Over the past 15 years, the number of “do-it-yourself” travelers arranging trips online has soared. Fewer than 10% of leisure travelers now use a travel agent, according to PhoCusWright, an industry research firm.
Yet, even for experienced travelers, planning and booking complicated trips online can prove daunting:
First there’s deciding where to start a search, with choices including online travel agencies like Expedia, travel aggregators like Kayak, direct sites for hotels, airlines etc., and user-review sites like TripAdvisor.
Then there’s reading fine print and weighing the cost of hidden charges — unbundled airline fees add an obstacle to comparing apples to apples.
Finally, there’s the time it takes to put together all the disparate and often non-refundable pieces.
No wonder some consumers are circling back to travel agents.
The new breed of agents operates differently than those of the past. Rather than merely booking transactions or acting as order-takers, agents now function as travel advisers. They work collaboratively with clients to sort through vast amounts of information and make informed decisions, much like financial advisers assist clients in managing their money.
“My husband and I are going to Sicily at the end of the month and to Budapest in December,” says frequent traveler (and Next Avenue contributor) Carol Cassara of San Jose, Calif. “Our agent knows our preferences for air travel — which cabin and where we like to sit, what kind of layover we prefer and which airlines we like to fly. It would have taken me days to compare all the options.”
The PhoCusWright.com study found that consumers who use travel agents tend to be older (two-thirds are 45 and over and nearly a third of agented bookings come from people over 60). These individuals also tend to spend more, and to book more complex trips.
But even travelers who use agents still want hands-on involvement in researching their trips online. A study by Travel Weekly notes that 72% of those who used agents over the past year also used review sites.
According to PhoCusWright, about 35% of those booking travel offline do so because they want personal service. Here are six other reasons you might consider using a travel agent/adviser:
With their training — and being well-traveled themselves — good travel advisers can offer you options you might not have considered. Some travel advisers are generalists; others specialize in niches, such as cruises, or in multigenerational group travel or in particular geographic destinations. If you book a cruise through an agent, he or she is likely to be familiar with various lines, sailings, cabins and excursions. Some agents even have subspecialties, such as riverboat cruising.
Some trips are more complicated than others. For example, foreign travel is more complex than traveling to the next state. Or sometimes the stakes are too high to make a mistake when you are planning a big trip to celebrate a special birthday or anniversary or a trip that involves coordinating itineraries with friends or family members. Even on city tours or shore excursions, an agent may be able to point you to the most knowledgeable and English-proficient guides.
Travel agencies have consolidated and banded together into large consortia, affording them unusual leverage to negotiate with travel suppliers on behalf of their clients. For example, Virtuoso, one of the largest networks, (Signature Travel Network and Ensemble Travel Group are others) encompasses 340 travel agencies employing 8,900 travel advisers in 20 countries. With $12.5 billion in purchasing power, Virtuoso advisers are able to secure hotel upgrades, rooms with the most desirable views or extra amenities like complimentary breakfasts and spa credits. As a client of a network, you are not only treated like a V.I.P., but benefit from these no-cost perks.
Researching and organizing a trip takes time, patience and perseverance. Users of the website GetHuman.com (which offers tricks and shortcuts to reach various types of overwhelmed call centers) report the average wait time to get American Airlines, Delta Airlines and United on the phone as 14.3, 14.9 and 13.5 minutes, respectively — under ordinary circumstances.
“In cases of major storms, during the holidays, and even when company websites crash, we see a huge influx of users trying to reach the airlines by phone. Wait times can be well over an hour, if the user gets through at all,” says Adam Goldkamp, COO of GetHuman.com.
Travelers realize that even after a trip is planned, things don’t always turn out exactly as expected. A flight is cancelled, a piece of luggage gets lost, a passport is pilfered or a grandchild falls ill with a high fever on foreign soil. When “stuff happens,” it is reassuring to have someone you can count on to resolve problems. You don’t want to be the one hanging on your cell phone to rearrange a flight. Many travel advisers offer clients 24/7 backup by phone and email.
“What really sets a true luxury travel adviser apart are the little things that are unexpected,” says Shawna Huffman Owen, a Virtuoso advisor associated with family-owned Huffman Travel Ltd. “We tailor-make experiences like arranging scavenger hunts for families in The Louvre or helping older travelers who need baggage assistance on trains. We create something that can’t be ‘Googled’ — a personal experience,” she says.
Travelers need to do some homework to find an adviser who meets their needs, presumably based on some mix of chemistry, experience and cost.
Fee structures vary by agent as well as by the amount of research entailed in planning a particular trip. Using an agent may cost a traveler $50 to book an airline ticket alone, for example, or a flat or hourly fee to plan more complex trips. Agents earn commissions on some products as well (paid by suppliers).
According to the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), only six states regulate the registration of travel agencies and/or regulate how travel is sold (California, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Nevada and Washington). Finding someone to provide any kind of personal service requires due diligence.
“The best way to find a travel adviser is to ask a friend for a referral,” says Huffman Owen.
While using an agent can be more costly, it can save time and disappointment. “Travel advisers manage your most valuable and non-renewable asset: your leisure time,” said Matthew Upchurch, chairman and CEO of Virtuoso, at a recent conference. Then he quoted Warren Buffett: “Price is what you pay, value is what you get.”
Irene S. Levine is a contributor to Next Avenue and is a psychologist, lifestyle and travel journalist. She is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers who produces MoreTimeToTravel.com, a blog offering advice and inspiration for travelers over 50.