Travel Agents Come Full Circle, Are Back in High Demand

After years of declining business, travel agents are popular again.
You could book a trip to St. Lucia yourself—but a travel agent could save you money. Photograph By Pictures Colour Library/Newscom.
You could book a trip to St. Lucia yourself—but a travel agent could save you money. Photograph By Pictures Colour Library/Newscom.

Although my husband and I had traveled to a lot of foreign
destinations, we’d used a travel agent only once—to help map out a
three-week tour through New Zealand. For other trips—whether Greece or
Italy or Mexico—we’d done the planning ourselves.

So why did we use a travel agent to book a relatively simple,
one-week vacation in the Caribbean this past February?

One reason, which is apparently becoming more common and
boosting the business of travel agents: I was sick of sorting through
TripAdvisor. I had spent hours online looking for a tropical resort worthy
of a special birthday. While review sites such as TripAdvisor can be great
tools, they also can be confounding when the same resort earns both
five-star raves and one-star rants. Which do you trust?

Jim Augerinos, owner of Perfect Honeymoons & Holidays Travel, got his first passport at age three. Photograph By Andrew Propp.

When I finally called a travel consultant I knew—Jim Augerinos
of Perfect Honeymoons & Holidays Travel—he talked me through some
choices and we settled on a property in St. Lucia. I had expected that a
travel agent could save me time, but I hadn’t anticipated that he’d also
save me money: When he quoted us a price for airfare and hotel, it was
less than I’d found online. He also guaranteed that the resort would give
us a free room upgrade, as it does for all his clients, and the rate
included trip insurance.

Some of the benefits of travel agents are obvious: They save
you time, and because they travel so much themselves, they have—literally—a world of experience.

“I tell my clients I’m their human TripAdvisor,” says
Augerinos. “When you go to Rome, I can tell you, ‘Here’s a great casual
restaurant, here’s a great shop to buy Murano glass, here’s a great tour
guide, here’s where to get your tickets to the Colosseum.’ ”

You don’t need a travel agent for every trip, of course—most
people can book a flight to Florida themselves. (Besides, when agents
might charge $50 to book a domestic ticket or $100 for overseas airfare,
why bother if that’s all you need?) An agent isn’t a good fit for the
traveler who always stays at Holiday Inns or bed-and-breakfasts or who
relishes the planning as part of the journey. Agents probably make the
most sense for complex, multigenerational, or once-in-a-lifetime
adventures. Those who specialize in higher-end travel typically call
themselves travel consultants.

Travel agents were hit hard by both the Internet and September
11, 2001—many mom-and-pops went under, while others were bought up by
travel-management corporations. But in the past few years, the avalanche
of information online has caused more consumers to look for a personal
travel guide. In the recent Survey of the American Luxury Travel
Consultant, 71 percent of agents reported that their business had improved
over the past 12 months.

In the pre-Internet days, travel agents made money through
commissions, typically 10 to 15 percent of the trip’s cost. But airlines
have cut out commissions, and hotels and cruises have reduced what they
pay. To make up the difference, most agents now charge clients a fee that
varies depending on the trip’s complexity, though $100 to $250 is average
in the Washington area for planning an international vacation with
flights, hotels, and rental cars, says Augerinos.

Even with an agent’s fee, a trip may cost you the same as—or
less than—you would have paid on your own. Says Jessica Griscavage of
McCabe World Travel: “I just had a new client who said, ‘I booked the
Ritz-Carlton on Expedia.’ If he had booked through me, I would have gotten
him a free breakfast every day. In this case, that’s $70 per couple per
day.”

Because of the relationships they build and the larger travel
consortiums they’re sometimes part of—such as the exclusive Signature
Travel Network and Virtuoso organization—agents often can pass along perks
such as spa credits, complimentary airport transfers, prepaid gratuities,
and free nights.

“It’s easy for someone to go on the Internet and buy a Royal
Caribbean cruise and see that it’s $3,000,” says Jackie Rush of Frosch
International Travel. But she says she often can do better, perhaps
getting the taxes on the trip paid or free shore excursions. “Sometimes
it’s $500 in shipboard credit.”

You’re also paying for peace of mind. When Air Tahiti Nui
flight attendants went on strike last August, Augerinos was able to rebook
honeymooners bound for Bora Bora.

“I had called the airline and been assured that flights would
not be canceled,” he says. “But my clients got to the airport in Los
Angeles and there were 500 irate people at the ticket counter.” His
clients didn’t have to line up at the counter or deal with the
airline—they called Augerinos’s emergency line. “I rebooked them on an Air
Pacific flight to Fiji. They still had a South Pacific island, they still
had an over-water bungalow. I redid their honeymoon at no extra cost.
That’s the type of thing we as travel agents do.”

What should you look for in a travel consultant? “You
definitely want to make sure the agent has some sort of accreditation,”
says Christopher Elliott, the reader advocate for National Geographic
Traveler.
Membership in the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA)
is a good sign; the Association of Retail Travel Agents (ARTA) is smaller
but also reputable. Good agents may earn certification in specific fields,
too—for example, Hawaii vacations, destination weddings, or gay
travel—from the Travel Institute; if you see the initials CTC, for
certified travel counselor, that’s reassuring. Affiliation with a big name
in the industry—such as American Express or Virtuoso—is likewise a
promising sign.

Elliott says to beware of agents, especially home-based ones,
who have “credentials” that aren’t from well-recognized organizations.
“There are ‘card mills’ that sell accreditation to people with no
experience in the industry,” he says.

Elliott suggests running an agent’s name through the Better
Business Bureau, checking how long he or she has been in business, and
asking for client references.

It’s a red flag, he says, if an agent suggests you pay for a
trip with cash or a check or, worse, by wiring the money: “Run, don’t
walk. They’re probably up to no good.”

How do you know if an agent is recommending a resort, cruise,
or tour operator because of an incentive he or she is getting? There’s no
way to know if a commission is influencing the agent’s thinking, says
Elliott, but it’s likely that person is earning a cut of your
booking.

“Look at the economics—even if a travel agent is charging you a
$50 booking fee, how many sales do they have to make to pay the rent?” he
says. “There are commissions agents get. Then there are overrides, a bonus
after you book a certain number of vacations or cruises. Cruises are
highly incentivized—an agent can make 10 percent or as much as 14 percent
on these bookings.”

Good agents want repeat business, so incentive or not, it makes
sense to do what’s in the best interest of the client.

“I don’t have an agenda when I sell something,” says Augerinos.
“I suggest whatever is right for the client. It happens rarely that travel
agents steer you toward something because they make more money—at least in
my world.”

If it would put your mind at ease to be up-front about
incentives, Elliott says to ask an agent what he or she would earn off
your booking: “An honest agent will tell you. If they’re trying to pull a
fast one, they might say it’s none of your business.”

Having an initial conversation with a prospective agent is key.
Ask how often he travels and which places he’s liked and hasn’t. Has the
agent been to the destination she’s suggesting for you? You’re more likely
to mesh with a professional who prefers boutique hotels over grand resorts
if you do, or who feels the same way you do about cruises—who, in other
words, sees the world as you do.

Know a local travel agent you’d recommend highly? Send a
note to Sherri Dalphonse at sdalphonse@washingtonian.com.

This article appears in the May 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.

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