Selecting a Travel Agent

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VoR61

Jan 6, 2015
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My thanks to Neil Maley for his review and expert feedback

A recent thread cause me to wonder "Just how hard is it to find a reliable travel agent?". So I set about researching and wanted to offer my thoughts. But first a disclaimer: I am not a "travel insider".

These are the sources I found:
https://www.smartertravel.com/find-right-travel-agent/
https://www.elliott.org/frequently-asked-questions-about-booking-travel/#whenagent

The following reflect the information I discovered, as well as my own experience and preferences. Like the Smarter Travel author, the question to be answered is: “Good Travel Agent: what is this elusive creature?"

24-hour assistance
When you are out of country and/or in unfamiliar territory, this can be invaluable. Cases abound here of travelers stuck in a hotel or at an airport who can't reach anyone who can help. Hours in vain are spent on the phone. A travel agent can advocate quickly and efficiently on your behalf with one phone call from you.
Experience/Expertise
Experience is preferable, but expertise can be otherwise obtained. Look for agents who volunteer the source for their recommendations.
Understands my request
For me, this is critical. If I say "I want A, B, and C" and the agent presents me with A, D, and C, I make a note of it and might eliminate the agent, especially if the item in question was non-negotiable.
Fails to find a solution
This happened with my first cruise and I found one within 5 minutes after being told none existed. If this happens to you, it should be a red flag.
Responds well to changes
Right away, I have to limit that to "reasonable changes", both in number and degree. But I do look for and expect flexibility.
Tells you everything you need to know
This is not "Do I need a Passport/Visa?", but when and where to check for the applicable travel information. And critical for me is that an agent tells me about the "gotchas".

Traveler Responsibility
I would be remiss if I did not address our responsibilities as travelers to the agent-client interaction, so we can help the prospective agent locate the best options:

Flexible airport locations
Flexible travel dates/times
Specify the must-haves, want-tos, and don't cares​

Affiliations, Accreditations, and Memberships
AAA or American Express logo
Accredited Cruise Counselor (ACC), Master Cruise Counselor (MCC), and Elite Cruise Counselor (ECC).
American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA)
Certified Travel Associate (CTA) which doesn’t require any previous experience, OR the Certified Travel Counselor (CTC) for agents with at least five years of experience
Destination Specialists (DS) and Lifestyle Specialists (LS)
Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality
The Travel Institute
 
Mar 17, 2017
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Thanks for this, especially the “understands my requests” part. That was the most frustrating part of my last experience with a travel agent! I have a question regarding in person or online/phone travel agent.

In my small area, most travel agents with those certifications are Disney/Caribbean/Cruise experts. I would never need this type of expertise. I would want help with Europe/Africa/Iceland etc kind of trip. Is it more important to just have someone certified/accredited that you can meet face-to-face? Or better to go with someone with specific destination experience, even if you can only speak over the phone? I’d prefer to have someone I could meet with but it doesn‘t seem likely in my area.
 

Neil Maley

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Dec 27, 2014
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www.promalvacations.com
Face to face doesn’t matter. You can speak over the phone to an agent. Have a list of questions to ask about their expertise. Have they been there? What was their experience? How many people have the booked to the destination?

ASTA has a website called Travelsense.org. You can search for an agent that specializes in the areas you are interested in.
 

VoR61

Jan 6, 2015
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the United States
First, I am no expert about Travel Agents. I simply posted what makes sense to me from research and experience.

Face-to-face will always "feel" better, but it can work both ways. Ultimately, you need to get a sense of two things, I think: competence and integrity.

You can address the first by comparing their results against what you can glean from sites like Trip Advisor. Try to ascertain the wisdom of their recommendations. Part of this will be "understanding my requests", and also how long they take to respond.

The second is more subtle, I think. Do they meet the time frames they give you? Do they offer evidence to support their suggestions? What options to they give for payment? And so on . . .

I agree with Neil completely, and will add that often times "remote" agents will have the expertise you seek where local agents may not, I would search the BBB, and forums for reviews/opinions of an agent.

I will use the above mentioned scenario to illustrate:

What I outlined was a cruise to Alaska departing from either Seattle or Vancouver the week of or before Memorial Day. I wanted ("must =-haves") to visit Juneau, Skagway, and Glacier Bay. No other parameters were specified.

I recall being told the agent would respond within a week. She did, but as I indicated previously, found nothing. My expectation was for something like:
  • I found 2 (or 3 or 4) cruises that fit your needs
  • The dates and route for each
  • The cost for each
  • The need to check passport/visa requirements
  • What (and this is an important indicator) the agent likes or dislikes about each one
Pretty simple in my opinion. This agent made it easy to cross her off my list, but others may not. Keep in mind that, unless/until you do business with them, they are fitting you into their workload so you are looking for subtle indicators, which for me come primarily in the way they communicate. They should easily volunteer information, and send out signals that they really want to help you vs. just take your business . . .
 
