When Calista West first started planning a trip to Sedona, Arizona, visiting a local healer was on her to-do list. She shared her wish with her travel advisor afterwards. But when West tried to make an appointment with the doctor, he was unavailable.
Then her travel agent, Brie Shelly, sent West’s itinerary. Shelly had established some of her personal connections in Sedona to secure an appointment with the overbooked Healer.
“Brie really went above and beyond,” says West, a jeweler based in Nantucket Island, Massachusetts.
Welcome to the future of travel consultants. Yes, they can read your mind – or at least they will try.
“Our clients are always amazed at how close friends we are with so many hoteliers and tour operators around the world that we work with,” says Shelly, who works for an agency called Embark Beyond. “It’s these connections and knowledge of the destinations that allow us to optimize our customers’ itineraries.”
Shelly says she’s not a mind reader, but she did pay attention to West’s wish list when contacting her. The healer had to be part of the itinerary along with the spa treatments, red rock hikes and other activities.
When it comes to travel agencies, there’s a growing divide between online agents who simply process your travel inquiries and well-trained travel consultants who do what no computer can, anticipate what travelers need before they even ask.
Why should you use a travel agency for your next trip?
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You need a travel consultant because travel is complicated
First of all, travel is more complex than ever. For example, a few decades ago, airlines only offered economy and business or first class options. Now there are dozens of options and additional fees. Travel products with more moving parts, such as cruises or tours, are easy to get lost in. The same applies to travel insurance.
“There are complex parts to the travel buyer’s journey,” says Tim Dodge, vice president of marketing at Arch RoamRight Travel Insurance. “Travel Consultants invest in training and develop a deep understanding of the industry.”
Take your average African safari, for example. If you’ve booked one yourself in the past, you’ve had to worry about airfares, airport transfers, hotels before and after and optional extensions, as well as any vaccination requirements. But now that COVID-19 is on the loose, you also have additional vaccination and testing requirements. A travel consultant specializing in safaris can provide reassurance, says Marcelo Novais, general manager for North America at Ker & Downey Africa, a tour operator in Cape Town, South Africa.
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“Travel advisors help navigate the new complexities of travel,” he says. “You can activate their network to ensure that should anything go wrong, they can easily negotiate with suppliers to postpone your trip and secure your investment.”
That’s especially true of coronavirus testing requirements, according to Sherry Sutton, vice president of marketing at Travel Insured International. “Rules and regulations are always evolving, so working with a travel advisor can help take the stress out of navigating these changes and help customers find the best travel destinations during these times,” she notes.
How to find a travel consultant
Where can you find a travel consultant? By far the best method is word of mouth recommendation from a well-traveled friend. You can also visit the American Society of Travel Advisors’ website, Travelsense.org. Or you can find an agent through a travel consultant consortium such as Ensemble Travel Group.
Ensemble Travel Group CEO David Harris says that while his agents may not be able to read your mind, they can add a little surprise and joy to your trip.
“What I think will surprise people who have never used a consultant before is that they get some extra perks,” he says. “It could be an upgrade at their hotel, an early check-in or a late check-out, or maybe a little surprise waiting for them in the room upon arrival.”
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And don’t just go to the first travel advisor you see. I’ve covered strategies for finding the right agent in a previous navigator, but here are the highlights: read the reviews, make sure they know the area you’re planning to visit, and check their agency affiliation to make sure they are legitimate . Look for a well-known hosting agency like American Express, Travel Leaders, or Ensemble.
“When you work with a well-connected consultant, they have more ‘power’ with their suppliers,” explains Stephanie Charboneau, travel consultant at Travel Creates Memories.
You may not need a travel agent, but…
You don’t need to plan your next trip with an advisor, experts say. A weekend trip to visit relatives or even a week at the beach may not require the expertise of a travel professional. And the money is always there: Many consultants charge booking fees, and if you know exactly what you want, you can probably book the trip yourself online and save a few bucks.
There is also the inherent conflict of interest in the travel agency model. Your advisor may charge a booking fee and also receive a commission from the cruise line or hotel. Additionally, travel agents sometimes receive other incentives to book specific cruise lines, resorts, or tours. This leads to the inevitable question of where the loyalties lie. Only the best travel agents can strike a delicate balance between serving their customers and earning a commission.
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However, with complex itineraries, it is difficult to achieve the efficiency of a travel consultant.
“You can book your trip, find out about COVID regulations, cancel and reschedule your plans if necessary, and apply for travel insurance all on your own,” says Betsy Ball, co-founder of Euro Travel Coach, a travel consultant specializing in European itineraries . “But aren’t there other things you’d rather be doing?”