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Last year, the business outlook for travel agents was so gloomy, even President Obama commented on it. In August, he talked about jobs while in Illinois and remarked, “When was the last time somebody went to a bank teller instead of using the ATM, or used a travel agent instead of just going online?”
With all due respect, Mr. President, I visited my bank teller around the corner last week – because I needed quarters, and the ATM doesn’t dispense those. There are some things machines aren’t designed to handle, or they do it so poorly that we still need people on the job. Travel agents can be a big help – and it seems the rest of the country is finally realizing that.
Last year, even struggling banks were faring better than travel agents – there were about 15,000 retail travel agencies last summer, as opposed to nearly 26,000 agencies in 2002, USA Today reported. But something changed recently. Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC), an airline-owned company, reported just last week…
Airline tickets sold by U.S.-based travel agencies increased 10.7 percent year-over-year in the first two months of 2012, compared to the same period in 2011, and 23 percent over the same period in 2010.
Why the turnaround when online self-serve travel options are only expanding? ARC doesn’t back up its numbers with any educated guesses, but I have one: Good travel agents can beat what flight search websites do, and they offer tips a computer can’t. Here are some of them…
- Know the ropes. While computers have made many once-complicated tasks easier for the average traveler, professionals will always possess insider information and expertise. Meanwhile, as travel-comparison sites continue to add more options, they become more complicated. Hidden fees, restrictions, expiring discount fares, and a limited selection of airlines – only ones that pay commissions show up on most travel sites – can all be frustrating factors in online booking. You can spend hours and still not be absolutely, positively certain you’ve gotten the best deal. Deal with a reputable travel agent, however, and you can be sure.
- Solve problems. Travel agents can keep on top of issues like lost luggage and delays. Because of their ties to the industry, they can typically talk to airline customer service reps more effectively (and calmly) than you can – they do it all the time. And if you’re stranded by bad weather with your fellow travelers, your travel agent might find you a way out faster.
- Book multiple things. Travel agencies don’t just handle flights. They can also help you get the best hotel, car rental, and travel insurance.
- Provide more information. Agents can tell you what documentation you need for international flights and where to get it, explain local laws and regulations at your destination, point out the can’t-miss hotspots, and inform you of discounts, and they’re a great all-around source for travel advice.
- Manage complex itineraries. If booking a nonstop domestic weekend trip for a family isn’t trouble enough, try doing it for a week-long international vacation that involves multiple destinations and modes of transportation. Now imagine having to tweak the itinerary later because someone gets sick or your schedule changes. Leaving that mess to an agent means you can enjoy your journey instead of stressing over it. Time, especially on vacation, is money.
Of course, agents aren’t always necessary, and they certainly aren’t free. The average fee according to the American Society of Travel Agents is $36 – but hopefully they can save you more than that. ASTA also points out that travel agents no longer make commission through airlines, although they still might through cruises and hotel packages.
This doesn’t directly affect what you pay, but if you find an agent unwilling to discuss their commission structure, you might want to get a second opinion – that may signal upselling, and it’s one of CNN’s 9 signs you’ve got a bad travel agent. To find a local agent recommended by ASTA, visit TravelSense.org and type in the first three digits of your ZIP code.
Of course, travel agents aren’t all equally skilled, motivated, experienced or smart. To find the best one, use the same method you’d use to pick any pro: Ask friends for referrals, talk to several and always ask about experience and credentials.
And if you’re determined to manage your own travel, Stacy and I can help there too – check out 7 Steps to Cheaper Airfares.