Find the Best Travel Agent
The US is one of the
few countries in the world in which travel agents do not
need any formal training or registration. Anyone can call
themselves a travel agent.
Be careful to ensure
you're dealing with a true professional.
3 of a 3 part series - click for Parts
Which is more important -
finding a good travel agency or a good travel agent?
should be able to find a good agent who works for a good agency
(the two often go together!).
The first two articles
discussed how to evaluate travel agencies. This week we talk
about how to evaluate individual travel agents.
A Good Travel Agent is Worth
Her Weight in Gold
I should quickly disclaim
any sexism in the above headline. The simple reality is that -
for whatever reason - probably two thirds or more of all travel
agents are women.
If you use a good travel
agent, you are not limiting your travel purchase options in any
respect. You and your agent can still book and buy anything from
the internet as well as directly from suppliers or tour
operators or travel wholesalers or any other source of travel. Your agent can help you to select the best travel choices for
you and to make fully informed choices.
Indeed, this is probably the
key element of what makes a good travel agent. Too many agencies
and agents promote themselves as offering the cheapest travel
options. But, for most of us, and most of the time, we don't
want simply the cheapest. We don't buy the cheapest car, the
cheapest clothes, or the cheapest food. We want the most
suitable and the best value - options that are seldom also the
cheapest! An agent that has a blinkered approach to always
offering only the cheapest is rarely the agent you want to work
with. Find the agent that will be most sensitive to your needs
and best match them to the travel products available.
There are three main factors
that go to make up the ideal travel agent for you :
1. Ability to Understand You
and Your Needs
A good travel agent will ask
a lot of questions. For example, if you ask an agent something
as seemingly simple as 'I want to travel from Los Angeles to
Hartford on Monday and return on Friday, they should proceed to
ask you a bunch of questions such as :
Do you want nonstop flights
or are you prepared to accept one (or two or more) stopovers
if it will save you money
Which Los Angeles area
airport is most convenient for you to travel from, and which
other ones would you also consider using
Would you be prepared to fly
to an airport close to Hartford and then drive a distance so
as to save money
At what time of day do you
want to leave and arrive
Is there a special event that
you must be present in Hartford to attend, and if so, when
is that event (maybe she will then recommend you change your
travel plans and travel earlier, or choose a flight that is
more reliable for ontime arrivals)
Are you able to travel a day
earlier or later if it will save you money
Are you able to accept a
restricted fare or might you need to buy a more expensive
fare so as to be able to more easily make changes later
What is your preferred
airline, what other airlines will you also consider, and are
there any airlines you refuse to travel on
Are you going to attend any
type of convention or other meeting that might have special
What are your frequent flier
numbers, and, if there is a choice, which airline programs
do you prefer to use to get credit first
Do you have any seating
Do you have any dietary needs
How will you pay for the fare
Are there any other factors
that she needs to know in order to best arrange your travels
Do you also need a rental car
(lots more questions will follow if you say yes) and
accommodation (again, lots more questions) or a limo
transfer or are there any other associated travel needs you
That is 15 different topics
of discussion they will talk through with you, just to book a
simple roundtrip domestic air ticket. Of course, as you become a
regular customer, they won't need to ask you all these questions
every time, because they will already know many of the answers.
If you're thinking about
choosing a new agent to help with your domestic air travel, see
how they respond if you ask for help with an airfare. Maybe they
won't ask all 15 questions, but plainly, the more they try to
understand your needs, the better they are.
If you're thinking about
trusting your 'trip of a lifetime' vacation to a travel agent,
then a good agent will want to know even more about you and the
other people you are traveling with, so as to ensure that the
style of travel and experiences and everything in your vacation
are in line with what you'll appreciate and enjoy.
A good travel agent will
always be focused on you, not just on the travel they are
selling to you. They will describe everything in terms of your
expectations. They will be interviewing you and perhaps asking
more questions of you than you ask to them about their travel
products. A bad agent will simply be 'selling at you' without
pausing to think about who you are and what your needs and
If the travel agent doesn't
know more than you about the travel products you're wanting to
buy, then their ability to add value is sharply reduced.
Some travel agents insist
they can be an expert on everything, everywhere in the world. This is, alas, a completely unrealistic claim. Maybe, many years
ago, when other sources of public knowledge were less
accessible, it was sufficient for a travel agent to simply rely
on the information sources in her office when 'helping' clients
with all their travels, but the wealth of general information
that we as travelers can now access means that the level of
knowledge and expertise that a travel agent must offer in order
to add value to travel planning has greatly increased. Travel
agents are increasingly becoming more narrowly specialized.
Two types of travel agent
In some cases, you don't
need a travel agent with destination knowledge, just product
knowledge. For example, if you're traveling to Maui for the
tenth time in five years, your main need is for an agent that is
familiar with hotels and who can access good package deals for
your stay. The agent might never have visited Maui, but that
doesn't matter - you already know all you need to know about
Maui, and probably already know the hotel you want to stay at.
