Interview: Are Travel Agents Still Useful?

There’s been a bit of blogger buzz these past few weeks about whether or not, in this age of being able to book travel from a device in our pockets, travel agents are still useful. You might say, “Travel agents are so 80’s”, but I think you’d be selling yourself short. Because I have cousins who are longtime travel agents, and do a ton of travel as well, I decided to pose some questions to one of them. Some of the questions are similar to what other bloggers have been asking of travel agents, but some are different. And even if you’ve made up your mind about the usefulness of travel agents, do go to the end of this post where I’ll tell you about how my travel agent cousin saved me both money and time in New Zealand! So, are travel agents still useful? Let’s find out!

General Travel Trends

Shelli: Which destinations are people most asking about these days?

Corkie: Iceland & Japan are way up in requests.

It’s not a bird. It’s not a plane. It’s Grant in Iceland on an iceberg!

S: Which airline are people liking LEAST right now?

C: There are so many, I can’t pinpoint just one. Service levels are down all around, especially in coach. Airlines are banking on their Business class to put them in the black. Except for British Airways! For some reason, British Airways places every other row in Business Class facing backwards.

S: Which airline, if any, are people raving about right now?

C: Singapore always gets high marks. Norwegian Air pumps more oxygen throughout their cabins helping ease jet lag.

S: Most of your clients fly in which class of service, econ/business/first?

C: Most are in business – especially internationally. Very few carriers have a First Class anymore. And if they do, they are private suites. 

Travel Agents and the Internet

S: How has the Internet changed your job as a travel agent?

C: My clients value service and the extra amenities we get for them when booking one of the Virtuoso or Travel Leaders Select hotels. Breakfast is always included, at the minimum. Clients often send me what they’ve found on the internet and 9 times out of 10, I can get the same price with the amenities they can’t find online. So it’s a win-win. And as I tell my clients, you have no voice on the internet. If something goes wrong, we have tools at our fingertips that can help.

S: As the use of the internet for travel has changed, how have your clients changed? Do they want different things than before? Is it always about shopping for the best price?

C: My clients are used to a high level of service. They want a hotel that’s at least as good as what they have at home. They may troll the internet, but they will then send me what they’ve found as a comparison to what I can get. Service level is the key.

S: There are many myths associated with travel agents and they are stereotypically associated with an older demographic. Does this hold true for your clientele?

C: I have younger clients now who grew up with me as their travel consultant and use me, and whose parents still use me. They know the level of service I can provide and the insider deals I can get. With others, it’s usually their parents who advised them to call me. I also have access to “on-sites” – local tour companies in our network who offer us insider tours and activities you can’t find on the internet. These interest the younger crowd. For instance, a private gin tasting with the leading micro-distiller in London, or lunch with Julian Fellowes’s niece, Jessica, who was on the set of Downtown Abbey and wrote two books about the series, or a private concert with Andrea Bocelli. You won’t find these on the internet.

S: There are so many Online Travel Agencies (OTA) now, such as Expedia, Orbitz, and Priceline. This makes people think using a travel agent isn’t necessary. Obviously you feel this isn’t true.

C: Yes, that’s untrue. We are more popular now than ever. OTA’s may offer cheaper rates, but they come at a cost – like non-refundable purchases, no changes allowed. With hotels, the room type isn’t the best. It may say it’s a deluxe room with a view, but chances are that view will be obstructed or close to the elevator with lots of noise. These are the less-desirable rooms in every hotel that they don’t usually sell to the U.S. market.

S: When people do book their own travel, what are some of the mistakes you see them making?

C: Booking the absolutely lowest rate room and expecting to be upgraded to a suite. It’s important to be reasonable in your expectations. Another mistake is not checking over their itinerary to be sure everything is correct. Read it when you get it in your inbox. Waiting too long to advise the booking agent that the wrong date was booked and/or ticketed. Don’t wait – call immediately. When you do use a travel agent, recognize that we can do a lot, but we’re not miracle workers. Again, be reasonable in your expectations. Be honest with us if you’re just looking for a quick quote on an airfare or a cruise or if you’re already holding space thru another agency.

S: For people that love points and miles travel, how can working with a travel agent help them get even more value?

C: I charge for my time in assisting with mileage tickets as generally I’ll be on hold for an hour or more waiting to see if they have enough points and attempting to book their flights. I don’t mind doing this for my clients as their time, as well as mine, is valuable. I also advise strategies to get the most bang for their buck with their miles and points.

