According to recent surveys, the number of travelers using a travel agent is on the rise. No wonder: In a time of information overload and complexity, travel advisors can save you time, money, and aggravation, and provide first-hand insight into destinations around the world. But how do you find an advisor who will best manage your valuable vacation time? Here are five tips from the experts.
Check for credentials
The American Society of Travel Agents provides a list of agents by geographic regions or by specialty on its consumer website, www.TravelSense.org. These agents have received the ASTA seal of approval, meaning that they are abiding by an industry code of ethics. Also, check to see if an agent is a Certified Travel Counselor, a certification process managed by The Travel Institute, signaling that the agent has been through at least five years of full-time work in the industry. Finally, ask your friends and acquaintances. “You’d be surprised to learn how many people you know use a travel agent,” says Erika Richter, ASTA Senior Manager, Communications & Government Affairs. “Many of the best travel agents can be found by recommendation.”
Ask the right questions
Do a little research, and then ask specific questions about the destination. “It’s always worthwhile to have a basic knowledge of the location before you call a travel agent,” says Steve Jermanok, a longtime Boston Globe travel contributor and co-owner, with wife Lisa Leavitt, of ActiveTravels, a boutique, full-service travel agency in Newton. “For example, if you say you’re going to Cape Cod and they say, ‘You have to visit Arnold’s in Eastham to try the lobster rolls,’ you know they have the scoop.”
You should ask about overall travel budgets, specific service fees, and references. And, “A good agent will provide background and resource information and suggest books to read to enhance your itinerary,” says Richter.
Finally, ask specific questions about their role and involvement in your travels. Are they available if something goes wrong? “The best travel agents are there for you before, during, and after the trip,” says Leavitt. “If something goes wrong with flights, luggage, transfers, we’re here 24/7.”
“Gone are the days when a travel agent sat behind a desk passing out brochures,” says Jermanok, who has traveled to more than 90 countries. “The best travel agents have been to that exact locale you’re dreaming about.”
First-hand, in-depth knowledge of a location is one of the key reasons to use an agent. (The average ASTA travel agent has been to more than 65 countries.) And agents who are part of a larger association, like ASTA, Travel Leaders (www.travelleaders.com), and Virtuoso (www.virtuoso.com) have a worldwide network of peers that they can tap into. If they don’t know the best place to scuba dive in Bali or where you can find the best pintxo bar in San Sebastian, they likely know someone on the ground who does.
Look for specialties
Arranging a family reunion in Hawaii? Thinking of an African safari? Looking to plan the best honeymoon in the Caribbean? Consider an agent who specializes in your particular vacation and can provide in-depth, insider knowledge. Today, there are specialists in a slew of areas, from LGBT, multigenerational, senior, and solo travel to cruising, spa, and culinary vacations. Ask prospective agents how long they’ve been booking travel to your destination, how many times have they’ve been there, and if they can provide referrals from past customers.
There’s teamwork and collaboration in planning a vacation so you’ll want to work with someone with a similar style, someone you connect with. Do you like to be involved in all the details, or prefer a big picture approach? Do you like daily updates and lots of involvement or prefer an agent to take the lead? Finally, do you actually like the person? “Choosing the best travel planner is a very personal decision,” says Richter. “If at any time you aren’t happy with the way the planning is going, that’s a sign that the agent isn’t a good fit.”
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com.