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Did COVID-19 Create a Demand for Travel Agents?

Many tourists said advisers helped them to get home safely and receive refunds

globe with a plane


En español | As the pandemic began walloping the world in mid-March, Michael Brooks, a missionary from Tuscumbia, Alabama, and his wife, Brenda, found themselves outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, racing to get home. He contacted his travel adviser, Susan McDougal of Suzqz Travels in Huntsville, Alabama, who spent 48 mostly sleepless hours trying to get them tickets back to the U.S. as borders started to close and flights were being canceled.

Tickets were finally secured less than 15 minutes before the plane doors shut, Brooks says: “We were the last travelers to board the flight.”

But they made it.

Brooks, an inveterate traveler who, by his count, has taken more than 55 major international trips since 1988, swears by travel advisers (often now the preferred term over travel agent).

"I could not have acquired tickets without the help of a capable and committed agent,” he says.

The spread of COVID-19 around the globe threw the travel industry into a tailspin, and left millions of travelers trying to get home safely, cancel future tours, cruises, flights and hotels and seek refunds on deposits and prepayments. For many, like Brooks, having a travel professional in their corner made a difference.

Experts are working hard to prove their worth

Since the dawn of the internet — which spawned online travel agencies like Expedia and Travelocity and DIY hotel and flight bookings — travel advisers have been fighting for their legitimacy. Many of them, and their clients, now say the pandemic proved their worth.

"When you work with a travel adviser, you have an advocate who's watching everything for you and can move the pieces of an itinerary around as necessary,” says Erika Richter, a spokeswoman for the American Society of Travel Advisors, an industry association. “It's about protecting their investment. Think about your travel portfolio like a financial portfolio. Don't you want to work with an expert to advise you?"

Between flights, accommodations and tours, Pamela J. Konkol of Chicago had about $3,000 in travel expenses at risk on a planned spring trip to Lisbon to speak at an academic conference. When she needed to cancel the trip, her travel adviser, Thomas Carpenter of Huckleberry Travel in Brooklyn, N.Y., counseled patience rather than taking partial refunds or vouchers, which were being offered immediately.

How to Find a Travel Adviser

• Your best bet is always to get recommendations from trusted friends and family members, but if you want to conduct your own search, the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) maintains a searchable database of agents matched to your destination or journey type at Virtuoso's database at details advisers’ backgrounds and places they've recently visited.

• Most travel agents are generalists, but some specialize. If you're planning a specific kind of trip, such as a safari, consider looking for an expert in that kind of travel through ASTA.

• Schedule an introductory phone call to find out if you and the adviser might work well together. Discuss your interests and see if you have good rapport. You may need to call more than one. Still unsure? Ask for client references.

 • Talk money. Ask if there is a fee for services, and whether it is applied to the cost of the trip. Any reputable travel agent will be ready to explain details about fees and what you get in return.

• Discuss your travel budget. If you want luxury but can't afford it, a good travel adviser should be able to steer you to a similar but more affordable destination or hotel or highlight other budget-saving strategies, like a shorter trip or economy flights, to make it work. Don't let them upsell you.

"Tom understands the industry and how things work,” says Konkol, who eventually got a full refund, even on nonrefundable airline tickets. “He was very much the voice of reason. It was his quiet patience in understanding the system and what was happening globally. He said, ‘Don't worry about it. It's my job to worry about it.'"

Carpenter says that while his success rate is high in securing refunds, it's not a sure thing. “By sticking to our network of suppliers where we've got a relationship and good track record, we can often prevail on suppliers to be flexible and generous when we need something for our clients,” he says.

Their relationships, agents say, are what ensure their clients have the best trip possible.

"We can leverage our relationships to get added values at hotels and cruises, like breakfast included in the rates, which in New York or Paris can set you back $50 to $70 a person,” says Mollie Fitzgerald, co-owner of Frontiers International Travel in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania. “There's also the recognition that we can help people receive when arriving at the hotel. The GM greets them by name."

They're most helpful when travel plans are complicated

Advisers say they don't exist to book your weekend flight to Cleveland. They have ceded quick, uncomplicated trips to capable travelers. Where they can help is with international airfares — many have access to fares that are contracted with travel providers and unavailable at public booking sites — or maximizing your frequent flier miles in securing tickets. In most cases, these fares must be linked to land arrangements, like hotels or tours, and most advisers say they shine most when asked to do something complicated, such as multigenerational trips where the different ages have different interests or pulling together a serial destination trip that combines several international stops.

Travel advisers also understand the lay of the land, saving time and hassle, whether it's picking a less sprawling airport at which to route a connection or knowing when to reserve an activity. On behalf of clients, Kari Jevert of All About Vacations in Crown Point, Indiana, regularly sets an alarm for 4 a.m. four months in advance of a client's visit to Disney World, the first day tickets go on sale for lunch with Disney princesses at Cinderella's Castle. The situation is similar with tickets to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, where, she says, “They usually will give out a handful of tickets that day, but I would never depend on that.” (For more on when a travel adviser can be helpful, see this story.)

Consider the costs and benefits

But does the reward outweigh the costs? Cruise lines and tours often compensate agents for their bookings. Still, many advisers charge a fee for their professional services. At the Virtuoso network of travel advisers, fees run $50 to $300, though they may go higher depending on the complexity of the trip and the size of the group.

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For that, travelers say they get peace of mind and a phone number to call when things go wrong, whether it's a pandemic causing a global shutdown or a more ordinary flight cancellation or lost passport. The key is to choose your adviser carefully (see box above).

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