Jun 24, 2019
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Our travel agent doesn't live in the same state as us. But for her coming to Southern California once to meet up with her sister, we would never have met face to face, on that one occasion. We connected with her originally as her agency ran the cruise desk for American Airlines.

Recently, a cruise we were booked on was cancelled at the last minute--literally. We were scheduled to fly out at 9:00 p.m. and the cruise was cancelled at 3:00 p.m. (Ship ran aground.) I was already in Los Angeles with the luggage, and my wife was an hour away from getting a ride to LAX. Later that night, with her assistance, we booked a replacement cruise and replacement flights. She and her agency then went to bat for us with the cruise line to get them to honor their promise as to the application of a credit the cruise line offered. When she wasn't available, other people at the agency were on it, and had read the notes before getting on the call. And, of course, once at the dock in Ft. Lauderdale, the cruise line had no idea who were were because we were not listed with security, we had a confusing listing with check-in and tours, we were not listed with housekeeping (our steward thought we were stowaways), and we we were not listed with the cruise line frequent cruiser program, and thus excluded from a couple of events (where one can drink for free.) Our agent and her staff were on the phone multiple times with the cruise line to get this straightened out.

Our prior agent was with an agency, well, I'll only use initials. AAA. His office was an easy 15 minute drive, and we could meet with him face-to-face. A trip we booked in Europe with one of the big packagers was cancelled at 61 days out as they only had 29 guests and 30 was their minimum. As our air arrangements had already been booked and vacation plans been set with our jobs, the agency was totally unable to find any replacement tour (and seemed disinterested), so we went to Europe on our own, and managed to spend less money doing more things. The tour company initially refunded 50%, as if we had cancelled, and I had to argue with the travel agent that it was his responsibility to get us a full refund. (The tour company refused to talk with us, saying they would only talk with the agent.) When we returned from Europe, we had the balance of the refund, less a cancellation "fee" of $100 charged by the packager. Once again, our agent had done nothing to get us a full refund even though we had been short-changed. When calls to the agent went unanswered, I went to his office on a Saturday and essentially sat in until they solved the problem, and put it in writing. In this instance, the agency, faced with a late cancellation by the operator, should have gotten us a full refund the next day, rather than stretching the issue over nearly three months. And they should have been on top of it.

Needless to say, we've given our existing agent more business. We never went pack to the prior agent or used that firm's travel services again.
 

jsn55

Verified Member
Dec 26, 2014
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Funny, SoCalTraveller, my only experience after I lost my TA was with AAA in Cupertino. We booked a cruise, it cost lots, and she called me one day to see when I was going to come and pick up the docs. She seemed quite miffed that I expected her to deliver them ... it was at least a 15-minute ride. When I reviewed the docs, there were several glaring errors ... she hadn't even looked at them. I'm glad you found a good TA. And for the record, meeting face to face is not a criteria when it comes to finding a good TA.
 
Jun 24, 2019
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Our first travel agent delivered no documents for our honeymoon, just tickets to New York, and told us to simply show up at the gate at JFK and someone would be there to hand us tickets overseas, hotel arrangements, tour vouchers, etc. And they put that silliness in writing to us. When we pressed the day before we left town, they finally got their act together and delivered a thick package of documents. Needless to say, we did not use them again, but our insurance agent did (he's still our agent) for his honeymoon shortly after ours, and he sued her successfully after he got back for all of her foul ups.
 
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Feb 28, 2018
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We discovered that the AAA in No. California ( at least at the three offices near us) does not offer many of the services that the on-line agencies provide: substantial cruise discounts and free amenities, 7 day-24 hour emergency help for cruiers, information about getting to/from the cruise pier if not on cruiseline air and bus transport). Their agents sell the cruise tickets, help select a cabin , arrange dining time, and everything else is in the hands of the cruise line. They do NOT verify anything on the documents ( which go to the AAA office directly. We discovered an outstanding online ( and telephone ) agency in Texas that for two years has done everything the AAA does not, including offering outstanding travel insurance through Generali. Once the cruise is booked and paid for at the AAA, service ends.
 
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jsn55

Verified Member
Dec 26, 2014
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The more time I spend on this forum, the more convinced I am that AAA needs to clean up their act when it comes to being a travel agent. The scenario you describe is just ridiculous. Your online agency VTG ... is that Vacations to Go? They have been around a long time and I've always had a good opinion of them based on only one cruise they booked for me years ago. I've never heard a negative word about them. And they are fabulous for doing the research needed to pick a cruise and obtaining the best deal.
 
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