The Internet has empowered us to make our own travel arrangements. It has freed us of the time wasted handling the red tape of calling, faxing, or visiting travel offices to secure a reservation. In fact, we are drowning in online content in the form of reviews and social media posts. This gives travelers greater motivation to travel, perhaps even unfamiliar places.
While online data and the do-it-yourself capability can be exciting, there are times when relying on the online advice of strangers may be less than wise.Travel advisors continue to play an important part in the industry as they have built their reputations on establishing solid relationships with travel partners like hotel companies and cruise lines. Their expertise, whether through their own travel or past client experiences, cannot be overlooked when planning a major trip.
There is such a thing as “fake news” when it comes to online reviews. According to a BBC report, fake reviews can be easily bought or sold online; many companies now make it their business to spot this type of behavior, but for some travelers it may be too late if they trust everything they read on the Internet.
Also, the intricacies of some destinations require detailed knowledge that only a specialist may have, which can make that expert opinion so valuable. After all, no one wants to mess up a honeymoon or multigenerational family vacation!
When & Why?
No, travel agents are not a thing of the past despite what some may believe. Online travel agencies – also known as OTAs – may allow us to take matters into our own hands, but experienced travel agents still hold the key to significant benefits and knowledge that can “make or break” an important trip.
The industry as a whole recognizes that the term travel agent may need a makeover since they are no longer just responsible for processing simple reservations and paperwork. In fact, the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) has voted to change its name to the American Society of Travel Advisors. With this shift comes a major reincarnation for how we think about the value they can provide.
Travel advisors often make their money from commissions rather than any additional fees you pay as a consumer. This should be encouraging especially since travel advisors can help secure outsized travel benefits for your trip at little additional cost to you. These can include room upgrades at hotels or on cruises, comped breakfast and airport transfers, and dining or spa credits at hotels. These perks come from a travel agent’s solid reputation for doing business with various partners over the years.
That is where the value lies: consumers can lock into the larger buying power of an agent to take advantage of pre-negotiated perks.
Plus, when travel trouble calls, an agent can assist with everything from flight rebooking to mediating troublesome issues from afar. Charles Wolfe of Direct Travel Luxe, in Naples, FL, recalls a trip where he assisted customers with hotels, but not air, which they wanted to do on their own and booked as two separate connecting itineraries (always a no-no, according to experienced fliers). Flight disruptions caused them to miss their connecting flight, and their non-refundable hotel night would have been lost. Still, Wolfe used his close relationship with the hotel partner to get that night refunded and even stepped into help get the airline fees waived despite not originally handling their flights.
“As a Virtuoso member agent, we are able to leverage corporate buying power while still providing individualized service to our clients,” says Wolfe, “even when things go wrong. That’s the benefit of having a personal relationship with a well-connected travel advisor because we can step in to help at any time.”
When something goes wrong during a trip, it can help to have an industry insider on your side. According to Kelly Bergin, president of OASIS Travel Network, the independent contractor division of Smart Travel Group, says, “One reason we’re continuing to see an increase in the use of agents year over year is the advocacy efforts agents provide to their clients.”
Bergin’s company offers a pocket travel consultant app so that travelers have access to an agent at any time during their journey even when traveling in different time zones.
Online Booking Caveats
This is where things can get tricky. Airlines and hotels have added caveats when booking online that can add roadblocks to scoring familiar perks. For example, hotel reservations not booked directly can mean travelers give up coveted elite status perks or loyalty points. A good agent will have agreements with hotels that get around that issue, which is not something that online sites like Expedia or Orbitz have negotiated. Airlines may be less willing to change a reservation that was booked with an online agency like Orbitz, often sending you to a lengthy phone queue since they don’t have the authority to change that agency’s ticket. But, a personal travel advisor will be following you along the journey to assist when needed (sometimes before you even know you need it).
Online portals are also not transparent when it comes to tacked-on fees and taxes (like city surcharges or resort fees), which sometimes don’t show up until the final booking page. Travel advisors caution against cursory price shopping, which can sometimes make web prices look cheaper. When you factor in the added benefits that some advisors can offer, there may be little, if any, savings to book online. In fact, you may be losing valuable perks by trying to make reservations on your own.
Deep Knowledge, Unique Access
Travel advisors are often specialists in a specific niche like cruises, safaris, spa vacations, and multigenerational experiences. These are the kinds of trips where simple reservations mistakes can have big repercussions if an expert is not consulted. An advisor can guide travelers in the direction that best suits their needs. For example, advisors are briefed regularly on the destinations they represent, which can come in handy when hurricanes pummel regions like the Caribbean or safety concerns rattle safari hot spots.
Some agents spend more time traveling than your average flight crew. Virtuoso travel advisor Becca Hensley is a widely published travel writer that has covered luxurious properties and destinations around the world for her stories. Her experience allows her to meet hoteliers and discover up-and-coming hot spots to share with readers and clients.
“My work as a travel journalist has led to unique connections across the globe, such as my recent experience with Elewana’s SkySafari, where the same pilot and private plane transported me to three different Kenyan lodges in the bush,” says Hensley. “I’m confident my clients will receive VIP access and attention to special requests thanks to the various relationships I have made with general managers and marketing contacts.”
While many agents still operate brick and mortar stores, other specialists operate via the Internet and cast a wider net while still dialing into that ability to negotiate special deals due to large buying power in specific niches. TravelLocal.com is a specialist in creating personalized experiences for travelers looking to venture deep into new, sometimes less traveled, places. The site’s online platform connects travelers with local tour operators, providing authentic experiences that benefit local communities while giving people access to things that are not easily booked anywhere else.
Making a reservation with Travel Local is more of a conversation than a transaction. Advisors take time to learn individual preferences (either online or via the phone) before presenting a bespoke itinerary. Its specialty lies in organizing trips to destinations that are considered off the beaten path. Bhutan is one such place where their local expertise can lead to curated experiences like a farmhouse lunch visit for a peek into daily countryside life or assistance with the complicated visa application that can befuddle those that try to handle it alone.
The company can go off-script with bespoke activities like private guided bike tours around Angkor Wat in Cambodia or piecing together multi-country trips through Central America with local guides.
Specialized destination advisors for Brendan Vacations help plan packaged trips to Scotland and Ireland. The company is an expert in any kind of trip from group tours to private chauffeured or self-drive trips. Especially popular are its bespoke multi-generational trips where families trace their own Scottish clan heritage. People are connected with local guides at every stop of the journey to help them learn more about the region and ask questions pertinent to their own interests.
Some of the unique things Brendan Vacations has organized include private dinners in Ashford Castle’s historic George V dining room or home-cooked meals with Irish families in the County Wicklow countryside. This is part of its “Be My Guest” program, which connects guests with truly local, authentic experiences.
Planning a big trip is part of the fun of travel, but when you share some of the responsibility with an experienced expert, you stand to gain more than just knowledge. Travelers will discover that the Internet is no Holy Grail; in fact, the best perks come the old-fashioned way by working directly with a skilled human being.