So, are travel agents still useful? From my own experience, travel agents do still serve a great purpose. As promised, here’s my experience in New Zealand and how my travel agent cousin saved my butt. Corkie reserved me a car to pick up at the airport in Auckland. The flight was long and I was tired. I thought I remembered the name of the car rental company and didn’t check my notes. I went to the rental desk and said to the agent, “Do you have a car for me?” He asked for my name, said yes, and maybe 30 minutes later we were on our way to our destination 3 hours away. I got to my lodging and after settling in, went for a hike and for dinner. Upon arriving back at my lodge, the owner said to me, “You got a call from Beverly Hills!” The lodge owner was thinking I’m someone famous or special, right? But it was my travel agent cousin calling me to see why I picked up the wrong car from the wrong company!!?? Long story short, my travel agent arranged it so I did not have to drive all the way back to Auckland right away. Instead she arranged for me to drop off the car when I’d be passing through Auckland the next week, and in the end Corkie went to bat for me so I didn’t have to pay extra for the mistake I’d made. Now you might say, “Well she’s your cousin, of course she helped you out.” But I’ve known her a long time, and seen her succeed in a challenging business climate and know that she would have gone to bat for any of her clients. That’s what having a professional on your team means.

Travel agents do save people time and money, and that’s important. In this New Zealand case, a travel agent saved me a lot of both! So whether or not you currently use a travel agent, don’t rule them out. No matter how advanced our technology is, or how transparent travel seems on the internet, there’s always room for that human touch. As Corkie says, it’s the little extras that often make a difference. I’ve definitely found that to be true. Do you ever use a travel agent? Has an agent ever saved your butt the way Corkie saved mine in New Zealand? Let me know!

P.S. If you need a travel agent, please send Corkie an email or call her at 310-691-7432.

14 thoughts on “Interview: Are Travel Agents Still Useful?

  1. compspy

    I value travel agents when booking a cruise. One of the few areas where they have more power then a regular person online.

  2. Jay

    I use travel agents when it makes sense to do so: when their connections or insights make a difference. I am more than happy to pay for this. Life is too short to gamble or pay for rookie mistakes. I am a very experienced traveler but I am not an expert of every city or country.
    I hired a travel agent to book my trip to Tuscany and also a river cruise because I had zero knowledge of them. It was a great decision and now I can book the trips on my own based on what I learned from them.

    1. Shelli Post author

      Well said, Jay. And as you expressed, we learn and then use it to help ourselves or others later on. I’m with you, knowing when to ask for help can make traveling go a lot more smoothly. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

  3. Jig

    Nothing personal, and I actually have family members that operate travel agencies as well, but several of the answers to your good questions show why many travel agents struggle to add value today, especially for miles/points savvy travelers. I will note that specialized luxury travel like safaris and cruises or remote destinations are often big exceptions and the few high end agents can make a big difference there. As would award booking services from the better bloggers if you want to save time. But most travel agents don’t fall into those categories.

    1. Indicating that BA’s reverse facing business seats are somewhat unique, or that DY “pumps more oxygen”, shows a lack of knowledge that even mid-level points enthusiasts have. Many airlines like AA or highly regarded QR have rear facing business seats, although BA’s layout is objectively cramped. DY flies a lot of 787s with higher humidity levels that increase comfort relative to older models, but so do many other airlines, along with those that fly the A350.

    2. Many of the “private tours” are indeed available on the internet through the same local tour companies that the agent works with, and often on sites such as Viator or Undercover Tourist or through high end credit cards. A little internet “troll” of city or regional resident blogs often reveals the best tour guides, restaurants highly regarded by locals now vs 3 years ago, and the non-touristy experiences.

    3. Credit cards have enabled many to indeed be upgraded to suites due to elite status or upgrade instruments from lowest level rooms booked, which are themselves often almost free due to the associated points. Free breakfast almost always included. Flyertalk forums know far more about the hotels and destinations than almost any agent, and they offer knowledge about the specific management idiosyncrasies on an up to date basis. All the way up to the best room numbers. Most GMs respond well to a quick email indicating special trips, and elite status helps just as much as the agent’s follow up.

    4. There was no response to how an agent can add value for points travelers, just an indication that the agent would charge for their time to make such a booking and “advise strategies”, which probably BA bloggers offer much better.

