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An Honest Assessment of Travel Agents and Tour Guides

Some of the most common questions I get are, “Why do I need a travel agent when I can book online myself?” Or, “Why do I need a tour guide? I can google what to do on my trip.” Or, “I can save money and do it myself.” All of these are legitimate to travel, but the answers are often multi-facet.

Let me start with the most common myth that travel agents cost money. In almost all cases, this is a false perception. Travel agents work on commission on your behalf, but you don’t pay them. The vendors pay us commission. For example, if you book a hotel direct, I can do the same thing for the same price (sometimes with additional perks). The hotel pays the commission. Travel prices are based on that commission (except airlines), so if you book direct they just keep the commission for themselves. You still pay the same price. Travel Agents are a love/hate relationship for vendors. They want the extra business, but hate paying for it. So if it doesn’t cost you anything, why wouldn’t you use a travel agent? It’s comparable to buying a house. What if the seller had to pay your realtor’s commission? Would you use someone who is experienced in the field and knows the ins-and-outs of buying a house if it was free, or just do it yourself (which you can do)? Another example, if you are sick you can Google your symptoms and often figure out how to get well, or you could see a professional that has training and experience to cure your ailments.

Having said that, please don’t “shop” travel agents. Find one you trust and stick with them…like your doctor. So often we get people who have us do hours and hours of research only to take this information and book it themselves. Many travel agents have started charging research fees to new clients because of this. It has happened to me more often than I care to think about. Honestly, it’s just rude. I had a client that I helped research locations to find the best vacation for their family. Then they said, “I can get it cheaper thought Costco.” I did all the work and they used that work to book themselves. Well, if something goes wrong, good luck calling Costco from a foreign country to fix it. Not going to happen, so is it woth saving a couple hundred dollars on a trip you spent thousands on?

With the internet and goggle search, many people prefer booking travel themselves. I hear, “I’ve booked myself numerous times and never had a problem.” This can be true. With sites like Expedia and Travelocity, you can book your own vacation, or even book it directly from the resort or airline. Even Costco has gotten into the travel business. As long as everything goes as planned, and it is a pretty generic trip, you might find this to be sufficient, especially if you are a control-person like me. However, if there is a glitch in your travel, you may find yourself trying to figure out how to fix it. Imagine being in a foreign country with a language barrier and your transportation didn’t show up, or you are detained by the police. Both of these have happened to people we booked. Who do you call? What do you do? Trust me, this can be a nightmare. The big-box booking sites really don’t care. Our clients get our personal cellphone number in case they need anything during their travel. With the current volatility of air travel, you may find your flight cancelled or delayed. A travel agent can deal with this for you, saving you hours of time on the phone with the airline.

Travel agents are directly involved with the industry. They know what is a good value and what isn’t. Value don’t always equate to the cheapest. You can book Spirit Airlines, who is usually cheaper…but only if you are traveling with a backpack. Once you add bags and pick your seat, other airlines are often a better value. Another example might be resorts. Sometimes an all-inclusive is a better value sometimes not depending on location and how you travel. For example, non-drinkers might not find value in an all-inclusive. Did you know that all-inclusive means different things to different resorts? Yes, it does, so if you aren’t familiar with it, you may not be getting what you thought you were getting. If it’s the cheapest you want, let me know. I typically book value over price, within your budget. I want happy clients. If I can’t do it for some reason, I will tell you and help you with your travel. For example, if all you want is airfare, we don’t get paid for this usually, so I will tell you and guide you to the best sites for airline comparisons.

Cruises are a great example of the need for a travel agent. Cruise lines often offer travel agent bookings extra perks. One client got a free upgrade to a balcony cabin. Had she booked herself, she would have had an interior room and never known that there was a better option.

Package vacations are often a great value, but can come with challenges as well. Some are non-refundable. What if you get sick or can’t make your trip? They are often cheaper, but all the components are tied together. Perhaps there is a non-refundable resort, but the flights are refundable or you can get credit for cancelations. This is also where a travel agent can help. We recently had a client that booked a non-refundable package and their passports didn’t come in on time. Insurance would have solved this but they opted out. I made a phone call to the airline got them flight credit for a future flight. Sometimes, a travel agent who brings them tons of business can get them to make an exception to their policy.

This brings up the subject of travel insurance. It is relatively cheap and offers options in the event your trip is interrupted. What if you can make your trip? What if you get sick in a foreign country? There is insurance that offers “cancel for any reason.” Maybe you just decided you don’t want to go. Like any insurance, you hope you don’t need it, but if something happens you’ll be glad you have it.

How about tour guides? Do you need one? Sometimes the answer is no, but often there is an advantage to having someone who knows the area guide you. This is particularly true when traveling to unfamiliar areas, or multi-faceted trips. I used to think I could do it myself with a little internet research, but the first time we used one, I realized all the great stuff I was missing. On a recent trip to Europe, we used personal tour guides. As we visited castles and cathedrals, we had a personal tour guide pointing out things we would have never known otherwise. In one location, we noticed other people following us to hear our tour guide’s points of interest. Rather than just seeing a fresco, we heard who painted it, how and when it was painted, and why. On one tour, we went pub-hopping to bars that we would have never found on our own without a local taking us there. These are very unique, personal experiences that emerse you in the culture of the country you are in. We are currently planning a trip to Scotland. Did you know that there is a tour where you hike the Highlands? No way I could coordinate all the stops and trails without someone who knows the territory.

A good travel agent knows that he/she can’t know everything about every trip. The world is too big. For example, we are considered experts in Mexico travel. We know where it is safe, where to get some local quisine, and where the Sargasso (seaweed) is and isn’t. By booking yourself, you may find that you can’t even get in the water because of the sargasso. On the other hand, we book other areas of the world but are connected to other agents and tours that are experts in that part of the world. If you are booking a trip to Kenya, we haven’t been there yet, but know another agent that books annual trips there. As with any field, connections and relationships matter. Your family doctor may not know enough about a heart condition, but will know a cardiologist to refer you to.

So… can you book travel yourself? Sure you can. There are lots of resources out there. However, a good travel agent could take your good vacation and make it great…memorable. Cut out the trial and error and use someone who can get you the most bang for your buck. Sometimes cheaper or with more perks, sometimes not, but definitely will be more memorable. I love helping people find the best value for their vacation. Let me know you what we can do for you.

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