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When to Use a Travel Agent

Stranded Family

Peter Cade/Getty Images

Travel planning may seem like a simple task until you and your family end up stranded.

En español | Using a travel agent may seem old school when you can research nearly any destination online. But nearly one in four U.S. travelers rely on travel agents, according to the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), whose members tend to prefer titles such as travel adviser, vacation planner and travel consultant. The adviser's job: Provide insider knowledge that reduces your stress, cuts your costs and helps you enjoy a memorable trip.

The more complex your itinerary, the more valuable their services become, says Sam McCully, senior vice president of marketing at Avoya Travel in San Diego.

“If you’re going to New York for the weekend and you need a plane or a car, you can easily do that on your own,” he says. “But when you’re planning a multicontinent trip with multiple trains and multiple planes, you need someone experienced who can help you navigate the land mines.”

Here’s what travel advisers say they can do for you.

1. Save you money and time

It sounds contradictory: Travel advisers charge a fee, but they can also save you cash — $452 per trip, on average, according to ASTA. Fees typically range from $50 to several hundred dollars, ASTA says, depending on the complexity of the request. If the agent books you a flight to Cleveland, say, it can cost as little as $25, but if you’ve asked her to plan a six-country multigenerational vacation through Europe, she’ll obviously charge more. Some consultants charge a flat rate; others, a percentage of the total trip cost. The prices vary from company to company.

The fees are offset by the travel planners' getting you bigger discounts than you can find on your own. Advisers are deal hunters, McCully points out — they know where to look, and they often have preferred rates and insider info. Many of them are affiliated with a network such as Virtuoso (which has 16,000-plus agents) or Signature Travel Network (more than 7,000 agents). “The larger they are, the more buying power they have,” says Kimberly Wilson Wetty, whose New York City firm, Valerie Wilson Travel, is a member of Virtuoso. That means that agents in those networks can score cool perks for clients, such as free breakfasts, Wi-Fi and hotel-room upgrades. And if you’re crunched for time, consultants can save you about four hours in trip planning, from conducting research to booking rental cars, tours and flights, according to ASTA. 

2. Protect you when there’s trouble

When there’s a problem with a flight, dealing with an airline can feel like torture. “If there’s an error with a reservation booked online, you’ll spend hours on the phone or you’ll shell out additional money,” says Lauren Cardinale, a luxury-travel adviser from Atlanta. Vacation planners work as your advocate to resolve problems quickly, which can be vital to those with disabilities or language barriers. And most agencies offer 24/7 service, so don't leave without the number.

Some advisers try to prevent problems from happening at all. In winter, Lesley Egbert, owner of Live Longitude (an Avoya affiliate) in Helena, Mont., avoids booking flight connections at airports where snowstorms are likely. Most people aren’t thinking about blizzards when they’re planning travel in June, but no grandparent wants to be stranded at Chicago O'Hare with multiple grandchildren for hours. Travel advisers think ahead about scenarios like this.

3. Share their expertise and ideas

A resort may look great on your iPad, but advisers can spot potential problems. “Hotel and destination photos are almost always enhanced, and the reviews tend to be extreme in both directions,” Cardinale warns. If a price seems too good to be true, an experienced adviser may know why. “The hotel may be undergoing renovations, or the ‘island view’ room category may actually mean a parking lot.”

Travel consultants are travelers, too, and they share their information with colleagues. Wilson Wetty’s agency compiles adviser info into a database that’s available to its planners nationwide. When she talks with a client about Rome, she can search the database and access hot new restaurants or updates at hotels.

“We spend lots of time, money and energy to get to know destinations, hotels, cruise lines, restaurants and tours,” says Daniela Harrison of Avenues of the World Travel in Flagstaff, Ariz. “We know the general managers at hotels that we recommend, and we know the crew on most cruise ships.”

Even if you enjoy the planning process, a travel adviser can improve your selections. Wilson Wetty gives the example of her mother-in-law, who likes researching her trips but still works with a consultant. “We can say, ‘I know you’re thinking about this hotel, but I think you'd be happier with this other one given your past experiences — and here is the value we can add, which you can't get if you book it direct.' ”

4. Provide the human touch

Travel advisers want to know you. What’s on your bucket list? What interests you? “The websites don’t really offer that,” says McCully. “There’s no human on the other end.”

That personal knowledge means a consultant understands your needs. Maybe you have allergies. Maybe you want hotel rooms away from the elevator. Some planners, including Harrison, provide surprises for clients, such as tickets to a cool exhibit. She also helps clients think ahead by creating a three- to five-year travel plan. For clients, it’s a way to set goals and plan accordingly, and it allows Harrison to take steps such as monitoring early-booking promotions.

“Travel agents can ask for special accommodations that are not online,” says Mitch Krayton of Krayton Travel, in Aurora, Colo. “This clout has been earned.”

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