwed over by these chumps; five years later we are still Facebook friends. So there’s that. But I spent the trip stressed out and super pissed off. I still maintain they owe me about $150 but I had to let it go.

      1. I’m sorry to hear of your story, that’s really sad, but thank you for sharing it. I’m glad you did get a takeaway from it…

      2. that is so disheartening to hear — it makes things so hard for those of us who truly care about what we do — I have a passion for travel, and use that to share the passion with others. If you ever need assistance with a sports trip, just ask — I book regularly, and yes, it DOES matter who you use for the tickets, tours, hotels, etc. (Have been to MANY Olympics games, and have heard a LOT of complaints!)

  6. I’ve sometimes compared it to plumbing. I know next to nothing about plumbing, so for anything beyond the most trivial situation, I’m getting professional help. It will save me a lot of time and money. I suppose I could learn about plumbing and learn how to save some money with DIY projects, but it doesn’t really interest me, and my need for it is so occasional that I’d probably forget what I learned by the time I needed it.

    Travel, on the other hand, is a passion of mine. I’m always planning trips for myself and often for others as well. I keep as up to date as I can, and know what my own needs and preferences are. I haven’t used a travel agent for quite some time, because I do feel confident working on this myself. However, I agree that for the occasional traveler, or one doing something reasonably complicated for the first time, a travel agent can be a great idea, if you can find the right one.

    1. Keep in mind that you might not always be aware of everything new out there as well — and I know my clients just love seeing what I can find to add to their experiences abroad — so never be afraid to ask an agent for a few new ideas as well. 🙂

  7. Sorry, but my experience has not been the same. Probably about 6-7 years ago, it started. Used TA for Hawaii trip, not because I needed the help but felt like I should since I had asked them for info. Big mistake. I had to check and re-do everything–would have taken me less time just to book the thing myself. And then we lost our seats home from Maui. Change of aircraft and we never go reassigned. Good thing I checked but then all of the 2 seat configs were gone and only 3 in middle were left. After everything else that went wrong, I raised a ruckus and she bought the middle seat for us–probably because I was ready to report her as incompetent.
    Then I used one of the Disney-approved TAs for trip to Disneyland a few years ago. I had to notify them when promotions started. I asked questions; they gave me incorrect info and all I did to find out correct info was call the hotel myself. Took 2 seconds. Why would I use them again.
    Then a few years ago, went to Virtuoso TA to book Alaska trip. No one in office had been there–no one. So we didn’t go. Then last year, I contacted Virtuoso to get an agent who had actually traveled to Ireland so we could discuss her booking us a trip. She wouldn’t even talk to me. Said she needed $50 per person to book air. I told her she wouldn’t be booking air as we’d use miles. Said she didn’t care.
    So tell me–where are all these TAs who are knowledgeable and put the customer first without ripping them off? Please, I’m serious. There are certain trips that I’d rather not arrange myself but with these experiences it’s difficult to put trust in anyone else. Thanks

    1. I agree. I had a Hawaii trip with a $10,000 budget, and got completely blown off. Didn’t endear themselves to me at all.

      1. Oftentimes, you have to understand that a Virtuoso agent is used to dealing with the highest end client, but I find that it works best to satisfy the client for each and every trip budget – after all, how do I know what next time, or a referral from this client for that matter, might bring. And even with a $10,000 budget, can be a very nice trip, and should have been taken care of. So sorry to hear these stories.

    2. I am so sorry to hear that — and this is why the majority of my business is by referral — I was actually talking to a client about an Alaska Cruise/Tour package, and going over why Holland would suit them best with their particular interests and needs, when the Holland Alaska RoadShow folks popped in the office and sat to wait to speak to me. They overheard everything, and when they walked over, they laughed and asked if I really needed them, or were looking for a JOB with them — because I had been there repeatedly, and compared each company for my clients’ needs, and could explain those benefits or limitations to a client. I pride myself on the time I spend in further education, specialized travel trips and training seminars, and I think you just need to either ask for a referral from a happy friend, or take the time to INTERVIEW (you heard me right) the travel agent you want — I just assisted someone for a tip to Scotland and actually booked some items which garnered me ZERO commission, but which would ensure the client was not disappointed upon arrival, and I do it because I put the client first — and I know that if I do, the money will follow with future bookings and referrals, rather than scamming a few bucks on ONE booking. But, sadly, I do recognize it is not always the case. Keep plugging away, and I am sure you can find the right one(s) for your needs.

