The Internet may have become your go-to source for planning a vacation, but savvy travelers head to a travel agent when they want to save time and money. “Why spend four weeks planning a four-day vacation, when you could call a professional agent at no additional cost?” says Michelle Fee of Cruise Planners in Coral Springs, Fla.
Why indeed? Agents are paid by hotels, cruise lines and other travel suppliers they book you with, so few of them charge anything for their services. Because they sell a ton of trips, cruises and tours (an estimated $100 billion in 2013), travel agents receive special deals or amenities such as room upgrades, airfares or spa credits, which they can pass along to you. Even if you are working with a travel agent who charges you a fee, you can save enough on a complicated trip to more than offset the fee.
Their extinction is greatly exaggerated
More than 40,000 travel agents now work out of their homes, so finding the perfect match can be daunting, but it’s not impossible. Ask friends, neighbors and relatives for recommendations. Search the web. Go to Travel Sense and use the “Find an Agent” tool or Travel Leaders’ “Why Use An Agent” page. Both help you search for agents with expertise in a specific destination or types of travel.
Your agent doesn’t have to be in your neighborhood. Many agents work exclusively over the phone and by email. Try some of the big-name franchises such as American Express, Travel Leaders and CruiseOne or an agency affiliated with Virtuoso or Ensemble. Not only do they get better rates, but these folks are pros, not someone who books a few trips as a hobby.
Interview the agent. Ask before you book. How long have you been in business? How available are you, including nights and weekends? The most important question, “Have you (or someone on your team) been where I want to go?”
Nothing is impossible
Travel agents have a can-do attitude. Lose your luggage in Bhutan? Found it. Get married on an Alaskan glacier? Say, “I do.” They arrange memorable experiences such as painting with elephants, a behind-the-scenes look at Marie Antoinette’s life at Versailles, or an architecture walk through Shanghai, says Mollie Fitzgerald, an industry veteran and co-owner of Frontiers Travel in Wexford, Pa. “I can even compare specific rooms by number at a given property.”
You don’t always need a travel agent
When simply booking a basic airline ticket, do it yourself. Agents don’t receive commissions on airfares unless they are sold as part of a package and can’t find any better deals than what is online, says Mike Cooney, a travel agent in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Use comparison sites such as Kayak, FareCompare or ITA Software to monitor fares and find the best prices. Then book directly through the airlines instead of a third-party site. That gives you more protection should your flight be delayed or cancelled and, in some cases, is the only way to get seat selection, full frequent flier miles and upgrades.
Never leave home without…
We asked travel agents across the country what items they take on every trip. Here’s what they said:
- Grapefruit seed extract. Mike Cooney uses it as a disinfectant, mouthwash, hand sanitizer, facial cleanser and more.
- Multi-outlet power strip. Hotels and cruise ships can be downright stingy with electrical outlets. “With a laptop, iPad, smartphone, plus cameras, I’ve found a power strip is essential,” says Steve Powers.
- Duct tape. Mik Cowans wraps it around luggage to easier identify, repairs broken sandal straps and luggage handles and turns it into a lint roller.
- Baby wipes. “Tidy up messy spouses, clean hands after using a not-so-lovely restroom or wipe down airplane seats and trays,” says Christine Hardenberger.
- Plastic newspaper wrappers. Mike Weingart uses them to pack shoes, stuff with dirty clothes and store liquids, just in case they leak.
- Small flashlight. Kim Gray carries one in case of power outages and for red-eye flights when all the aircraft lights are off and you need to use the lavatory. Others keep them handy to read menus in restaurants filled with ambience but minimal illumination.