All you need is a travel package comprising things that you
already know all about yourself.
But if you're traveling for
the first time to Australia, you need an agent who can tell you
where to visit, and what to see and do. If you are planning a
trip to a major and reasonably popular destination (such as
Australia) it is reasonable to expect that the travel agent you
are choosing to help you has already visited the country herself
and has some personal knowledge of the destination.
An increasing number of
destinations now offer travel agent training programs. These
vary from ridiculously simplistic, where an agent 'self-trains'
and then answers a multi-choice quiz, in return for which they
get a fancy certificate to hang on the wall and the right to
claim dubious expertise about a destination, to serious ongoing
training programs. An agent with one of these qualifications is
not necessarily a true expert, but they're more likely to know
more than an agent without the qualification, and are also more
likely to have a good network of contacts with travel suppliers
to help them (often at better than normal rates) with planning
If you are going to a
particular country, you should call that country's US tourist
office and ask them to recommend a good travel agent to you.
If you're going cruising,
the agent should have been on at least a similar ship operated
by the same cruise line, and also have some familiarity with the
region of the world you'll be cruising (eg Alaska,
3. General Competencies
The US is one of few
countries that does not require any formal training or
registration procedures for travel agents, which allows for a
huge range of levels of knowledge and professionalism within the
travel trade. Be sure your agent is one of the better ones, not
one of the worst!
Some agents work only
part-time. Others work fulltime. In general, a fulltime agent is
going to be more experienced and more up to date with
developments, for the simple reason they are working 40+ hours a
week at their job. They will also be more conveniently available
to you (and to suppliers that they are working with on your
Some agents work as an
'inside agent' - ie, they are an employee of the travel agency,
and work (full time) inside that agency, and have full access to
all the agency's support services. Other agents work as an
'outside agent'. These people are more like independent
contractors and often have to supply all their own resources, in
return for which they share the commissions and fees they earn
with a partner travel agency.
Outside agents can be good,
especially if they narrowly specialize in only one type of
travel. But you have to seriously question the professional
commitment of an agent who is both part-time and also an outside
not inside agent.
Sometimes you may find that
such people are not 'real' travel agents at all. Instead they
may have just paid a fee to a dubious travel agency group that
offers ordinary people instant travel agent credentials in
return for a fee. These fees can be as much as just below $500,
due to legal obligations kicking in when charging more than
$500, but for a while there was a Google ad being displayed on
this page that was offering such credentials for only $125! Some
people are duped into buying such things with the lure of
amazing travel agent discounts (which are sadly more illusory
than real these days). Don't spend your money with such agents,
and don't be tempted to buy such credentials yourself.
If you are dealing with an
outside agent, find out who their partner travel agency is - it
should be a reputable local agency, and find out what their
personal background and training as a travel agent is.
Indeed, in all cases, it is
fair to ask the travel agent how many years they have been in
the business, and what types of travel related qualifications
they have. Maybe also ask what they did before becoming a travel
agent - perhaps you might find some commonality with them.
Some agents are very proud
of a CTC qualification. I don't agree with the description that
some people claim for this - that is is equivalent to an MBA -
but I do agree that agents with a CTC have a demonstrated
commitment to personal advancement and learning within the
Other travel qualifications
that some agents might claim are a certificate from a travel
school, or perhaps a CTA (a lesser version of the CTC) or a DS
(destination specialist) status. There are also MCC agents
(Master Cruise Counselors - agents that have visited many cruise
4. Other Issues
Of course, many of the
comments about how to choose a travel agency also apply to how
to choose a travel agent. In particular, recommendations from
friends can be very helpful.
Here's an interesting
suggestion : If you are meeting with an agent in person, see if
you can watch how they use their computer screen. If they are
looking for flights for you, do they just look at one screen
full of information, or do they flip through two or three
screens of flight information? Assuming you have indicated some
flexibility in your travel arrangements, and that there is more
than one screen of flight options (!), a good travel agent will
look through multiple screens of flight options. A bad agent
will only look through the first screen of flights (perhaps as
few as four or so different flight choices).
Subjectively, do you like
the agent? If the agent is someone that you feel comfortable
with, that will help you to relax and interact with them a great
Is the agent easy to
contact, and does she always spend as much time as you need when
you call her? Does she return calls promptly, and always have
sensible answers to your questions?
Creating a Win-Win Relationship
If you want a travel agent
to work hard and well for you, you need to incentivize them
accordingly. You need to explain to them that you are indeed
seriously committed to dealing with them and their agency, and
that their time and effort spent researching travel products for
you will indeed be rewarded by your subsequent purchase of
travel through them.
These days travel agents can
spot a 'shopper' a mile away - a person who picks their brains
for free advice, but who then does not reward the free advice
with their business.
Expect to pay a good travel
agent for their time, advice, and assistance. You didn't think
the best agent in town would work for nothing, did you?!
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17 October 2003, last update
19 Dec 2013
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.