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Why use a travel agent in the Internet age?

By By Ted Lawson
WV Travel Team
Photo courtesy: Atlantis Resort Resorts like the Atlantis Paradise Island located on Paradise Island, The Bahamas, are popular destinations for West Virginia tourists.
Photo credit: Raphaël Fauveau /flickr.com A hammock overlooks the sunset in Half Moon Bay, Negril in Jamaica.
Photo credit Lory Jane/Flickr.com A sign in Grand Bahamas welcomes visitors to Freeport Harbour.
Photo credit: Bryce Edwards/flickr.com A picturesque gazebo in New Providence, Bahamas.
Ted Lawson, National Travel
Photo credit: Carl MiKoy/flickr.com Tourists sunbathing on the coastal cliffs in Negril, Jamaica.
Photo credit: Derek Smith/Bahamas Tourism Dept. The famous candy-striped lighthouse in The Abacos, The Bahamas.
Photo credit: Derek Smith/Bahamas Tourism Dept. Cruise ships bring thousands of tourists to the Bahamas each week.
Photo credit: Derek Smith/Bahamas Tourism Dept. Cruise ships bring thousands of tourists to the Bahamas each week.
Photo credit Lory Jane/Flickr.com A sign in Grand Bahamas welcomes visitors to Freeport Harbour.
Photo courtesy: Atlantis Resort Resorts like the Atlantis Paradise Island located on Paradise Island, The Bahamas, are popular destinations for West Virginia tourists.
Photo courtesy: Atlantis Resort Resorts like the Atlantis Paradise Island located on Paradise Island, The Bahamas, are popular destinations for West Virginia tourists.

Jerry Lautz, of Ohio, had booked a cruise to Hawaii for his upcoming anniversary, and would be spending a few days in San Francisco before his cruise departed.

After securing for him private transfers from the airport to his hotel and to his cruise port, his travel agent was still working on his trip.

“While browsing Facebook one morning, I came across a post about a bakery in San Francisco that was featured in Bon Appetit. I remembered that Jerry had mentioned that his wife liked bakeries. I sent him the link about the Mill and Four Barrel Coffee and the exceptional toast that they serve,” said his travel agent, Tera Hunt, of Charleston-based National Travel.

Another agent at National Travel, Nikole Price, had client Reina Zayas call with an emergency.

Zayas was concerned that she would not be able to make her connecting flight on a trip, having fallen and injured her wrist and ankle. Price secured her wheelchair assistance at the airport, and then changed Zayas’ seating arrangements to give her the ability to stretch out her cast-encased ankle into the aisle of the plane.

Stories such as these abound in the travel industry and have become the cornerstone of the “above and beyond” commitment to service to which travel agencies worldwide adhere. Yet, in face of the abundance of online booking engines, who is really using travel agencies, and what is their value?

I believe you would be very surprised by our typical profile, which is no different from any other travel agency in any large metropolitan area. Our clients represent every age group, from the young traveler, to families, to affluent older travelers.

Indeed, a recent study by the American Society of Travel Agents showed that after a sharp decline of popularity in the early 2000s, the use of travel agents is rising.

The ASTA study (“Value of Travel Agents: Executive Summary,” March 10, 2014) found 59 percent of millennials (those in their 20s and early 30s) believed that vacations booked with an agency were “better.” The same study found 53 percent of those in Generation X (in their mid-30s to late 40s) and 58 percent of Baby Boomers (in their 50s and 60s) felt the same way.

When asked why they chose to use a travel agent, 3 in 4 indicated they did so because of the convenience of having an expert do the planning and because they believed travel agents had a better knowledge of the destinations. Of those travelers who chose to do their own booking, 81 percent stated that they enjoyed doing their own research and thought that they could organize the best trip for themselves.

More than half of all leisure travelers had never thought to use a travel agent.

Many travelers feel that agents are primarily for high-end luxury bookings.

Beyond a local beach vacation, anyone, even on a modest budget, is a good candidate to work with a travel agent. Be it for a family vacation to Disney World, a work trip to Las Vegas or a New York theater package, a travel agent can be an excellent asset in finding a good value.

Above all, they will work to save you time and money, as well as giving you the trip you really desire.

There are fees involved in using a travel agency, and they can vary widely based upon the type of service and the complexity of the trip the traveler is planning. However, the fee is nominal.

For example, there is a $35 charge for our basic cruise and land package assistance. For that fee, the client receives planning assistance, information about the destination, passport review, completion of preloading registration for cruises, confirmation of airport transfers, tour confirmations, dining preferences, review of CDC briefings, destination briefings, shore excursions, State Department review, fare monitoring and upgrade promotions.

Travel agencies will monitor your trip seven days a week, 365 days a year to ensure everything is going well. We intercede when things go awry, as sometimes happens, and reroute our clients, replace documents and continue to follow up after the trip is completed if there are any issues with vendors along the way. That is our basic service.

When flight cancellations occur, airlines will typically search for the next available flight. But that isn’t always the best option for the traveler. A travel agent will investigate other airlines and ground-transportation options for the client to find the best way to preserve the integrity of their trip.

Travel agents are constantly monitoring conditions where they have travelers so they will be prepared to reroute them as needed.

Today’s online booking engines are pretty good if your trip is a short domestic flight for which you know the schedules. You can easily go online and make reservations.

However, if it is anything more complex, such as connecting to your cruise line or traveling internationally, I would let a travel agent handle the headaches of the air travel.

I have been in the travel business for more than three decades, and I never make my own online reservations. I give my travel agent some key pieces of information:

n When I must be at my destination or if I am connecting to a cruise or a tour.

n I want a good price but am willing to pay more for extra leg-room on a long flight.

n I like an airfare that may be upgradeable.

n I like a minimum of two to three hours on an international connection.

n I like off-time flights, when the airport is less crowded, but I won’t take the last flight of the day.

Having said all that, it’s my travel agent’s job to come up with a solution for me that comes at a reasonable cost.

Travel agents have longstanding relationships with vendors, and are updated constantly as to available promotions. Often they can actually secure better prices than online booking engines for the same trip. And, even with assistance fees, many people are reconsidering the value in using an industry expert to book their travel, whether it be for extra amenities, ease of booking, the “human touch” of the examples above, or the security of knowing someone will be there if things go wrong.

I like the assurances and amenities a travel company offers to me.

I like that our office is open 24 hours a day if I need to change due to a canceled flight or if I just want to change my plans; I have an agent to talk to rather than wait in a customer service line at an airport. I appreciate that when my baggage is lost, the travel company will track it for me.

Do I think I could do a better job than an agent? Not me!

Happy travels!

Follow National Travel on Twitter at @NatlTravel and on Facebook. For questions or comments on this article, please contact Ariadne Moore, executive assistant at National Travel, at ariadnem@nationaltravel.com.

Next week in Traveler’s Tales, Christina Rollyson, district office supervisor of the Charleston branch of AAA Travel, highlights some of the pleasures of St. Maarten, a popular destination spot for West Virginia travelers.


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