I noticed something weird in the invitation to my Canadian cousin’s upcoming wedding in Mexico. As I read through the details, I saw that he was directing everyone to book their accommodations through...his travel agent.
WHAT?! I asked myself in shock. This isn’t my grandparents booking a cruise; why is my young-ish cousin using a travel agent? Doesn’t everyone just use the internet? Do travel agents even exist anymore? Is this just a Canadian thing?
Lo and behold, I soon realized travel agents aren’t just a Canadian thing. In fact, they can be found in the wild all over the world, even in New York. Since receiving the invitation, I’ve noticed travel agent offices all over the city: next to a coffee shop in Brooklyn, right by my landlord’s office in Queens, near the gym I walk by en route to my favorite bakery. And the agencies I saw weren’t abandoned storefronts with tumbleweeds rolling by—they had real, live employees inside, and fresh ads for cruises and resort deals plastered their windows.
“Just like everybody decried the fall of the bookstore, a lot of independent shops that provide personalized experience have managed to stay afloat,” explains Alexander Howard, a destinations editor for Lonely Planet. The role of the traditional travel agent—the brick-and-mortar shop helping people book flights and rental cars—has drastically changed since the rise of the internet. And, adds Sarah Nelson Wandrey of Travel Leaders, the number of travel agencies across the globe has greatly diminished over the past decade, forcing agents to evolve from their previous role of taking orders. Now they function as specialists and salespeople. “Today’s travel agent can assist travelers with finding the perfect destination, reservations, helping clients enjoy the perfect cruise, and explaining why travel insurance is so important and helping clients find the right plan and provider,” Wandrey says.
A travel agent could handle all aspects of your trip to Walt Disney World, booking flights and hotels, and planning out your park-hopping and Epcot-eating itinerary. They’ll sort out all the details of an African safari tour—from matching you with the right guide to handling travel logistics—and plan out a river cruise down the Seine, get you reservations at an epic restaurant in Rome, and pick out all the small towns you’ll explore on a road trip across Europe. And on a practical level, agents also help people with passport issues, visa applications, weather updates, and transfers. In short, they can handle whatever type of planning is necessary for your trip.
For simple vacations, most people elect to turn to online travel providers to book their airfare or look for the cheapest hotel rate, since it’s easy and they already know what they are looking for. But when it comes to custom experiences, many choose to turn to travel agents for help instead.
“Whether it’s a travel agent or a guide book company you can trust, they offer curated experiences that you can pretty much guarantee is authentic in a way that just doing research yourself and crowd-sourced websites [like Yelp and TripAdvisor] aren’t quite able to provide,” Howard says. Today’s agent tends to specialize in corporate travel, cruises, specific destinations, group travel and weddings. Their clients range from retirees who spend their days island hopping in the Caribbean to young professionals booking major trips with a bunch of pals.
Of course, I break out in hives at the mere thought of how high my credit card bill would be if I turned to a professional to book a trip for me and my equally broke friends. But according to Howard, sometimes working with an agent can actually save you some money, depending on the trip. “You think of travel agents and you think because they’re booking whole trips, it tends to be somebody with more money than time. But you can get some pretty good deals, sometimes even cheaper than you would be able to find elsewhere,” he says.
Because agents depend on referrals and repeat business, they don’t price-gouge their clients or hook them up with shady deals, Wandrey explains. An agent knows that if a traveler doesn’t feel like they’re getting what they paid for, then the agent has lost a customer. And while travel agents once made most of their living on commission from booking tickets or making reservations through different vendors, that commission structure has by and large disappeared for travel agents nowadays, so clients can rest assured that the recommendations coming from their agents are legit. The hotels they’re putting you into likely aren’t slipping them a cut of the reservation rate, so they don’t have any ulterior motive when convincing you to stay at a particular place.
A spokesperson for Travel Leaders tells me that the majority of agents today charge nominal fees for their expertise and assistance. The fees can vary dramatically from upfront payments to hourly charges to retainers, and depend on a lot of factors, including location, level of experience, other prices in the marketplace and more. The American Society of Travel Agents, meanwhile, says that 85 percent of their member agencies charge client fees, and that most charge $37 for issuing an airline ticket. Other agents charge fees for services like trip research, car rental and hotel-only reservations, and 21 percent tack on a fee for booking a cruise, according to the ASTA.
“Previously the airlines or hotels would pay them a commission based on the tickets they sold,” Howard said. “They’ve had to evolve into different models. A lot of times they offer packaged deals and play with the pricing structure that way, and provide extra things like insurance and stuff like that.”
Not all travel agents are a good fit for those on a budget, though. A major focus for modern day agents — nay, advisors — is high-end travel. People with some extra money in the bank, or companies with employees that regularly travel, tend to turn to luxury specialists like Bob Preston of Panache.Voyage to help with their needs. “For people who are looking for something out of the ordinary or a truly exceptional trip, they come to us, and it’s more of a personal connection,” says Preston, giving his service the hard sell. “We get them behind the scenes, get them the best guides. It’s something that not every traveler is looking for, but savvier ones on the higher end of the market certainly are.”
Magazines like Travel + Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler have annual rankings each year of the top travel advisors in the world, each specializing in planning elaborate trips for corporate and wealthy clients, from booking a stay in a castle in Scotland to planning out a company retreat at a resort in the Bahamas or renting a yacht for a week in Croatia. Preston says it is a close-knit group of about 200 specialists like him that are dedicated to this sort of travel. These advisors not only make arrangements for accommodations or flights, but they can also get their clients into some of the most exclusive or expensive events in the world.
“There are some big ticket items that you don’t know what you’re getting on the internet. It’s kind of scary,” Preston admits. “You can pay $50,000 for a box ticket [to the French Open] for a week. Are you going to go and trust somebody on Craigslist? Probably not.”
Wealthy clients depend on their travel advisors to cater trips to their interests, whether they’re into wine or cooking or art. These professionals seemingly know everyone who’s anyone in worldwide hospitality, so they can help get their clients into special art collections or hook them up with experts, according to Preston. They can also call up the hotel general manager in the middle of the night if there’s a problem with your reservation.
While I’m pretty sure I won’t be using a travel agent anytime soon—other than to book my trip to Mexico—I was glad to hear that there were some lucky agencies that survived the onset of online travel tools, even if many mom-and-pop shops unfortunately had to close their doors years ago.
“For travel agents, the more they focus on the curated experience and the human relationship, the better off they’ll be in the future,” Howard said. “It will be a vastly different industry.”
Lisa Ryan is a writer in Brooklyn. She likes Tim Hortons and aspires to brunch with Amal Clooney. Follow her on twitter: @lisarya.
Image via Getty.
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