The following is an open letter from Joseph A. Watters, President of Crystal Cruises to newspaper and magazine travel editors:
Dear Travel Editor,
"Why should I use a travel agent?" As a veteran travel executive, that's a question I'm often asked. Today, with the overwhelming number of sources for travel information (the Internet, cable television, newspapers, magazines, guidebooks, etc.), it's no wonder the consumer is confused. Yet that's precisely why the services of a professional travel consultant are more valuable than ever.
In January, the television news magazine, 20/20, reported the results of a test in which travel agents beat consumers at uncovering the best airfares. However, it is much more than the "lowest fare" that provides the compelling argument for a good travel agent.
The best thing an agent can do is to match up a traveler with the vacation that's right for them. The professional travel consultant builds relationships with their clients to learn their interests and lifestyles, as well as their dispositions.
Below is a list of some of the important services, which are either provided free or for a nominal charge, by travel agents:
1. Distilling the product information: Through an on-going and time-consuming process of familiarization, continuing education and customer feedback, the agent becomes a travel expert.
2. Investigating and supplying competitive information: No single supplier is going to advise a consumer that a better route or a better fare is available on a competing carrier.
3. Staying abreast of the most current and timely promotions: Via daily faxes, agent-only e-mail transmissions, and their relationships with their district sales managers, agents are obtaining the most current promotional information.
4. Analyzing the current promotions: The cheapest is not always the best.
5. Clarifying the fine print, such as cancellation penalties and restrictions: Again, the benefits of a professional's experience can save a traveler money . . . and headaches.
6. Making recommendations for travel-related options: Travel agents share the experience and knowledge they accumulate about a variety of travel topics – from where to eat, where to shop and what to pack.
7. Simplifying the research and subsequent transaction: Like a personal shopper, agents can provide one-stop shopping for travelers who require air arrangements, rental cars, cruise accommodations and hotel stays – with suggestions that are in the best interest of the client, not the supplier.
8. Enhancing the trip with value-added benefits and amenities: Agents can add to the client's experience by sending a bottle of wine, providing a special land package, a specific escort or other customer amenities.
9. Using their clout to obtain the best possible in seemingly impossible situations: Whether it's airline seats, hotel rooms or cruise space, the travel agent has more buying power than the consumer.
10. Getting problems resolved: The agent serves as the consumer's advocate in the event something inadvertently goes wrong.
The use of outside service providers for many transactions, such as tax preparation, isn't questioned. Similarly, if one is going to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars, as well as a good chunk of valuable leisure time, it makes great sense to use a professional.
I hope you'll consider sharing this information in future consumer interest columns.
JOSEPH A. WATTERS
By Ed Perkins
Tribune Media Services
Published October 22, 2006
Every week, I receive at least one or two e-mail questions that I can best answer by saying, "See a travel agent." Although I defer to nobody in my enthusiasm for the Internet as a source of travel information and as a booking tool, there are times when many of you would be better off using a travel agent--especially if your trip is complicated.
First, let's clarify what I mean by travel agent. Theoretically, any intermediary that sells travel to the public is a travel agency. Online giants Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity are travel agencies, as are Hotwire and Priceline.
But here, I'm not talking about those outfits; I'm talking about local retail offices staffed with real agents with whom you can sit down and have real conversations. And the personalized service these agents can give you is often worth far more than the modest fees they charge. Here's why:
Good deals. Get over the idea of great online deals that somehow travel agents can't get: Travel agents can get anything you can get for yourself. But they also have sources the typical consumer doesn't: deals limited to computer reservation systems (CRS) that the public doesn't access; cruise and tour deals distributed directly to agencies or through their consortiums; and (often) the best consolidator airfares.
Booking savvy. Online sites are a snap for buying simple trips, but online booking of complicated trips can be--well--complicated, and your chances of missing out on the best deals increase. On multi-stop overseas air trips, for example, a savvy travel agent knows booking tricks that can sometimes cut your costs by a lot. Similarly, an agent may well be able to cut your hotel bill by throwing in a half-day sightseeing trip and booking you as a tour package.
Upgrades. If you buy cheap online, you get cheap. But even when you buy cheap, a good cruise agent can sometimes score a one- or two-level cabin upgrade. Similarly, when you select the bottom-end "from" hotel on a tour package, a good agent can sometimes get you upgraded to a better property.
Travel counsel. Good travel agents know destinations, they know deals available from their home areas, and they can draw out from clients what they really want to do.
Efficiency. Online booking can take lots of time. I do this stuff for a living, and I still find it sometimes takes two or three hours to zero-in on the best option for a given trip. There's a reason so many businesses use travel agencies: If you value your time, a 10-minute call to an agent will get you what you'd take hours to find.
Help in a pinch. When something misfires on your trip, there's no substitute for having your travel agent working on a solution while everyone else in your predicament is waiting in line for an airline or hotel to find a fix. Serious difficulties don't hit you often, but when they do, an agent is your best ally.
Readers often ask, "How do I find a good travel agent?" My answer is, "The same way you find any other good professional: word of mouth." A travel agent is a professional, just like your stockbroker, dentist or plumber, and the best way to find one is through other satisfied clients.
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune