Why Use a Travel Agent?
There’s a reason we use the term advisor to describe the members of our annual A-List, the top travel specialists in the business. These experts offer much more than booking services. First and foremost, says Wendy Perrin, TripAdvisor’s Travel Advocate and founder of WendyPerrin.com, they can help you decide whereto go by walking you through the pros and cons of destinations based on the varying interests (and ages) of the people in your group. Not only that, they’ll deliver insider insights and access. They can tell you how to avoid the crowds at major sights and where the locals eat. They can even pair you with designers and architects who moonlight as walking-tour guides, get a local artist to open his studio to you, and direct you to hidden corners of a city. And they also, crucially, know how to put together a seamless itinerary. I was reminded of this a few months ago when I (travel editor that I am) foolishly tried arranging my own flights in Africa before a safari. After consulting with an advisor late in the game, I learned I was about to book with an airline that was notorious for last-minute, safari-ruining cancellations. Lesson learned.
Even if you’re not planning a particularly complicated or exotic trip, it’s worth considering the additional value of professional advice. Much of the travel industry is built on relationships, both formal and informal, and if your advisor has the right ones, it can pay off—literally—for you.
VIP Treatment: Many of our A-List advisors are part of large consortia that leverage their members’ collective buying power to deliver guaranteed rates as well as perks for their clients. What that may mean for you: if you book a night in a luxury hotel through the right person, you can get an upgrade, daily breakfast for two, a $100 restaurant credit, and late checkout, along with a welcome amenity of wine and treats. On a seven-night cruise, it could be a cabin upgrade and $500 of shipboard credit. And since the advisor is making a commission off the booking, you won’t be charged a markup. The largest luxury travel consortia, Virtuoso and Signature Travel Network, each contract with more than 1,000 luxury hotels, cruise lines, and tour operators. (American Express Platinum and Centurion cardholders have access to a similar program through Fine Hotels & Resorts.) Advisors who do a lot of business with a particular company may have additional preferred status, which translates into even more perks for clients. And then there are the informal relationships that top advisors cultivate with hotel general managers around the world. So chances are, if you’re looking to book with a major company, there’s someone who can get you more bang for your buck. Go ahead, Perrin says, ask an advisor where he or she has connections and what benefits they confer.
Lower Rates and Fares: The most affordable rates and fares aren’t always found online, especially when it comes to luxury travel. Hotels and cruise lines that don’t drop their prices for online travel agencies often offer special deals and promotions to members of their partner consortia—who, in turn, alert their clients. These can be everything from four nights for the price of three to an upgrade to business-class tickets on an airfare-cruise package. Similarly, fares for first- and business-class seats on international carriers can vary widely, depending on who is looking for them. Travel advisors frequently have access to lower prices than those available to the public, usually as a result of consortium contracts.
Finding Rooms: That sold-out hotel that you waited too long to book? It’s not always sold out. Many properties will hold inventory in reserve. Other rooms may be in the hands of local tour operators who dole them out to partner travel companies. For Amalfi in August, Danube cruises in September, or Hawaii over the holidays, top advisors are known for clearing out space for their clients. They’re also skilled at putting travelers in the right rooms, avoiding the misleadingly named “Garden Views” that overlook parking lots or cruise cabins set right below the fitness room. (Beware the early morning step class.)
Troubleshooting: Every trip has its share of hiccups. The small ones can be fun (or at least instructive) to navigate. The big ones—a missed cruise connection; a cloud of volcanic ash—can be a nightmare. Last winter, a succession of brutal storms helped log a record 126,000 cancellations on U.S.-operated flights that originated domestically. In situations such as these, the value of travel advisors really kicks in. They’ll rebook your flights (sometimes via a VIP phone line with the airline, sometimes sitting on hold for hours), either finding seats on planes that appear to be full or springing you to the top of waiting lists for ones that indeed are. They can also get you last-minute hotel rooms and file insurance claims on your behalf. Lost luggage? They’ll track your bags and have even been known to keep a local store open late so you can buy replacement clothes in the meantime. Ask an advisor about his or her after-hours service before you book.