Subject: Re: Finding a good travel agent

>>>>>Quite a while ago (maybe it was on travel-l), Sally Watkins posted a wonderful letter full of advice about what to look for and what to ask in finding a good travel agent. Sally, could you possibly post that again?

OK, here 'tis:

Note: This write-up uses her when referring to agents/consultants, as most front-line agents these days are female.

What can a Travel Agent/Consultant do for you? In a nutshell, a good one can usually add value to your trip. Just what value depends on what is most valued by the client: is it best price? is it desired ambience? is it best logistics? is it most workable schedule with children or senior citizens in tow? is it best champage on a beer budget lodging? is it best location for being able to walk to things? is it timesavings in getting it all booked? is it the peace of mind of knowing the things booked are known entities rather than just something on a webpage or in a book? is it the security of knowing you aren't sending your deposit money to a fly-by-night operation? is it help in evaluating the overwhelming volume of information available on the internet?

And most importantly for some people, using a travel agent means you have a real live person to call - a person who knows you, values your business and wants to be helpful to you - if problems arise, if you need to make a change, if you have an emergency while traveling and need to get home. Plus you have someone who will call you if your flight schedule changes before you go. You aren't just on you own for these have a back-up, and it's someone who knows who you are!

The terms travel agent and travel consultant are generally used interchangeably, by both people in the profession and outside of it. But I think there's a distinction, and it helps to know which you want at any given time. In my mind, a good travel agent is someone who can make an airline computer system such as SABRE turn flips. She rarely just takes the answer the computer gives her, doing so only if it has come up with a really super deal. Instead, she asks the question another way in terms of what she asks the computer to do or think; she puts in variables; she thinks creatively about how else to get what she wants...mixing different dates/times/destinations/routings/airports/airlines and combinations of airlines/she asks other agents in the office if they have ideas. She takes it as a personal challenge to find the best of whatever the client needs, be that lowest price or best schedule or easiest itinerary or combination of those. Her skills stay honed because she does so much of this five days a week. As things have evolved in the last few years, a good agent will also have for international trips a stable of consolidators/discounters that she has found reliable and able to offer good prices, and she will check those for clients. (Most often, a good Travel Agent has a favorite inside-agent at those consolidator/discounter agencies, too...someone she has found to be able to do with that entity's computer equipment what she knows she can do with hers.)

Such Travel Agents are usually also very good at doing hotels or rental cars or tours or packages, or anything else that will come up in that computer. Note that I said in that computer....remember that for later. Many of these folks evolve into being corporate/business agents....they spend all their time finding the best fares/schedules for business clients of the agency -- and you'd better believe those companies want things done rapidly, efficiently and RIGHT. Typically, corporate agents are smart, fast, constantly in motion, never getting flustered no matter how many times Traveler X needs to change his flights in one day, or how many flights get cancelled by the airline for Traveler Z.

What I just described are the sort of agents you want when pretty much all you need is to find the best airfare that's out there to go to Europe or anywhere else. Obviously, agents dedicated to a particular corporation's business, or to handling travel for several businesses and nothing else, are not available to you. But some of the hybrids will be: agents who handle lots of corporate travel but also handle individual travelers looking for air and maybe a few othercomputer-related things. But I'm still talking travel agents here, remember. Some of these folks often do not choose to attend many of the in service education seminars and workshops that come to town, and do not generally subscribe to the many travel-industry publications. That is because for what they do, there's really no reason for those things: they just need to know how to make that computer turn flips, remember? And that's not taught at trade seminars. It is, however, learned from other agents who share the information, and is a great reason for new hires to come into an agency...someone who has been somewhere else where they did things differently; it's fun to watch how eagerly the new ones and the old ones trade information about quick keys and formats. I'm really generalizing here, but in my experience the majority of what we are calling travel agents in this narrative clear their desk and depart at 5:30 PM, not to think about travel again until reporting to work the next day...though that's not always true at busy seasons, or course.

