Back before I became a diehard fan of travel agents, I was a diehard fan of doing it myself. But a few bad trips, many of which I've written about in this column, resulted in numerous comments from travel agents that they could have saved me some agony, not to mention quite possibly some money. Here's the story of my quest to find the perfect travel advisor.
What Makes a Good Travel Agent?
Full disclosure: I'm in the market for a holiday trip to a popular destination (a Hawaiian island) for a friend's wedding. I figured I'd mix business and pleasure, and turn this article into a quest for affordable airfare.
As a result, I had three agendas:
1) To find a "Good Travel Agent." What is this elusive creature?
2) To experience this creature's purported magic first-hand.
3) To (somehow!) find a great airfare in a sold-out market.
A Monday afternoon's calls to some local travel agents went thusly:
First call: No answer, left message, no returned call within 48 hours, still haven't heard from them.
Second call: Spoke to an agent, gave her my itinerary, then had this exchange:
"We'll see what we can do, and give you a call." I had to ask when that call might come.
"Hopefully by the end of the week." (Remember, this was on Monday.)
Third call: Receptionist answers, asks my name, then tells me (and I swear these were his exact words): "All our agents are currently busy with other customers. Please call back in 15 to 20 minutes."
Aside from the fact that he sounded like a computer-generated on-hold operator, he made no offer to take my name or my number to have someone call me. Call us, we won't call you....
Fourth call: The folks at the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) are always trumpeting their agents, so I chose an agent who sported the ASTA logo in his Yellow Pages ad. Pay dirt.
Gene was funny, happily swapped war stories with me, called back promptly after investigating my itinerary, and explored other options at length when I wasn't entirely happy with prices or the airline. In short order, by using some alternative airports, he found a fare that was $200 cheaper than what I had seen online.
He placed the reservation but asked if I could wait until the morning, as he was going to a party that night with some colleagues, and wanted to see if he could find anything interesting.
At 9:15 a.m., Gene called with some news: He had found a package deal with a three-night "throwaway hotel" (when you don't even have to show up if you don't want to) for almost $2,000 less than either of us could find anywhere else. He had nailed down our preferred dates of travel, if not our preferred airline, but beggars can't be choosers, as the saying goes. As I said before: pay dirt.
Finding a Good Travel Agent
Needless to say, I'm sold that a good travel agent can do some things no search engine will ever do. (I'll still use online booking sites, nonetheless, for speed and convenience, but will call my new travel agent much more frequently.)
A few guidelines for choosing your travel agent:
1) I have to trumpet the ASTA connection; go with an ASTA agency. ASTA has a code of conduct, a Consumer Affairs Department where you can register complaints against members, and a reputation to uphold. You can search for ASTA-affiliated agents on the organization's consumer site, TravelSense.org.
(Note that, on further inspection, I discovered that at least one of the agencies I didn't use was an ASTA shop. ASTA affiliation isn't a guarantee, but it's a good start.)
2) Does the agent tell you everything you need to know? When you don't like a certain airline, departure times or dates, or connection, does he shift gears immediately to find alternatives or try to force the issue? If your agent responds well in these situations, stick by him.
3) Do the agent's fares and itineraries stack up well against the online booking services? Even when I call the airlines directly, I check an online reservations site to investigate my options ahead of time; I do the same with travel agents. The more information you have as a consumer of any product, the more likely you are to find what you really want.