It used to be that when you went somewhere, you talked to a travel agent and they set it up for you. A day later they would messenger over, or you’d go pick up, a folder of your tickets and various documents. They were paid a commission by the vendors they booked with (which you chose or approved) and you paid nothing. Internet travel booking companies changed all that — mostly you did your own travel arranging, almost purely electronically, never speaking to anyone, and travel vendors cut off most payments to travel agents. And if you did use one, they charged you! Not much, but enough to make people think they were saving money by doing it themselves.
Which technically you are, on the surface and as long as nothing goes wrong. I mean, what have you ever had go wrong while traveling?
In 2017 travel agents made a comeback and their business grew healthily. Greatly due to two factors: people often found things went wrong and it was a giant hassle to fix them themselves, and the exponentially booming trend for travelers, especially higher end, to want unique experiences, often really immersive, and therefore wanting to tap into the expertise of travel professionals.
Why is someone better off using a travel agency than attempting to book their itinerary themselves, we asked Paul Tumpowsky, CEO of luxury boutique agency Skylark?
“Peace of mind—when you’re in a place that’s unfamiliar, that’s priceless. Mass market opinion aggregators rarely help anyone deciding which luxury property is really worth it,” he says. “Who has the time to read every top ten list and online review to find the best dim sum in Hong Kong?
“We take care of finding the best flight and hotel rate, but we also take care of the details you hadn’t thought of—like making sure you hike Machu Picchu in the right order so you avoid altitude sickness, or making sure you have the special letter and correct documentation to take your kids to Argentina if only one parent is going on the trip.”
Tumpowsky also plays the crisis card. “If you call us in the middle of the night, we won’t customize a trip to Florence you’re thinking of taking in the spring, but we can get you an emergency flight home from Luang Prabang. We know not everything goes to plan — people get sick, luggage is lost, emergencies happen. When they do, you won’t have to wait on hold for hours to change your flight, we’re here for you 24/7.”
A travel agent knows about special experiences the traveler doesn’t, and might not be able to discover by research, or access if they do discover it. So the distinction becomes less about why make the effort to book a trip when they can do it for you, and more about “tap into our special knowledge and assets”
“I was trying to get a customer to let me book them interesting things to do in Venice, including a tour of the factory where they make masks for Carnival. You get to make them too, and they give you one at the end. That particular client wasn’t that adventurous, but it’s that sort of opportunity that travel agents offer, honing the best options from thousands pitched by vendors. That’s one of the strongest arguments for agents,” says Jeanne Bosse, a veteran travel expert with Remote Lands.
“We know people—not every one of us has been to every corner of the world, but we know someone who lives there,” says Tumpowsky. “Our network is worldwide and ready to recommend that hidden tapas bar off of Calle Sant Domeneq del Cal in Barcelona, or upgrade your room to a personal butler-equipped suite, get you into the Vatican after hours, find you the ideal spot, away from the crowds, to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. We can even arrange dinner with your guide’s family, so you can celebrate the Loi Krathong Festival in Chiang Mai like a local.”
No specialized travel agent we spoke to denied that you don’t need them to book a flight to Cleveland, or to get your corporate rate at the Best Western. (Although… you know… they’ll do it for you, and are not wrong when they say that even that simple excursion can sometimes become a living nightmare — and none of that is meant as disrespect to Cleveland or Best Western.)
Fees are usually around 100 dollars for booking an itinerary you more or less dictate, and a bit more if the agency does special things for you and puts in a lot of extra effort to gain you sometimes extraordinary access.
Is the expense of paying an agent worth it in the end?
“We cover all the bases. We negotiate the best rates with hotels and airlines and pass those savings to you. When we have your room upgraded, or get you daily breakfast, lift tickets or a scuba class thrown in, the value speaks for itself. In the end you can add up how much those things would have cost.” pitches Tumpowsky.
Jeanne Bosse concurs. “Why a traveler would not put those investments in the hands of a professional has never ceased to amaze me. Seasoned knowledge and an enormous amount of time are involved with every facet of a carefully-planned vacation. The internet is not aware of a traveler’s personality, likes and dislikes, medical issues, all their particular travel requirements. Even more comes into play with families.”
But even she admits travel agents are not all perfect. “This is not to canonize travel consultants, I’ve seen some that make me wonder how they stay in business. And, just like any professionals, there are those who are merely mediocre, never really going the extra mile. Fortunately, the majority are professionals, who will go the extra mile, will get out of bed at 3:00 AM to assist a stranded client.
“The service fees most travel consultants charge are more than fair for all the services they provide, considering their expertise. Aren’t memorable travel experiences carefully created year after year worth it?”