      1. Interview? How could I interview this person when she wouldn’t speak to me unless we forked over $100? Not even knowing if what she came up with was something we were interested in or not. Plus how would I even know what to ask them? You ask “have you been before?” Even if they say yes, how do you know that’s the truth. And you think $10K for a vacation is a budget vacation? Really? We’ve stayed at some really high-end resorts: Four Seasons Lodge at Koele on Lanai, Montreal Ritz, Kapalua Ritz, Aulani on Oahu, Balmoral in Edinburgh, etc. And we fly first as often as we fly economy. We’ve never spent $10K and we don’t do any of these trips on the cheap. We do everything, go to every attraction, museum, etc. We’re just really good with $. We’re seasoned travelers and do our research. In fact, co-workers and friends who are considering traveling usually come to me for assistance.
        And as far as referrals from friends? Our friends don’t high-end travel. So not really sure what else we can do. We would love to find a TA that we could trust who has actually traveled. We were interested in Ireland but not driving and certainly not on a tour. Their train system seems to be more complex than Scotland or England plus I needed a way to get from Galway to the Shannon airport. This is what I basically wanted from this TA. Help on those 2 things, and, if she could do that, she could book our hotels, too, in order to accumulate some $. But like I said, she wouldn’t even talk with me until she got the $100 payment (payment for booking air that she would never book since we would use miles). This is what gives your profession a very, very bad name. Ditto on the approved Disney TA. And the Maui experience? Sorry to say but the agent (who owned the agency!!!) needed to retire. Anyone competent would not have dropped the ball as often and as horribly as she did.

  8. Since our kids graduated college and we finally had money to travel again, we planned a big anniversary trip to Hawaii and went to a travel agent for help. I don’t know whether she thought we weren’t serious or couldn’t afford it, but the agent grabbed a few pamphlets and ushered us out the door. I took the info she gave me and booked the hotels myself (with higher room classifications for less money). Four years later, we are trying to plan an Alaskan cruise for our 35 anniversary in July 2018. I went to another travel agent (same company, different location), explained what I was looking for, what my experience was with her colleague, and also asked her to help plan a trip to Ireland this September. To me, the Ireland trip would be a bit of a test, and if I was happy with her service, I would go ahead and let her handle the Alaska trip. Once again, I never heard back from her. I thought briefly about calling her, but didn’t think I should have to beg someone to help me spend large sums of money to use their company. Will I try to find another travel agent for our anniversary next summer? Probably, but I can guarantee it will not be from this agency.

    1. So sad – I would have LOVED to book both of those (actually an Ireland Shamrock and Alaska WOW agent, so I do a lot of those now!) – and you would not have needed to look at a brochure unless it was to show you something you were unfamiliar with.

  9. Good article! How many more of the OTA snafus do people need to hear about before they understand that you get what you pay for?

  10. Our very first river cruise overseas was booked with a local TA — a longtime, highly-experienced, extreme attention-to-detail person. There was extreme flooding in Europe which did not abate, but only got worse with each day before our departure. Should we cancel? Should we not? He advised to let the cruise operator cancel. He gathered lots of info, including another river cruise operator that had cancelled its sailings. The day before departure he called on our behalf and presented ALL the flooding information and asked how they planned to handle our trip, including two excursions where roads were closed. Finally, the cruise operator called him back to him know they had cancelled our sailing. They also refunded every penny of our cancelled trip and gave us $1000 toward another cruise. I honestly believe that if we were working on our own, this never would have happened. This TA spent HOURS working on our behalf and collected zilch in commissions for doing so. We did re-book with him and for complicated trips, we would not leave home without his assistance as he speaks “Travel-ease” far better than we do.

  11. Love to hear it — I have a lot of clients over to Aussie all the time, and they are AMAZED I can do their electronic visas for FREE for them – I consider this just one more reason to use an agent and skip the $20-$40 bucks, as WELL as save money on the air — SERVICE is paramount! 🙂

  12. As far as Disney knows, there are tons of books out there and blogs where you can gather all the information you need on your own and in a short period of time. You don’t need a TA for Disney.

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