4 Things to Know When Choosing a Travel Agent

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So, you’re thinking about traveling again? You’re not alone. The pandemic may not be over, but the expansion of vaccine eligibility in the United States — hiccups, delays and pauses aside — plus the news that the European Union will be opening up to vaccinated travelers is inspiring many to plan a real-deal summer vacation, or even take the leap on booking bucket-list adventures.

Travel remains far from simple, however. The virus is finding new footholds around the world, leaving an ever-changing set of rules and restrictions in its wake (and all of this is compounded by a run on home rentals, rental cars and more). It’s a reality that’s inspired many D.I.Y.-inclined travelers to consider working with a travel agent, or travel adviser, for the first time, in the hopes of skipping the travel-planning stress and focusing on actually relaxing on vacation instead.

Most travel advisers provide their services free of charge to clients (though some charge a booking fee, which can range from $25 to $100, depending on how complicated a trip you’re after) and instead make their money through commissions from hotels, tour operators, cruise lines, airlines and other travel companies.

Finding the right adviser for you is “like finding a hairdresser,” said Erika Richter, the senior communications director of ASTA, the American Society of Travel Advisors. “You want someone who understands your personal style.”

Ms. Richter, along with Misty Belles, the managing director of global public relations for Virtuoso, an international travel agency network specializing in luxury travel, shared their tips on how you can find an adviser who will understand you and your dream trip.

Start by asking trusted friends and family members for recommendations. “The same holds true for any professional service in your life,” Ms. Belles said. “If you know someone who is working with a travel adviser and was pleased with the experience, that’s a great place to start.”

If that’s a no-go (or if your friends and family, while beloved, don’t have the same travel style as you do), Ms. Richter strongly suggested seeking out local businesses where you live.

“Supporting small businesses in our communities is more important than ever right now,” she said. ASTA has a directory that allows you to search for advisers close to you; a quick Google search will likely do the trick, too, Ms. Richter said.

Another way to find a travel adviser is to seek one out based on a destination, or destinations, that he or she may specialize in. Are you interested in going to a specific Caribbean island nation? You’ll likely want to work with an adviser that has booked a number of trips in that country, and has connections and contacts there. Some advisers specialize in trips to Disney resort properties; others focus on cruises. If you’re interested in planning a trip outside of their purview, advisers can refer you to someone else within their network, or do the heavy-duty research themselves.

“Choosing someone who specializes in a destination is a good first foray into working with a travel adviser,” Ms. Belles said. “But when you work with the same adviser for a while, they become a specialist in you.”

Speaking of what you want, it can be useful to understand the organization, or organizations, an adviser is associated with. Whether they work alone, with one partner in a small shop, or as part of a large agency, they are likely connected to a consortium, or a professional network, like Virtuoso, which is made up of more than 1,000 agencies in 50 countries around the world, or ASTA itself.

“Obviously, I represent ASTA, but I do think it’s important to look at an adviser’s professional affiliations,” Ms. Richter said. Affiliations can serve as a vote of confidence that the adviser has been vetted; it also gives you a chance for recourse should you find yourself unhappy with your relationship (ASTA, for example, can handle consumer complaints and be a part of the resolution process). Some consortiums specialize in a certain type of travel — Virtuoso agencies focus on luxury travel, for example, while others might highlight adventure travel, or family trips and so on.

An adviser’s affiliations also act as a conduit for one of their major selling points: traveler perks.

“Ask them what sorts of benefits they get from their professional networks,” Ms. Richter said. “Upgrades, free breakfasts, late checkouts when available — who doesn’t want some of those freebies?”

Do you like leisurely, slow trips? Packed itineraries filled with sightseeing and attractions? Do you like to travel alone, or are you planning multigenerational trips with children and grandparents? Ensuring that your adviser understands what you want — and maybe even establishing that they have a similar travel style themselves — can greatly help with building rapport (and allow them to plan an even better trip for you).

Some important questions to ask: Do they charge a planning fee? What are some examples of trips that they’ve planned in the past?

“Be really upfront about your budget for a trip, and be sure that that is something they can help you make the most of,” Ms. Richter said.

Ms. Belles suggested asking the adviser how they personally like to travel, and some of their favorite destinations.

“Interview them a little bit! You can see whether there are some similarities there,” she said. But make sure they’re asking you just as many questions.

“If they’re not, that should be a red flag,” said Ms. Belles. “An adviser should be looking to get to the heart of what exactly you want as a traveler.”

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