Many thanks to consumer advocate and passionate traveler Christopher Elliott for this very helpful post.
Planning a trip after the pandemic? Maybe it’s time to call a professional. A competent travel advisor can help you navigate the strange new world of airlines, hotels and rental cars. Travel is radically and almost unrecognizably different after the COVID-19 pandemic. That is why you might want a travel agent for your next trip.
A travel expert can handle any emergency that may arise when you’re on the road — everything from a missed flight connection to a hotel that closes unexpectedly. But remember, an online travel “agency” is not the same as a travel agent.
“Try dealing with an online travel site at 10 p.m. when your connecting flight gets canceled while you are in flight,” says consumer expert Chip Bell. “Travel sites are filled with data and information; travel agents are filled with wisdom and ingenuity.”
It’s a discovery a lot of travelers made at the start of the pandemic
“As travel restrictions were just starting around the globe, many of our advisors were receiving phone calls and emails from travelers who had booked with online companies and were not getting a response from them,” says Roger Block, president of Travel Leaders Network. “Yet our advisors were answering the phones and returning emails. So our advisors helped travelers who were not even clients get their trips rescheduled or get them on flights back home.”
What travel advisors can do for you
Why might you want a travel agent for your post-pandemic trip? Here are 10 things a travel advisor can do for you:
- Prepare you for the travel experience
- Understand where you’re going
- Screen every travel company
- Hold your hand
- Help you navigate the rules of travel
- Be available to you 24/7
- Leverage insider contacts to help you have a smoother trip
- Go the extra mile to get you home
- Solve your problems
- Help you secure a no-hassle refund if necessary
“A travel advisor is one of the best tools that travelers can use in a post-pandemic time,” says Clark Mitchell, a travel agent with Strong Travel Services. “As the world reopens, a well-connected advisor can save the average do-it-yourselfer not only money but time.”
Travel agents can prepare you for the travel experience
Travel companies are so eager for you to book another trip that they will promise you the world. From squeaky-clean cabins to “touchless” check-ins, travel companies are cranking up the hyperbole.
An experienced travel advisor can help you cut through the PR, says Mimi Lichtenstein, founder of Virtuoso-affiliated Truvay Travel. She recalls one client who wanted to go on a 10th-anniversary golf trip to Ireland in June. “I knew that was unrealistic,” she says. So he tried to postpone it to September. “Very unlikely,” she says. So they settled on an 11th anniversary trip in 2021.
“That’s how I work,” says Lichtenstein. “For me, it’s about long term relationships.”
Travel agents understand where you’re going
If you’re traveling somewhere, chances are there’s a travel professional who knows the area well. “The world is not going to open up all at once,” says Sherry Sutton, the vice president of marketing at Travel Insured International. “Most travel advisors spend significant time researching and becoming experts on specific destinations. Their detailed knowledge of countries, cities and processes will be critical for anyone looking to travel while restrictions are still in place.”
Travel agents screen every travel company
Another reason you might want a travel agent: Your product will be thoroughly vetted. That’s particularly true if you’re working with an agent affiliated with a buying consortium like Virtuoso.
“You can be assured the products and services we are recommending are top quality,” says Jennifer De Luca, owner of Luxury Adventure Travel. “Our affiliation with Virtuoso means that they stringently vet all products or services we recommend; the path to becoming a Virtuoso approved supplier is very hard. Our travelers are assured that we are offering only the best of the best.”
Travel agents can hold your hand
Even the most experienced — and fearless — travelers may be worried about taking the next trip while the coronavirus is still making the rounds. “We’ve received more new client requests from travelers who are concerned about navigating travel during and after the pandemic,” says Hilary Stockton, CEO of TravelSort. An experienced travel agent can soothe those worries by offering sound advice on destinations, travel requirements, quarantine measures in place, and safety. “Also, we know which vendors have been reliable at refunding clients — and which have resisted providing cash refunds and tried to foist future credits on travelers.”
Travel agents help you navigate the rules of travel
And that includes some of the more arcane rules and restrictions on your airline ticket or hotel reservation. “I’ve been asked questions on insurance, cancellation, and refund policies more than ever,” says Andrea Norfolk, owner of Shoreline Destinations. “Insurance and cancellation policies used to be an afterthought for many travelers. Our clients have shifted their focus from the bottom line cost of a trip to ensuring they are protected if they need to cancel or change their trip dates.” A competent travel adviser is an expert on the rules and can help you navigate the ins and outs of post-coronavirus travel.
