I had four good reasons to panic as our flight neared touchdown in San Jose, Costa Rica.
I’m not afraid to fly. My four reasons were seated behind us wearing ear buds. Dragged out of bed before dawn, the three teens and a tweener had been promised a memorable blended-family vacation, and I was secretly sweating the wisdom of letting a travel agent I’d never met plan every hour of our lives for the next five days.
What if no one greeted us at the airport? What if our hotels were dumps? What if the eagerly anticipated zip-line experience was actually two guys holding up a clothesline?
A travel snob, I’ve thrilled at landing deals on the Web, finding out-of-the-way gems and planning (or emphatically not planning) my vacation days. I love the serendipity of making the wrong turn that turns completely right.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
But with kid-sized expectations, chance was best left at home this time. So I took the advice of a friend and made a call.
May I tell you how much we all loved our trip to Costa Rica last summer? May I tell you how I, a traveler who previously would never let anyone take control of my trips, am a changed woman?
The airport greeter was smiling, the hotels were gorgeous. The drivers were friendly and prompt, the tour guides knowledgeable and enthusiastic. We photographed playful monkeys, neon-colored birds and creepy crawlers bigger than our palms (at an insect garden, not on our hotel room floor).
And zip lining was incredible.
This, I realized, is what an experienced travel agent can, and did, pull off.
Remember travel agents? Turns out they never went away. They just waited for us to get over our love affair with DIY travel.
“A lot of people love playing travel agent until it blows up on them,” said Brian Nystedt, CEO and co-owner of Minneapolis-based New Departures, which this year is marking 20 years of business.
“Everybody started going to places like Expedia and Travelocity,” he said. “But the more you travel, the more you realize you need help.” A client who had given up on booking his own trips once told him, “I need a man with a sign.”
Over the past few years, growing numbers of travelers have wanted a person holding a sign that displays their name at some far-flung airport.
Travel-marketing agency MMGY Global’s annual report noted that 18 percent of American travelers used a travel agent in 2014, a 50 percent jump from the 12 percent who used one a year earlier. Travel agency bookings now account for a third of the $284 billion U.S. travel market, according to travel research firm PhoCusWright.
The trend is predicted to continue, fueled in part by millennials. Twenty-eight percent of people 33 and under used travel agents in 2013, more than any other age group, according to Julie Tkach, chair of the Hospitality Management department at Northwood University in Midland, Michigan.
Many things are driving the increase: information overload, screw-ups that we can’t fix on our own, lack of time to plan. But the biggest driver is a hunger for the human connection.
“All the information on the Internet cannot be 100 percent true all the time,” Tkach said.
“People now are looking for face-to-face, hold-my-hand, walk-me-through-it travel planning,” she said.
Offering advice and finding deals remain top priorities for travel agents. They know the best time to buy airline tickets and how to find low fares. They’ll steer you away from that Parisian hotel room because they know it overlooks the dumpsters.
Nystedt’s team takes tours two or three times a year to check out everything from airlines and cruise ships to restaurants and tchotchke shops.
“We know more than just which hotel,” he said. “We know which rooms to book in those hotels.”
When things go wrong — and they can, no matter who does the booking — travel agents offer another benefit: their 800 number, available 24/7.
To meet clients’ expectations, agents have become more flexible. Many will work with people who want to use credit card miles, and will help travelers with the land portion of a trip if they have already booked flights, or vice versa. Their offerings vary from completely planned itineraries, such as ours in Costa Rica, to more free-flowing vacations.
Of course, there are caveats to using a travel agent. Trips might feel cookie-cutterish. Less professional agents may be more interested in earning a perk, like a chance to win a free car for bookings at a certain resort, than getting clients in the place that’s right for them. And many charge service fees.
In their heyday about 25 years ago, travel agents thrived on commissions paid by airlines. But those commissions began to shrink, from 12 percent to 10 percent to nothing at all.
“That threw a lot of travel agents out of business,” said Christopher Elliott, a consumer advocate who writes the Travel Troubleshooter column. Agents who held on benefited from loyal customer bases and deep travel experience. Many shifted their focus to cruises, which continued to pay commissions.
To fill the growing void, in came what Elliott calls “travel vending machines,” with names like Priceline, Expedia and Orbitz. Personal service took a back seat to speed and deals.
Few would disagree that the time savings and experience of a travel agent are worth a price, but often, there isn’t one, even if they charge a fee. They can find better deals, and because of their purchasing power, can land free upgrades and amenities.
“They’re out there looking for the best deals, and connecting clients to services that offer overall value so that they’ll come back,” said Tkach, the hospitality professor.
Our family certainly felt that we got more than our money’s worth.
After numerous back-and-forth exchanges, via email and phone, with New Departures agent Judy Minick, our detailed itinerary was set, down to our breakfast spots, daily meeting points and flowery descriptions of what was ahead.
We took in hummingbirds, hikes, volcanoes and breathtaking views from above the cloud forest.
And all six of us buckled into harnesses on a rainy afternoon and tore down 11 platforms to the final zip-line landing, eager for hot cocoa after the best experience ever.
Even our teenagers agreed.