Travel Agents Come Full Circle, Are Back in High Demand

After years of declining business, travel agents are popular again.

By: Sherri Dalphonse

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.