Travel agents are here for you 24/7
You also need a travel agent because when you have one, you’re not traveling alone. A travel advisor is always there for you. And when your agent isn’t working, there’s almost always a 24/7 service number you can call. “That is one of the things that really distinguishes a travel professional from the internet,” says David Harris, CEO of Ensemble. “Whether it’s a flight cancellation, problems at a hotel, or unexpected illness, a travel professional can quickly jump in and assess the situation and then navigate all the roadblocks to find a solution. And that has never been more apparent than during this current crisis.”
Travel agents advocate for you
Travel advisors don’t just make bookings; they advocate for you. And now more than ever. “We are an advocate for our clients,” says Shelley Rempe, an agent for Concierge Travel. “In a sense, a travel agent is an insurance policy. We are also a human that you can actually talk to in order to have your needs met. We walk with you until you return home to ensure a successful trip.”
Travel agents leverage insider contacts to help you have a smoother trip
A competent travel advisor knows everyone. “We have relationships with hotel general managers to make sure our clients receive the best rooms and all the small details are taken care of,” says Lia Batkin, co-founder of In-the-Know-Experiences. Agents can work around cancellation policies to get a refund if your plans change — or get you a room upgrade.
Travel agents go the extra mile to get you home
Travel advisors are offering services that go above and beyond at a time like this. For example, Jack Ezon’s agency, EMBARK Beyond, offers full risk management services to corporate clients. It allows company directors to instantly identify where all of their travelers are while also providing instantaneous alerts from around the world. “We also send a dedicated, trained camp counselor to escort families traveling together and execute on a daily camp program while setting up parents with a remote office to continue working in any destination across the Americas,” he says.
Travel agents are problem solvers
That’s never been more important than now. Will another airline go bankrupt? When is the next cruise line going under? “We’re problem solvers,” says Michael Johnson, executive vice president of Travel Edge. “The advisor’s ability to listen and to lead with empathy is unmatched by the transactional nature of online booking platforms. We firmly believe that people make travel better.” His agency has evacuated clients from places that seemed impossible, including chartering an aircraft and negotiating with a closed airport to reopen so that the aircraft could land.
Travel agents can help you get a no-hassle refund if necessary
You also need a travel agent because the best agents pay attention to the details. “It has never been a transaction for us,” says Sangeeta Sadarangani, CEO of Crossing Travel. “In the COVID situation, our expertise and attention to detail is of even more value. We took the pain of uncertainty from them by taking care of all their cancellations swiftly and putting their refund amount back in their bank.” That’s right, a good agent can make sure that you get your money back. No need to spend hours on hold with your airline, hoping to reach someone. The advisor has this covered.
How a travel agent saved me
I was stranded in France for two months during the pandemic. When the time came to get back to the United States, I faced an almost impossible problem: Flights back to the States were expensive and the routings were inconvenient and dangerous. (A one-day layover at JFK? No way!)
I called my travel agent at Valerie Wilson Travel, who patiently listened to my concerns and quickly found the best routing home — a more direct flight from Nice to Los Angeles via Paris. But she also gave me the best advice ever, which was to check my Medjet membership to see if I was covered for an evacuation. But that’s another story.
“Peace of mind is the biggest thing we can offer,” says Kim Gahm, an agent with Travel and Transport. “We are constantly monitoring our clients’ trips and reaching out to them with updates. We have resources and contacts that you won’t find when booking your vacation online, not to mention the fact that our clients can reach us via phone or email.”
That’s true. At a time like this, you want to have access to a real person 24/7 who knows the business inside out, can help you navigate a cancellation or another outbreak, and has the best connections. That’s why you need a travel agent for your post-pandemic trip.
Christopher Elliott is an author, consumer advocate, and journalist who recently made his way back to the U.S. after having been stranded with his family in Europe at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. For help with consumer problems, including getting refunds for trips you can’t take, reach out to him at email@example.com. This post first appeared in his weekly newsletter, Elliott’s E-mail.