Larry Olmsted, Senior Contributor, Forbes
In Part 1 of this series I explained why a top travel agent’s expertise, depth of knowledge, and industry connections can help make almost every trip better. Today is where the rubber meets the road - concrete reasons why it is often shortsighted, even foolish, to book a trip without a travel agent - even if you think you know what you are doing.
In fact, I have found that the biggest resistance to using a travel agent comes from the ego of thinking we don’t need one. This makes no sense: If I needed to design a new home, I’d hire an architect, not use a “be-your-own-architect” website. Years ago I wrote a story on Bill Fischer, a famous “travel agent to the stars” and one of the most powerful agents in the world. Fischer has booked trips for everyone from Barbara Walters to Oprah Winfrey to acclaimed hotelier Steve Wynn. I remember thinking that if these people, with their extensive staffs of personal assistants, name recognition, deep pockets, automatic VIP status and clout, think they can do better with a travel agent than on their own, won’t you? (Don’t bothering searching, Fischer takes new clients only by recommendation from his existing ones).
So to help those on the fence put ego aside, here are some impressive yet fairly commonplace travel agent accomplishments. Again, as I said last time, I am talking about expert, top tier travel agents.
Airfares: There may be no part of travel as frustrating as booking flights. When several friends and I went to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, we wanted to fly KLM via Amsterdam because this is the only nonstop flight from outside Africa into Kilimanjaro International Airport. Otherwise we had to go through a hub in Kenya or Tanzania with multiple changes and an extended ground layover. But the fares on KLM were really expensive. I called Anne Scully at McCabe World Travel and in less than five minutes she had my friends and I booked on the flights we wanted at a steep discount – hundreds of dollars less per person for coach than the best I could do by calling KLM or online (and I know what I am doing). I still don’t know how and I don’t care.
When a friend of mine went on his honeymoon to Hawaii, he wanted to buy first class tickets for himself and his new bride, but at around $5000 a pop, the price was a little steep. Now this is a San Francisco-based tech loving guy who tried every trick the internet offered, and then called his American Express Platinum Card travel agent, and none of it got the fare down one cent. Then he called me. I put him in touch with one of the high powered agents I know, and voila, like magic, the same tickets were $3500. He saved $3000 in a single phone call without changing the flights he wanted, just by using a travel agent. Enough said.
In Part 1 I relayed how a top travel agent was able to instantly make me Gold elite on a major airline I had never flown.
One other airline miracle top travel agents can work for you is using your frequent flier miles much more effectively than you can on your own. In fact, there are a handful of agents who do nothing but specialize in getting you seats you can’t get yourself, using your miles, for a fee, relatively inconsequential, like $250 to magically turn your miles into first class tickets to Asia. But you don’t often need these special services. What a lot of good travel agents do that is even more valuable to many travelers is secure upgrades from coach fares with miles, once again, when you cannot get availability on your own. My same Hawaii honeymoon friend was ready to fork out actual cash for business class seats to Australia last year, and his travel agent actually talked him down and was able to upgrade coach seats on Air New Zealand with his United miles (he had already tried). He saved thousands.
Finally, if you are considering around-the-world or regional “circle” fares with multiple stops on multiple airlines, use a travel agent. There are many online engines for booking such tickets. I’ve tried them. Call a travel agent.
Hotels: Step one of this equation is that the good travel agents know the hotels, understand the differences, and most importantly, can help you pick the right one for you. Here’s an example: in Rome, some people love Waldorf Astoria's Rome Cavalieri. It has the city’s best restaurant, and a large outdoor pool, and a secluded resort-style feel. It’s very popular with families or people who travel to Rome a lot and have seen all the sights. But for many first timers and hardcore urbanites, it is way too far removed for the city center, and they would gladly sacrifice the pool and sanctuary for a prime location in the middle of the action, like the Hassler. It is very easy for a travel agent to explain such differences to you at no cost, very hard for you to figure out on your own, and even if you do, there is no upside.
In fact, once you get beyond selecting the hotel, chances are it will cost you more to book it, or you will get less for the same price. This is especially true at luxury hotel brands that typically do not discount below their own web advertised lowest prices like Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental and Peninsula. The travel agent may get the same rate as you, but in many cases, they get upgrades worth a couple of hundred dollars or more per night, from room class upgrades which are significant to extras like champagne on arrival, free breakfast daily, in some cases even free meals and free spa treatments. Would you rather pay the same for a standard room as for a suite? Of course not. Or pass up a free massage because you didn’t want to call a travel agent? It makes no sense. One of the best upgrades some of these travel agents can get for their client is a bump to club or lounge floors, especially in foreign hotels, which means free breakfast, free drinks, free appetizers and desserts, all day long, plus private concierge services and a private sanctuary. Sometimes the agents get these extras because their firm has so much volume and clout, and sometimes because they belong to a top consortium of agents that negotiates guaranteed benefits en masse, the most notable of which - by far - is Virtuoso.
“We get upgrades and benefits typically worth $250 per night or more at hundreds of top luxury hotels,” said Anne Scully. “But what I personally do is make sure that when my clients arrive in Paris or London at 8 in the morning from the States and it feels like 1AM, their room is ready then – with breakfast laid out in it.” Personally I have arrived exhausted many times at some of the top luxury hotels in Europe in the early morning hours to be told my room would not be ready for three or four hours. Then again, I don’t have the GM’s number in my phone.
“It’s about having the best possible experiences, from hotels to guides to special access, and having everything exactly the way you like it. But at the end of the day, you also will save a lot of money.”
In my final installment, I will explain how to find one of these superstar travel agents you can call your own.