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    When and why you need a travel agent

    In this age of DIY travel planning, does it make sense to work with a travel agent? It looks like more travelers think so.
    In this age of DIY travel planning, does it make sense to work with a travel agent? It looks like more travelers think so.

    Heidi Meier and her husband, Rich, love to travel. “We’re not into organized tour groups,” Heidi says. “We like to go it alone, and often without a set itinerary.” Typically, they do the planning and booking themselves, culling online travel sites, reading guidebooks and sifting through local hotel and restaurant reviews. But, for their last trip to Greece, they used a travel agent.

    “It was the most relaxing vacation we’ve ever had,” Rich says. “We still had privacy, but all the piddling details were off our plate. And the agent suggested and booked things we had no idea we could do.”

    In this age of DIY travel planning, does it make sense to work with a travel agent? It looks like more travelers think so. According to a recent survey by TNS Global, 25 percent of US travelers reported using a travel agent in 2015, and the number is climbing.

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    “Studies have shown that the satisfaction of online booking has steadily been going down, while the use of travel advisors has been going up,” says Matthew Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso, an international luxury travel agency network with more than 11,400 advisors worldwide.

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    A recent study commissioned by the American Society of Travel Agents revealed similar results. “The number of travelers using agents is definitely on the rise,” says Jennifer Michels Jones, vice president of communications for the American Society of Travel Agents. “And, we found that those who use a travel agent are, by far, more satisfied when returning from vacation than those who don’t.”

    Ready to plan your next getaway? Here are five top reasons why you should consider using a travel advisor.

    They can save you money

    Even transactional agents, those who simply book airline tickets and hotels, can save you money; they know the tricks of the trade and keep abreast of changing nuances. “Believe it or not, the majority of the time, they beat the Internet on the best deals,” says Jones.

    Upchurch provided a recent example: A family of six was booking plane tickets to London, so they went online and logically clicked 6 for the number of travelers. “What the travel agent knows is that sometimes if you break up that number up, and book 2, 2 and 2, you could save hundreds on airfare,” Upchurch said. “There are all kinds of examples like this, little tricks of the trade that an agent knows, that can save you money.”

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    But, more often than not, it’s not about beating a price but getting more value for your money. For example, a friend recently snagged a luxury hotel in Las Vegas online for $129 a night. Later, he asked his travel agent if she could beat the price. She couldn’t beat the rate, but she could get him a room at the same hotel for $145 a night, that included breakfast, a $100 resort credit, and a room upgrade. That was a better deal.

    Most times, your savings or added value will more than cover the typical $25 to $30 booking fee that agents may charge. About fees: “There’s really no set fee structure,” says Jones. “They can range from $25 to $100.” For more complicated trip planning, some will charge a plan-to-go fee averaging $150 to $200, depending on the complexities and details of the trip. Be sure to negotiate fees upfront so you know exactly what you’ll be charged and why.

    They can get you out of trouble

    Ever been stranded in an airport during a snowstorm? Re-routed to another city? Left scrambling after a cancelled flight? A travel agent is like your own personal, on-the-road concierge, available to help you out when you need it. A good agent will already know what’s happening. You may still be in the air and they’re looking at your itinerary and re-routing you before you even land. That’s a lot of hassle avoidance, and a little peace of mind knowing that someone has your back.

    They unclutter the vast universe
    of choices

    We love the process of planning a trip, culling through books and online sites, talking with friends and families, the dreaming of it is all part of the fun. But having an expert on hand to work with us on the decision-making and planning details is a bonus. “People don’t go to a travel advisor to get more information. Information is ubiquitous; there’s an overload,” says Upchurch. “They go to get clarity.”

    A travel advisor will ask the right questions, and team up with you to plan the best trip. “A great advisor is a great collaborator,” says Upchurch. “And one of the main reasons people use a travel advisor is because they love the collaborative process.”

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    But it’s important to be able to connect with your advisor. Pick someone with the same style. Are you a person who wants to hear all the details or someone who prefers to get to the main points? There’s a process and teamwork in planning a vacation; you’ll want to work with someone with a similar approach. “We’ve found that if a consumer doesn’t take some time and energy reading profiles of advisors, the places they’ve been, and the way they present themselves, the potential for the relationship to be a good one is not as high,” says Upchurch.

    You can use their global expertise and connections

    Travel advisors are well-traveled, and most have firsthand experience with popular destinations across the globe. “The average ASTA agent has been to more than 65 countries,” says Jones. But, no one can know everything about everywhere, and that’s why most agents spend effort and time cultivating relationships and building a global network. And agents who are part of a larger association, like ASTA, Travel Leaders and Virtuoso, have a worldwide network of peers that they can tap into. If they don’t know the best place to watch the sun set in Algarve or the best bouillabaisse in Marseilles, they likely know someone on the ground who does.

    They’ll develop your dream plan

    The best advisors get to know you well. They become specialists in you. They find out what you liked and didn’t like on your last trip. They ask questions: You only have five summers left with your children before they graduate; where would you like to go? They start coming up with ideas; they craft your dream list, and they start to plan further ahead. “Multi-year travel planning is one of the most valuable things a travel advisor can offer,” says Upchurch. “Where are you in your life stage? Where do you dream of going? They can put together a plan not just for your next trip or two but for the next five or more years. With that kind of planning, not only can they develop a much more personalized plan, but also one with greater value.”

    We’re not sure we’re ready to commit to a five-year travel plan, but it’s not a bad idea to have a strategy for optimizing one of our most valuable assets: our leisure time.

    Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com.