In an era of DIY vacations, travelers have more tools—online travel agencies, review sites, booking apps—at their fingertips than ever before. But when it comes to expert advice about a destination and customization, you can’t beat a good agent.
“Today’s agents provide insider access, learn and understand your desires and personality, and are there for you 24/7, before, during, and after your trip,” says Kimberly Wilson Wetty, co-president and co-owner of Valerie Wilson Travel.
To stay competitive in the age of TripAdvisor, agents like Wetty are trying to appeal to a younger, more tech-savvy clientele by offering what no online service can replicate: personalization. Your agent can offer options (coveted dinner reservations; last-minute romantic surprises) and handle potential mishaps (a missed flight; a dank hotel room; a hurricane; a medical emergency)—services that are well worth the planning fees, which generally range from $75 to $500, and are sometimes already built into the trip cost.
And the advocacy on your behalf doesn’t stop there: the best agents know their beats. Whether it’s South America or culinary travel, they’re already out there, scouting that emerging destination, testing the beds in a new hotel, or vetting a local outfitter.
“More small agencies are homing in on a niche,” says Brian Tan, founder and CEO of Zicasso, a service that connects people with travel advisers.
An agent’s knowledge of a destination translates into quality control and insider experiences you couldn’t arrange on your own. Chicago resident Lindsay Everest was glad she handed over the planning reins to Jet Set World Travel’s Julia P. Douglas for her honeymoon in the Maldives. “Knowing that my husband loves food and wine, Julia arranged for a private, nine-course dinner in an underground wine cellar at Soneva Gili,” says Everest, who is working with Douglas again on an upcoming trip to Bermuda.
This kind of access to special perks—ranging from deeply discounted airline seats to room upgrades—is the result of longstanding industry relationships and memberships in invitation-only travel-agent consortia and cooperatives such as Virtuoso and Signature Travel Network, which are affiliated with hundreds of hotels, airlines, and other hospitality groups.
While the benefits of getting professional advice for your trip are clear, wading through hundreds of specialists and companies can be daunting. To help you find the travel adviser who is right for you, we’ve broken out our list by areas of expertise and outlined a few key questions to ask before you book your next trip.
These 12 power brokers are the most informed and well connected in the travel industry.
Priscilla Alexander **
Known For: Handpicking the ideal agent for each client and promoting a collaborative environment in which her employees share resources and ideas to stay up-to-date on travel trends and news.
Trend Watch: “We’ve seen more demand for guided trips to Burma,” Alexander reports, “and several high-end properties are in development.”
Known For: Helping to cultivate travel to Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. When Argentina had very little travel infrastructure, Barrenechea met with ranchers and encouraged them to convert their estancias into luxury hotels, now common throughout the countryside.
Trend Watch: Mendoza’s Uco Valley, a wine region in north-central Argentina. “The area has everything from architecture and art to golf and polo,” she says.
Barbara Gallay **
Known For: An industry veteran of more than 41 years who sits on close to a dozen travel-advisory boards, Gallay is a household name to hotel owners and travel suppliers throughout the world. She can get upgrades at the most sought-after properties, secure spots on popular excursions, and book top guides in situations where few can.
Trend Watch: Sri Lanka is back on travelers’ radars thanks to new hotels (Shangri-La and Six Senses are building here) and culture-rich locations.
Known For: Unearthing a destination’s substance, which she attributes in large part to her background in anthropology. Her intimate approach leads travelers to unusual places and, more important, extraordinary people.
Trend Watch: Western Japan, particularly Kanazawa—one of the most diverse regions in the country for artisanship and crafts.
Mary Ann Ramsey **
Known For: Her firsthand knowledge of a destination. She personally road tests every aspect of a trip, from tour operators and guides to hotels and restaurants. Ramsey tracks down the newest of the new—but also uncovers the authentic gems. “I like to be sure the places are the right fit for my clients,” she says.
Trend Watch: East Africa, particularly Tanzania, where she loves the Singita properties.
Guy Rubin *
Known For: It’s hard to speak to any travel agent about China without hearing Rubin’s name. His go-to list of veteran guides, restaurant owners, and hotel managers gives him unparalleled access: a table-tennis match against an Olympic gold medalist; a curator-led tour of the ink paintings at a private gallery in Beijing.
Trend Watch: Currently less than 1 percent of upscale American travelers visit China, which Rubin believes will soon change. “The luxury market is booming,” he says.
Anne Morgan Scully **
Known For: Homing in on her clients’ wants and goals, and understanding how those preferences evolve as their lives change. She also recognizes that personal touches often make the biggest impressions. “One family I work with loves to have game nights on the road, so we stocked their hotel rooms with board games,” she says.
Trend Watch: River cruises are increasingly popular, so companies such as Viking River Cruises are adding new vessels this year.
Pallavi Shah *
Known For: Her passion for and expertise in India, Italy, and Turkey, and for making her clients feel invested in planning their trips. “We involve them in every decision and detail,” she says. Shah even offers reading suggestions to foster a connection to a destination.
Trend Watch: “The idea of a small hotel used to be nonexistent in India,” Shah says, “but now boutique properties are cropping up all over the country (the Raas, in Jodhpur, and the Serai, in Jaisalmer, are two).”
Jim Strong ** & Nancy Strong
Known For: Accessibility and discerning taste. Their trips perfectly balance the classic and timeless with the new and cutting edge. Jim, who is also the author of Craving for Travel, often goes on scouting trips to vet up-and-coming locations, hotels, cruises, and more.
Trend Watch: Food-focused excursions. “Travelers are planning their trips around lunch and dinner, and we work very hard to ensure their experiences are consistently good,” he says.
Years as Agents: 34 and 38.
Valerie Ann Wilson
Known For: Her 30 years of experience in the industry. Wilson’s influence is felt in big ways (she sits on nine travel-advisory boards) and small—she doesn’t hesitate to give criticism to a hotel general manager; more often than not, he takes her advice.
Trend Watch: Wilson is thrilled to see top-to-bottom renovations at some renowned Caribbean properties, including La Samanna, in St. Martin.
Fee: From $200.
Joel A. Zack *
Known For: In-depth itineraries offering access to the authentic in his areas of specialty: southern Africa, Morocco, Portugal, Spain, and Turkey. His network of guides and contacts allows him to create one-of-a-kind experiences (a private meeting with famous anti-apartheid leaders; a visit to a little-known antiques dealer).
Trend Watch: Increased travel to Marrakesh and Fez, where hotels—Riad Joya is a new favorite—are opening almost monthly.
* Tour Operator
** T+L’s Travel Agent Advisory Board, 2012
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