    5. Your NZ example honestly seems like an outlier which I personally have never experienced in many years of travel, and I would wager most other points travelers won’t either.

    1. Shelli Post author

      HI Jig, Great comment and thanks so much for taking the time to post it. I don’t take it personally and welcome the conversation. You make good points. I’m hoping my cousin will see them and address them. Here are my thoughts. Adding value in any industry that has changed so much is a challenge. I’ve been surprised to learn that there are still countries where people turn to travel agents for everything, like we in the states did in the “old days”. We points enthusiasts are indeed more knowledgeable than many agents on various topics, I agree. I’ve taught my travel agent cousins a few things, too:) Your point #2 is a good one. Some people though, do not like to do research on the internet. It can be a real rabbit hole. Books are still popular as resources too. I don’t use them but I never go anywhere without seeing people with tour/guide books. Some people just like to ask a person for advice and in that case I would think they’d establish a relationship with a travel agent they trust. I would guess many of my cousin’s clients have been using her services for years. #3 is true as well. And you’re right in thinking that most of the TWG readers have some hotel credit card that gives them benefits. Where I’ve found my cousin’s suggestions, though I don’t always take them, to be valuable is when there are no chain hotels I’ll be using at certain destinations. She also has an office full of agents who tend to specialize in certain areas and countries, so I can use her brain-trust. #4 I wouldn’t use an agent for an award booking, but that’s me. I think very few people would and I didn’t even know my cousin did this for her clients. I guess it’s a good thing for agents to be able to do, though. #5 My cousin/agent has saved my butt a few times but the NZ story, rare as you may think it is, always makes me laugh. My honest mistake would have cost me hundreds of dollars and it wasn’t as easy for her to work out on my behalf as I may have suggested. One thing I expect from an agent, and my cousins are good about this, is that if they are not the right person to help me with something they’ll let me know. I did not use them when I booked my safari, but rather used a different agent. Hope I don’t sound defensive because I don’t feel defensive. This post came about because I noticed other bloggers were asking some of the same questions of travel agents and I wondered how my cousin would answer. I never know if anyone is even interested in these types of posts or if TWG readers have already decided where and when, and I suppose IF, a travel agent can be a part of their team. OK, this may be the longest reply TWG has ever posted to a comment, so once again I’ll say thanks for taking the time to add your thoughts to the post and I hope this reply addressed YOUR well thought out comment. Have a great evening!!

  4. Christian

    As an former travel agent, I admit to some bias on this subject, but in the proper situation, a travel agent is invaluable. As with pretty much any profession, you hire a travel agent for two main reasons: tools and expertise. Travel agents have a variety of tools that are the envy of normal travelers. What takes you or I an hour or two can be done in a few minutes with the right tools and knowing how to use them. A good travel agent also has a high degree of expertise, built up over years of experience. Never, ever, use a travel agent that has less than a couple of years experience unless a more experienced agent is at their side. Likewise, never trust anyone billing themselves as a “travel expert” if they’re trying to sell you travel. There’s a lot of similarities with a real estate agent. You don’t want someone brand new and freshly on their own and you want someone reputable. Would you buy a house while dealing with a “real estate expert”?
    On the other hand, can you often accomplish the same things that a travel agent can with lots of effort? You bet. Is it worth the large investment of time and energy? Not for most people. Just because you’re capable of building a house from scratch by yourself doesn’t make it a good idea.
    As brought up above, a good travel agent can often do more than you can do for yourself. I have personally retrieved situations dozens of times where there was no recourse for the client on their own. It’s really nice for a client to have a free advocate when things go wrong.
    Ultimately, whether to use a travel agent is a personal choice. Do you need one to book a flight from JFK-ORD? Probably not, but if you don’t want to spend large amounts of time and/or money researching travel plans, particularly for a bigger trip, a travel agent can be a huge time saver, often at zero cost to you.

    1. Shelli Post author

      HI Christian, Thanks for adding to the conversation. I like what you said about expertise and tools. That’s to the point. Your analogy to real estate agents is a good one. Though I don’t have any cousins in that field, I have over the years used many real estate agents for the same reason I’d use travel agents. It boils down to how much work I want to do vs letting others do the heavy lifting for me. Sounds like you were a good agent in your day! Have a great evening and thanks for reading.

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