Forbes: Why You Need A Travel Agent

Larry Olmsted, Contributor

If you like to travel (who doesnt?) heres a great New Years Resolution for 2012 find a good travel agent and start using them regularly. This is a resolution you will find easy to keep, because once you try it you will enjoy better and often cheaper trips than ever before.

Just a couple of years ago, headlines were about the demise of the travel agent, about to go the way of the Dodo and the dinosaur. Guess what? Travel agents are not only still here, they are experiencing a rebound despite (or because of?) the myriad travel tools available online.

So why should you use a travel agent?

There are many, many good reasons, which I will explain. But the bottom line is that they know more than you do, they are better connected than you, they have access to benefits you cant get otherwise, they can often beat any other prices available (even online, yes), and after you have planned everything, they provide a safety net during your trip that you simply wont get by booking yourself or buying insurance. Having a top travel agent can also make you an instant VIP free room upgrades, hard to get restaurant reservations, cutting lines, access to otherwise closed stores and exhibits, private guides, and cheaper often much cheaper premium airfares. Heres the best part: even though many top agents charge fees, in almost every firsthand experience I or my friends, family, and acquaintances have had, travel agents have saved money, often a lot of money, thousands of dollars, and in every case, more than paid for themselves.

To be frank, not everyone taking a trip needs a travel agent. The benefits they offer increase as your travel becomes more luxurious, expensive, and specialized. Need a cheap flight to Florida to visit family and a night at a 3-star airport hotel en route? By all means let your fingers do the walking. Need a bargain-priced, all-inclusive ski vacation or Vegas weekend? You can easily find that online. Need a cheap cruise on a mass market ship? Yes, you can book that yourself. But Ive already written at length here at Forbes about why if you are taking any higher end cruise you would be foolish I mean making a really big mistake not to use a top cruise agent. The same goes for plenty of other travel: If you are staying at 4 and 5-star hotels, flying in the premium cabin (or private aviation), planning complicated itineraries with multiple stops, planning complex airline routings, or taking any trip using guides/drivers or local experts, any trip that VIP access would make better, any trip to a destination where you do not already know all the best places to eat and best things to see and do, or any cultural travel, from safaris to ancient ruins, you need a travel agent. In fact, in any of these scenarios, if you dont use a travel agent you are and likely making a costly mistake, no matter how much you think you know. I travel for a living and write on travel for a living and I still use travel agents.

To be clear, I am talking about true experts, the really good travel agents who add value, not the ones running full page ads of deals in the Sunday papers. The best travel agents are essentially consultants, and many prefer travel advisor, because it is their advice, expertise, and connections that are of great value, not the ability to print airline tickets for you. A few have become hyper-specialized, and in some cases, like booking a cruise, golf vacation, space travel, or a very specialized theme trip like art, music or polar exploration, you will want to seek out a niche specialist. But for most travelers, it is better to find an excellent generalist travel advisor and stick with them, because a big part of the equation is that they get to know you and your wants, likes and dislikes, and make suggestions accordingly. You would not use a different financial advisor every time you opened a new bank or brokerage account, so why keep switching travel agents? Once we get to know each other, the time I save them is invaluable to them. If I can get the client to let go/give in/trust in me! once, then they become clients for life, said Leigh Sullivan, a highly acclaimed luxury travel expert. If you choose right, you wont lose any expertise in the process, because the best agencies have multiple agents with overlapping spheres of specialization who collaborate, so while your agent who is an expert on Asia may not specialize in safaris when the time comes for you to book one, theres a good chance one of their colleagues at a nearby desk does.

"How will I find a great and expert guide to the wonders of Ancient Rome?" A good travel agent already knows one.

Among the many major advantages high-powered agents bring to the table is personal connections and clout. Connections means knowing GMs and execs at top hotels (and airlines, chefs, cruise lines, adventure travel outfitters, etc.) personally. It is very rare for luxury hotels or the most desirable restaurants to truly be sold out: they usually have rooms/tables available in case Tom Cruise or another VIP makes a last minute visit. This is especially important if you are trying to visit a destination at a very peak time: the Superbowl, New Orleans at Mardi Gras, Cannes during the film festival, Park City over Presidents Day weekend. Who do you think will be able to get the coveted and hidden room inventory, you calling an 800 reservation center, or your travel agent calling the GM who he or she has known for 20 years and sends a lot of business to? Its not just these scenarios, it is everyday room upgrades, special amenities, bottles of champagne on arrival, the GM greeting you personally, all these extras come from the travel agents calling on your behalf at no extra cost to you. The clout part comes from volume. For example, even the top luxury hotels are notorious for refusing to guarantee connecting rooms in advance for families booking multiple rooms. This is one of the most frustrating recurring problems I hear in the industry, and a reason why some people rent houses and apartments over multiple hotel rooms. When your travel agent books hundreds of room nights with a high profile luxury hotel each year, the hotel will move heaven and earth to give that agents client you guaranteed connecting rooms.

