Travel Agents: A Good Way To Book Your Vacation

Remember when you were a kid and you came upon that big, gray hornet’s nest? Ever poke it? Well, a recent Tripso column elicited a similar response. It was called “How not to book your vacation,” and it infuriated travel professionals from all over the country, who resented Joel Widzer’s implication that booking travel with a travel agent is a mistake. We invited the agency community to respond, and they did. This week’s column was penned by a 15-year veteran of the industry, John Felker, of Baton Rouge, La., who operates Go Away Travel/Travel Planners International. I am pleased to let John step in and offer a counterpoint.

— John W. Frenaye, Jr.

They say that without an agent, you are on your own.

But after reading Joel Widzer’s recent column, you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Widzer told a story about his friend Maryam, who booked a vacation through a travel agent that seemed to serve the agent’s interest more than hers. I believe the story presented only one side of Maryam’s tale of woe. We will never know the other side, but the insinuation that the travel agent ruined someone’s holiday vacation is surely off the mark. I am a travel agent. Perhaps I can offer some insight into the other side of the tale by sharing one or two of my own.

A frequent-flier upgrade

The first is the story of a very good client, who came in to see me after having trouble making reservations for a 20th-anniversary trip for him and his wife. He wanted first class air, a top-notch hotel, show tickets — the whole shebang. When he contacted the airline to use his frequent-flier points for air tickets, he found there were no seats available on the chosen dates. He asked if I could get the airline to release some seats for him. I let him know that frequent-flier seats are strictly capacity-controlled and that the airlines generally allow only one or two per flight. I offered to search for upgradeable fares instead, and he agreed.

I turned to my CRS (Computer Reservation System, a system that offers far more information than is available on the Internet and which is directly linked to the airlines’ systems) and began the search. Bingo. Although the flight times weren’t exactly what my client wanted, I did find flights with fares that allowed him to use some of his frequent-flier points to upgrade to first class.

While I was checking for airfares, I checked out the various hotel loyalty programs in which the client participated and realized that he had enough points with one hotel group to qualify for a better room category. So after finalizing the flights, I got on the phone with my hotel sales rep and secured my client a suite instead of a standard king-bedded room. My client thought I was a miracle worker, and to this day remains one of my most loyal clients.

An emergency trip to London

Another time, a woman called my agency out of the blue, having found our phone number in the Yellow Pages. It seems that her husband was on a business trip in London, where he had suffered a heart attack, and she needed to get to his bedside as soon as possible. She looked for a flight on the Internet and, finding fares that were several thousand dollars, called the airlines directly, but with no better luck.

As a last-ditch effort, she contacted us to see if there was anything we could do to help her get to London. We put all hands on deck, and soon every agent in our office was doing a computer search for fares and making calls to various consolidators with whom we had relationships. (Consolidators are companies that do not sell to the public and can offer steeply discounted fares). We had worked on this for about 20 minutes when Kevin, one of my co-workers, stood up and said, “I got it!” He had found a fare with a consolidator that would allow the woman to leave the next day, without a stipulated return date, and save her almost $600 over the published fares. The trip was successful, the husband recovered and this couple became loyal clients.

Lessons learned

The point of the first story is that if you tell us exactly what you want, we will do everything in our power to get it for you. We’ll never know if Maryam mentioned that she wanted to upgrade, but I can tell you that I would have done everything I could to make sure she got a suite and a first-class seat — if she’d asked for it. However, based on what Widzer has said, I doubt that an upgrade in air or hotel would have been available during the holiday season in Hawaii — there are far too many people who are willing to pay for upgrades at that time of year. But I would have given it a try — again, only if Maryam had told me!

The point of the second story is that while consolidator fares are not for everyone, they can save you hundreds of dollars. Yes, they might be more restrictive than other fares, but we can usually work around those restrictions. If the goal is to save money — and who doesn’t want to save some money? — a consolidator fare can be just the ticket.

A real travel agent is your advocate. When you come to us to plan your vacation or business trip, we will take the time to ask you many questions. We want to know your needs, wants, expectations and budget. We will make every effort to make your trip as hassle-free as possible. We are looking out for what is best for you, not us. Remember, we want you as a repeat customer — that’s how we make money, not by scamming a client — and if we were only out for our own interest, it is doubtful that you would come to us again.

The relationship between travel agent and traveler can be a close one, and it is a two-way street. We need and want to learn your likes and dislikes. With that information, we can give you a memorable experience. Once a relationship is established, we will become one of your most trusted advisors, along with your CPA, attorney and doctor.

Choose your agent wisely

But remember: Not all travel agents will fit the bill for you. We are as individual as you are, and you should shop around. Interview candidates. Ask about their professional and personal travel experiences. Ask about their travel education and their professional memberships (ASTA? CLIA? ARTA?). Ask about their specialties and their co-workers’ specialties. Finding the right travel agent for you requires a little work, but the end result will be a winner.

I think if Maryam had followed the above advice, her trip to Hawaii might have been more enjoyable. I am pretty confident that the upgrades would not have happened — unless her full name was Maryam United-Hilton. I hope that she has taken this experience as a learning opportunity and will, in the future, give the agent community another chance.

As for some of Widzer’s other tips, I contend that it is the rare traveler that can get through to the general manager of a hotel–especially a casual traveler. It is rarer still to have that phone call result in the hotel kowtowing to a guest’s every whim. Besides, who is the hotel or airline more interested in pleasing? Joel Widzer with his million miles and 365 nights a year? Or John Felker, whose clients put in 10 million miles and 365,000 nights a year?

Give it some thought.

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