Larry Olmsted, Senior Contributor, Forbes
If you like to travel (who doesn’t?) here’s a great New Year’s Resolution for 2012 – find a good travel agent and start using them regularly. This is a resolution you will find easy to keep, because once you try it you will enjoy better - and often cheaper - trips than ever before.
Just a couple of years ago, headlines were about the demise of the travel agent, about to go the way of the Dodo and the dinosaur. Guess what? Travel agents are not only still here, they are experiencing a rebound - despite (or because of?) the myriad travel tools available online.
So why should you use a travel agent?
There are many, many good reasons, which I will explain. But the bottom line is that they know more than you do, they are better connected than you, they have access to benefits you can’t get otherwise, they can often beat any other prices available (even online, yes), and after you have planned everything, they provide a safety net during your trip that you simply won’t get by booking yourself or buying insurance. Having a top travel agent can also make you an instant VIP - free room upgrades, hard to get restaurant reservations, cutting lines, access to otherwise closed stores and exhibits, private guides, and cheaper - often much cheaper - premium airfares. Here’s the best part: even though most top agents charge fees, in almost every firsthand experience I or my friends, family, and acquaintances have had, travel agents have saved money, often a lot of money, thousands of dollars, and in every case, more than paid for themselves.
To be frank, not everyone taking a trip needs a travel agent. The benefits they offer increase as your travel becomes more luxurious, expensive, and specialized. Need a cheap flight to Florida to visit family and a night at a 3-star airport hotel en route? By all means let your fingers do the walking. Need a bargain-priced, all-inclusive ski vacation or Vegas weekend? You can easily find that online. Need a cheap cruise on a mass market ship? Yes, you can book that yourself. But I’ve already written at length here at Forbes about why if you are taking any higher end cruise you would be foolish - I mean making a really big mistake - not to use a top cruise agent. The same goes for plenty of other travel: If you are staying at 4 and 5-star hotels, flying in the premium cabin (or private aviation), planning complicated itineraries with multiple stops, planning complex airline routings, or taking any trip using guides/drivers or local experts, any trip that VIP access would make better, any trip to a destination where you do not already know all the best places to eat and best things to see and do, or any cultural travel, from safaris to ancient ruins, you need a travel agent. In fact, in any of these scenarios, if you don’t use a travel agent you are and likely making a costly mistake, no matter how much you think you know. I travel for a living and write on travel for a living and I still use travel agents.
To be clear, I am talking about true experts, the really good travel agents who add value, not the ones running full page ads of deals in the Sunday papers. The best travel agents are essentially consultants, and many prefer “travel advisor,” because it is their advice, expertise, and connections that are of great value, not the ability to print airline tickets for you. A few have become hyper-specialized, and in some cases, like booking a cruise, golf vacation, space travel, or a very specialized theme trip like art, music or polar exploration, you will want to seek out a niche specialist. But for most travelers, it is better to find an excellent generalist travel advisor and stick with them, because a big part of the equation is that they get to know you and your wants, likes and dislikes, and make suggestions accordingly. You would not use a different financial advisor every time you opened a new bank or brokerage account, so why keep switching travel agents? “Once we get to know each other, the time I save them is invaluable to them. If I can get the client to ‘let go/give in/trust in me!’ once, then they become clients for life,” said Leigh Sullivan, a highly acclaimed luxury travel expert with Regency Travel in Memphis, TN. If you choose right, you won’t lose any expertise in the process, because the best agencies have multiple agents with overlapping spheres of specialization who collaborate, so while your agent who is an expert on Asia may not specialize in safaris when the time comes for you to book one, there’s a good chance one of their colleagues at a nearby desk does.