TRAVEL AGENTS

Travel agents: Sometimes we could all use some professional help

 

Using a travel agent can add to your vacation's cost, but their help could be invaluable.

FINDING THE RIGHT AGENT

Finding the right agent is like finding a doctor or therapist: He or she may be terrific for someone else, but not for you.

Don't expect an agent to give away his or her time for free. Understand that if he isn't being paid a commission by suppliers, he'll need to charge you. And even if he is getting a commission, you want to feel comfortable that the advice is what's best for you -- not what's most lucrative for him. A fee helps level that field.

In a larger agency, meet first with the leisure manager, suggests Nina Meyer of TraveLeaders in Coral Gables. He or she can chat with you briefly, then steer you toward an agent that's a good fit.

Here are questions you should ask:

• Has the agent been to the place you want to go?

• What other specialized knowledge does he have about that place? (For instance, has he taken any specialization course about it?)

• Has he traveled the way you want to travel (on a cruise, escorted tour, via package or on your own)?

• What professional organizations and affiliations does the agency have, and does the agent have personally?

• How long has he been in the travel agency business? How long has the agency been in business?

• Are most of his clients casual travelers? Families? Sophisticated travelers?

• What is his personal idea of a great trip?

• Is he familiar with the price range at which you want to travel?

• What services does he offer, and what fees does he charge for those services?

• Are there companies he doesn't do business with as a matter of policy?

• Does he get compensation from the service provider, and if so, does he or she get more compensation say, from one cruise line than another? (If he or she is a ''preferred supplier'' with one company and not another, ask what that means.)

• Can the agent's relationship with the supplier earn you benefits, like upgrades or resort credits?

• Can the agent help you after hours if a problem arises, and how will you contact them? (Don't abuse that contact, though. Save it for true crises.)

Communication is key. The agent should ask you a lot of questions, just to be sure you're on the same page. In that conversation, you should share the following information:

• Ages and preferences of your party. Be as specific as possible. (If your children are high energy, savvy older teens, don't assume the standardized children's programs are going to appeal.)

• Financial commitment for the trip.

• Primary goal. (Bonding with family? Visiting every European capital? Rest and relaxation?)

• Style of travel you desire. Be as specific as you can. It helps to talk about your favorite hotels and why you liked them, and explain your least favorite travel experiences, and why they went awry.

• Pace of your trip. Do you hate down time, or do you want to take things slowly?

• Trip ambience. This is a combination of service attitude, decor and programming (music in the lobby, other programs aboard ship or at the resort). Ask about all three.

• Hassle factor. Are you the kind of traveler who will travel two days to get to a remote destination -- if the experience is exactly what you want? Or do you want to stick with direct flights only? Be sure the agent understands your comfort level.

After you chat, if you don't feel comfortable with the agent, don't stick with him. Go back to the leisure manager and explain why the situation felt uncomfortable. Tell the agent it just doesn't feel like a good fit. Or if you're feeling shy, say your plans changed.

No agent wants a dissatisfied client. And no traveler should have a bad vacation because he didn't want to say, ``no thanks.''

-- JANE WOOLDRIDGE

GOT A GREAT AGENT?

Do you have a great travel agent? Tell us their name, contact information and why you like them in the Post A Comment area below. (Please recommend only agents you've actually used -- and not because they're your friend or family.)

AGENTS: LIST YOUR INFO

Attention, travel agents! List your name, contact information and area of specialty in 20 words or less in the Post A Comment area below.

jwooldridge@MiamiHerald.com

If you're booking a simple air ticket or a room at a hotel you know well, you may not need an agent. But for complex itineraries, tours, cruises and expensive trips, an agent can save time, heartache -- and yes, even money.

The trick is finding one that suits your needs.

HOW IT WORKS

First, how do agents get paid these days?

We surveyed several, both locally and nationally. For travel categories where commissions are still paid -- such as cruises and some tours -- most agents will advise you and book your trip for free.

But when a customized itinerary is required, or when no commission will be paid by suppliers, many agents now charge a consultation or booking fee that can range from $25-$250 (though most seem to be $100 or less). If you do book the trip, consultation fees are often applied to the cost of your trip.

Booking simple air tickets through an agent probably isn't worth it; some charge as much as $50 per ticket. But increasingly, travelers are willing to pay $50-$100 to have an agent arrange a free frequent flier ticket that can involve a few hours on the phone, says Nina Meyer, leisure travel manager at TraveLeaders in Coral Gables.

Her advice: Ask about the fee schedule -- before you arrange for the work.

SERVICES

Most agents now specialize in a type of travel or a few destinations, so they can offer truly knowledgeable advice as well as personalized service.

And so they have connections. Those connections might get you into a ''sold-out'' hotel, a hotel upgrade, a discount. And they may get you a cheaper hotel price than you'll find on the Internet.

''A few countries like Italy, Spain, Britain -- they have really lowered their rates to travel agents to promote the destination. We've seen Web-only fares that are more than $40 higher than what I can get as an agent,'' says Gabrielle Conea of Corporate Leisure Specialists in North Miami Beach.

HOW TO FIND ONE

Ask around. Your best recommendation is likely to be from a friend or fellow traveler who approaches vacation much the same way you do.

If your travel tends toward the upscale, try members of Virtuoso (www.virtuoso.com) and Ensemble (www.ensembletravel.com). These are consortia whose agent-members specialize in luxury travel and invest in ongoing education to keep themselves up to date. ''Our agents are very well-traveled themselves,'' says Virtuoso spokeswoman Misty Ewing.

But what about someone traveling at the moderately priced level? Yes, agents will take you on -- but again, you'll need to pay a fee.

How to find them? The American Society of Travel Agents hosts two websites. At www.astanet.com, you can search for an agent near your location. At www.travelsense.org, you can search for an agent by area of expertise.

The Travel Institute, which offers specialization courses for agents, also lists professionals that have qualified with it. Go to www.thetravelinstitute.com; click on ''Info for Travelers'' at the top of the page.

The Cruise Lines Industry Association also lists agents specializing in cruising. Go to www.clia.org; click on ''Take a Cruise'' at the bottom of the page.

(Remember, in an age of e-mail and cellphones, a good agent doesn't need to live nearby.)

And don't forget AAA. Personalized TripTiks maps are just one service. AAA offices have standardized maps, sell guidebooks (and often luggage), can snap your passport photo (free to members) and issue an international driving license. For a fee, they can speed up your passport or visa application, says spokesman Mike Pina.

AAA agents often specialize in cruises. And they offer AAA member-only Disney packages that include a free storytelling experience, special fireworks viewing areas, preferred parking and dining and lodging discounts. And AAA membership includes discounts at many hotels and attractions.

THE RIGHT AGENT

Just because an agent is qualified in a particular subject doesn't mean he or she is the right one for you.

Twice, I've had experiences where I thought I was communicating clearly -- but in hindsight, I wasn't. Once we ended up on an Alaska sailing that was too staid for my Baby Boomer husband and three older teens. The agent had cruised on the ship -- but not on that particular itinerary.

In another case, the agent steered us toward a ship where she could get us upgrades -- not understanding that we valued a smaller ship more than we cared about upgrades on a big ship.

The key, as with any relationship, is communication.

Ask questions, suggests Cheryl Hudak, president of ASTA. And expect the agent to ask you questions as well. If the agent talks more than he or she listens, this might not be the agent for you.

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