Americans are ambivalent when it comes to getting away. In 2015, they left 658 million vacation days on the table, according to Project: Time Off, an organization dedicated to promoting the health and economic benefits of vacationing. And yet, when we do manage to get out of the house, we’re splurging more. On average, Americans say they expect to spend 10 percent more on leisure travel in 2017 compared with 2015, according to the State of the American Traveler Survey by Destination Analysts.
With so little vacation time and so much money at stake, the pressure is on to make every moment count. Maybe that’s why the use of travel professionals jumped more than 50 percent between 2013 and 2016.
Misty Ewing Belles, a representative of luxury travel network Virtuoso, and Kimberly Wilson Wetty, co-president of Valerie Wilson Travel, both recommend building a long-term relationship with a travel agent so that person can get to know you, your family, and your travel preferences.
Word-of-mouth is often the best way to find a good travel professional. Ask friends and family for names of anyone who provided good service. You can also search online in one of the many databases of certified travel agents. The American Society of Travel Agents has a directory at travelsense.org that lets you search by destination, proximity to your neighborhood, specialties (such as all-inclusive, cruising, or eco-tourism), and more. Virtuoso also has a database, and both Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure offer annual “best of” rankings.
Next, pick up the phone and call the agents you think might be a fit. “You have to feel comfortable chatting with the person,” explains Wetty, and a truly collaborative travel professional should be willing to spend the time to understand your needs before actually sitting down to plan a vacation.
Once you’ve found that perfect someone, what can he or she do for you? Plenty.
Time and Money
One big reason to use a travel agent is to get a better deal. Though most agents charge a fee to clients and get commissions from hotels, cruise companies, and others, the American Society of Travel Agents estimates vacationers will save an average of $452 per trip plus about four hours of planning by using one. “Time is your most precious commodity,” says Wetty. So why waste yours combing through 38 travel websites, the average number that DIY vacationers typically visit before booking?
Belles notes that while agents can’t always secure lower prices than travel sites, they can often score you an upgrade on your rental car or your hotel room or other perks that will improve your vacation and stretch your budget.
Peace of Mind
Agents can help you feel confident that your vacation will match your expectations. Erika Richter of the American Society of Travel Agents warns that “the travel brochure price, while attractive, may not be exactly what you’ll end up paying if there are hidden fees, extra activities, or meals that aren’t included in the ‘all-inclusive package.’ ” When you book through an agent, that person should be able to clarify all your costs upfront.
Help With Hiccups
And what if something goes awry when you’re on the road? “It’s not ‘if’ something goes wrong,” says Belles, “it’s ‘when’ something goes wrong.” When that happens, your agent should be able to find you new accommodations, book a flight, or get you an emergency rental car, leaving you free to enjoy the rest of your vacation fun.
Wetty focuses on high-end vacations. Her clients’ budgets generally start at about $10,000, and she’s even planned $1 million luxury trips. That kind of cash will get you things like off-hours access to the Sistine Chapel or an intimate dinner atop the Great Wall of China.
Advisers at that level often charge a “plan to go” fee — a flat rate for consulting on your vacation even before they start booking. This fee can be several hundred dollars or more, and you’ll have to agree to it upfront. But if you’re finally taking that trip you always dreamed of, the plan-to-go fee might be worth it (especially if you’re looking at a multi-destination itinerary), because a really good travel agent can get you “things you didn’t even know you could ask for,” says Belles, who once arranged for a member of the Fendi family to escort a client on an after-hours tour of the Italian fashion company’s studio, complete with the opportunity to design her own handbag.
Good travel agents, Wetty says, are experts at “planning and executing experiences that you can’t Google.”