Now: Travel Consultant. This is someone who lives and breathes travel a goodly part of every single day. She may or may not be a computer whiz; I know some fabulous ones, but some like me don't operate the airline computer systems at all....we rely on those really smart and fast travel agents in the office to find what we need for our clients - and we use a tried-and-true stable of consolidators. Most Travel Consultants attend many seminars and other continuing education type programs that are available, eagerly gathering up new publications and ideas, learning about new properties that have opened, new airline routes that will be announced, and generally staying as on top of things going on in the industry as possible. They usually subscribe to several industry publications that arrive weekly or bi-weekly, as well as regular publications such as National Georgraphic Traveler, Country Inns, Conde Nast Traveler. The longer one is in the business, the more subscriptions seem to get added, such as Paris Notes, Easy Escapes, France Today and many on-line newsletters. Her personal library of travel books and maps grows; the bookmarked subjects in both home and office computers grow; and the Travel Consultant is keenly interested in seeing that the agency has the most recent editions of the best industry publications, such as the STAR Guide or Weissman Report. A Travel Consultant is usually widely traveled, both on personal trips and industry educational trips, and continues to travel. Every trip becomes a way to garner new information and have new experiences that can be utilized on the behalf of the Consultant's clients. A good Consultant will also network like crazy, with agents in her own town and with those she meets on industry trips...picking their brains for new information.

A Travel Consultant will spend time interviewing new clients who make their way to her. Questions will involve what type of trips the client has taken before and enjoyed/hated, family interests when traveling, how frequently/infrequently they like to change overnight locations when on a trip, whether the decor and amenities of a hotel room are of high or low importance, whether they like to pre-plan everything or leave some open nights, whether they need/want help carrying baggage or plan to travel light and are able to carry it all, whether they like to or have driven in other countries, whether automatic transmission car is important, ages of any children traveling and how much or little those children have traveled, what expectations the client has for a trip, whether the client wants the consultant to simply follow up on things clients suggests or make suggestions to client or a combinantion of those things...and perhaps most important -- what's the budget.

Then a Travel Consultant does her thing, which is to use the myriad resources (not just computer resources and a hotel index, remember) she has available to put together the trip for the client, providing things the client wants, such as train schedules and ticket prices, restaurant tips, walking tour information, how to get to the hotel from the airport, good daytrips, the best local bakery or gelato place, private tour guides if desired, museum suggestions and tips. And one of the primary resources used is the Consultant's head, which is the repository of not only a great deal of travel she has done herself, but of de-briefing scores of clients after their trips to find out what new things, great things, awful things, they have to report.

What I have described are the two extremes in the travel business: Travel Agent and Travel Consultant. More commonly you will find that it's all a continuium, and while some agents may be 90% agent and 10% consultant, others will be the reverse, and still others may be 50-50. YOU just need to be clear what you are looking for, and then ask questions until you know you've found that species. Don't be shy about interviewing travel agency personnel, or about asking to meet the manager, telling her what you want, and asking who on her staff she recommends. Then TALK to that person. If things don't click, then move on and try elsewhere.

These days, both Travel Agents and Consultants more than likely will charge you a fee for their services. That is due to the much publicized cutting (by 50%) and then capping/limiting the amount of, the commission airlines, hotels, etc. traditionally paid to travel agencies. Agencies have taken a terrific hit in the last five years, and many, many have had to close. The rest have had to re-align, and instead of being simply an outlet through which you could purchase travel, they have become a source able to add value to one's travel purchaes, for which the client is willing to pay a fee. Ticketing fees typically range from $ 10-20, consulting fees from $ 50-75 to $ 100-150, and up.

One way to find a good travel agent/consultant is to go to, the website for the Institute of Certified Travel Agents. The Institute of Certified Travel Agents (ICTA) is an international nonprofit organization founded in 1964 to enhance the quality of professional practice in the travel industry through education, testing and certification. Click on the wording that says Show me the Certified Travel Agents in My Community, and you will be able to find CTC's or CTA's in your town, even in your specific zipcode.

Sally Watkins