If you do not believe that top agents personal clout can take you further than the internet or any prestigious credit card or concierge service, heres a true story. I was going to a hard to reach island in the Caribbean for a story, and when a travel agent who does a lot of volume with a particular airline suggested flights I winced. She asked me why, and I explained that I was elite on two other major carriers, and prefer to fly them because of the miles, points and status, and to this airline I was a nobody, so the miles would not help me. No problem, she said, Ill call my guy at the airlines sales department and hell make you Gold. And he did. This is one of the largest airlines in the world, and Gold is the second tier of their elite program, not entry level, reserved for those who fly 50,000 miles per year the equivalent of about 8 transcontinental round trips and over 100 hours of flying time or one phone call, depending who you know.

Another big selling point of the best agents is their expertise. A friend was taking his children to Italy for the first time, on a biking and walking trip in the Dolomites, and decided to add Rome because he wanted them to see the historic sites. He called me and asked for help, so I told him to call Anne Scully, a true industry superstar who is perennially ranked one of the 5 or 10 best travel agents in the nation by anyone who ranks these things. She arranged a van and driver to take his family from their bike tour drop-off point to Rome, helped him pick a well-located luxury hotel that suited his needs, and set up private tours of ancient Rome and the Vatican with two different specialized expert guides. Alternatively, he could have booked guides, hotel and a driver for the long trip for his family blindly on the internet. But this way, he was getting a very known quantity. And free upgraded hotel amenities.

Id like to take a moment to talk about internet travel resources. I have nothing against booking travel online and do it all the time. I use Kayak, Travelocity, Vayama and many specialized foreign sites. I read reviews and ratings in Travelocity and TripAdvisor. But heres the problem these skew very much towards the lower and middle end of the market, because its a numbers game and the luxury segment is very small. So when they are giving the airport Radisson a four and half star rating, on that relative scale, how can Hong Kong hotels such as the Landmark Mandarin Oriental and Peninsula be differentiated in a way meaningful to you? They cant be. Thats a difference your travel agent will be able to explain to you that you cannot possibly garner online. When many of the best and most specialized tour guides cannot even be booked online, how can you rely on online ratings for them? You cannot. I just read a survey that said searching for Villas In Italy yielded 7.3 million results in Bing and over 9 million for Google. Good luck with that research project. All this is in addition to the fact that such ratings can and have been manipulated, and that you have no idea who the baseline raters are. Now on the other hand, lets say you have a friend whose taste and judgment you know well and trust and they tell you to stay at one hotel over another in a particular destination they are very familiar with for several specific reasons. You would probably believe them. Think of your expert travel agent as such a friend.

For leisure travel, most of the questions I get are of the following variety: where is the best place to go, best place to stay, best things to do, best places to eat? In almost every case, the answer is that there is no best place but there is the best for you. That is why a relationship with a travel consultant who asks a lot of question the good ones will is all important. So is their firsthand experience, and because they have been checking these hotels in person, eating at these restaurants, and using these guides for years, they know the best ones for every need. All of these skills come together into a vacation you simply could not plan on your own, using your credit cards agent, or the internet. I think one of the most surprising things to clients is the fact that we are able to secure with ease and in a very timely manner ALL the components of their trip: accommodations (with perks like upgrades/breakfast/credits), private transfers, dinner reservations, sightseeing with exclusive access (skip the line), theatre tickets, etc., said Sullivan.

Weve had clients who return to a destination just because of the experience with the guide we got them the first time, said Anne Scully. Im like a custom tailor. I make bespoke trips to fit you personally, not the other way around. Its not just about knowing which are the best hotels its about knowing the GMs at the best hotels. Its unique access and giving my clients a rare experience. I had a college history professor who specializes in World War II visiting London, and I did not just have him tour Churchills War Rooms, I had Churchills granddaughter meet him for tea at his hotel and then take him on a tour he got to sit in Churchills chair. If I have a passionate shopper go to Paris, I dont tell them what stores to go to, I send them on a private tour behind the scenes at Louis Vuitton where they can see the things being made.

A good travel agent is there pillow to pillow. People think they can just book flights, hotels, or car rentals themselves, and sometimes they can, especially if nothing goes wrong. But when your flight is cancelled and you are standing in line waiting to be rebooked, believe me, youll wish you had a travel agent. Id already be working on it for you.

The advantages and extras these super agents offer are literally too numerous for me to list in detail, but In Part 2, I will give specific, real life examples of the immense value a top travel agent can add in the realm of hotels, airfares, and more, both saving you money and greatly improving the quality of the travel experience.

Part 2 -------------------------------------------------------

In Part 1 of this series I explained why a top travel agents expertise, depth of knowledge, and industry connections can help make almost every trip better. Today is where the rubber meets the road concrete reasons why it is often shortsighted, even foolish, to book a trip without a travel agent even if you think you know what you are doing.

In fact, I have found that the biggest resistance to using a travel agent comes from the ego of thinking we dont need one. This makes no sense: If I needed to design a new home, Id hire an architect, not use a be-your-own-architect website. Years ago I wrote a story on Bill Fischer, a famous travel agent to the stars and one of the most powerful agents in the world. Fischer has booked trips for everyone from Barbara Walters to Oprah Winfrey to acclaimed hotelier Steve Wynn. I remember thinking that if these people, with their extensive staffs of personal assistants, name recognition, deep pockets, automatic VIP status and clout, think they can do better with a travel agent than on their own, wont you? (Dont bothering searching, Fischer takes new clients only by recommendation from his existing ones).

So to help those on the fence put ego aside, here are some impressive yet fairly commonplace travel agent accomplishments. Again, as I said last time, I am talking about expert, top tier travel agents.

Airfares: There may be no part of travel as frustrating as booking flights. When several friends and I went to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, we wanted to fly KLM via Amsterdam because this is the only nonstop flight from outside Africa into Kilimanjaro International Airport. Otherwise we had to go through a hub in Kenya or Tanzania with multiple changes and an extended ground layover. But the fares on KLM were really expensive. I called Anne Scully and in less than five minutes she had my friends and I booked on the flights we wanted at a steep discount hundreds of dollars less per person for coach than the best I could do by calling KLM or online (and I know what I am doing). I still dont know how and I dont care.

When a friend of mine went on his honeymoon to Hawaii, he wanted to buy first class tickets for he and his new bride, but at around $5000 a pop, the price was a little steep. Now this is a San Francisco-based tech loving guy who tried every trick the internet offered, and then called his American Express Platinum Card travel agent, and none of it got the fare down one cent. Then he called me. I put him in touch with one of the high powered agents I know, and voila, like magic, the same tickets were $3500. He saved $3000 in a single phone call without changing the flights he wanted, just by using a travel agent. Enough said.

Hotels: Step one of this equation is that the good travel agents know the hotels, understand the differences, and most importantly, can help you pick the right one for you. Heres an example: in Rome, some people love Waldorf Astorias Rome Cavalieri. It has the citys best restaurant, and a large outdoor pool, and a secluded resort-style feel. Its very popular with families or people who travel to Rome a lot and have seen all the sights. But for many first timers and hardcore urbanites, it is way too far removed for the city center, and they would gladly sacrifice the pool and sanctuary for a prime location in the middle of the action, like the Hassler. It is very easy for a travel agent to explain such differences to you at no cost, very hard for you to figure out on your own, and even if you do, there is no upside.

In fact, once you get beyond selecting the hotel, chances are it will cost you more to book it, or you will get less for the same price. This is especially true at luxury hotel brands that typically do not discount below their own web advertised lowest prices like Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental and Peninsula. The travel agent may get the same rate as you, but in many cases, they get upgrades worth a couple of hundred dollars or more per night, from room class upgrades which are significant to extras like champagne on arrival, free breakfast daily, in some cases even free meals and free spa treatments. Would you rather pay the same for a standard room as for a suite? Of course not. Or pass up a free massage because you didnt want to call a travel agent? It makes no sense. One of the best upgrades some of these travel agents can get for their client is s bump to club or lounge floors, especially in foreign hotels, which means free breakfast, free drinks, free appetizers and desserts, all day long, plus private concierge services and a private sanctuary. Sometimes the agents get these extras because their firm has so much volume and clout, and sometimes because they belong to a top consortium of agents that negotiates guaranteed benefits en masse, the most notable of which by far are Virtuoso and Signature Travel Network.

We get upgrades and benefits typically worth $250 per night or more at hundreds of top luxury hotels, said Scully. But what I personally do is make sure that when my clients arrive in Paris or London at 8 in the morning from the States and it feels like 1AM, their room is ready then with breakfast laid out in it. Personally I have arrived exhausted many times at some of the top luxury hotels in Europe in the early morning hours to be told my room would not be ready for three or four hours. Then again, I dont have the GMs number in my phone.

Its about having the best possible experiences, from hotels to guides to special access, and having everything exactly the way you like it. But at the end of the day, you also will save a lot of money.


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