Last summer I took one of the longest and most complicated trips of my life.
This was a 26 day tour of Italy, Croatia and Greece that included planes, trains, cars and ferries, all of which had to be coordinated to make sure I met entry requirements imposed by Covid for each country. The trip went almost without a hitch except for the evening my flight from Rome to Split, Croatia was delayed by 90 minutes, causing me to miss the last ferry of the night from Split to the island of Hvar.
I found myself a cheap hotel for the night near the port of Split on Booking.com, but the most important thing for me was that I would lose the approximately $ 325 that I had already paid for that non-refundable night at the hotel Adriana Hvar Spa. one of the more expensive hotels on my month-long itinerary.
It turned out that I didn’t have to worry, as I booked the trip with a travel agent. When I was planning my European adventure, I asked a travel editor friend if she could recommend someone to help me plan my trip. She told me that her go-to travel resource was Jack Ezon, Founder and Managing Partner of Embark Beyond. I called Ezon in May and told him what I was hoping to do: visit Greece, Croatia, Italy, France and maybe Norway. He kindly explained to me that my plan was too ambitious, not only because I was trying to visit too many countries in too little time, but also because Norway and France were not open to Americans (France then opened to American travelers, but Norway’s borders remain closed).
Ezon referred me to one of his travel counselors, Julie Banning. Banning and I spoke by phone, and she worked out a stellar itinerary that included stops in Florence, Forte dei Marmi, Portofino, Rome, Positano, Capri, Hvar, Dubrovnik, Mykonos, Sifnos, and Athens. Banning explained that for a trip of this magnitude, Embark Beyond would charge a fee of $ 1,000 (the company offered me a discount on the fee as a reporter – I paid $ 500). If she only booked hotels (which compensate travel agencies through commissions) there would be no charge, but since she would book flights, trains and cars, charges would apply. Although the fees seemed high when I first heard about them, I am now happy that I paid them due to the value I got from using a travel agent for my trip. .
Let us return to the situation of Hvar. When I arrived the day after my scheduled arrival date, Adriana’s front desk manager told me that the hotel would not be able to refund that first night. I explained that it would have been physically impossible for me to check in on time as I missed the last ferry to Hvar due to my flight delay. She told me the best they could do would be to add an extra night at the end of my stay, but that wouldn’t work as I had to fly to Athens for my flight back to New York. I thought I was unlucky, but then emailed Banning to let him know what had happened. “Leave it to me,” she replied.
A travel agent is your best advocate in the event of a problem
Sure enough, an email from Banning to the hotel reservations department did the trick. A week later, the hotel refunded the cost of the first night to my American Express card.
“We are advocates,” says Anne Scully, partner at Embark Beyond who has worked in the travel industry for 40 years. “A good travel counselor holds and cares for a customer’s hands.” She adds that travel counselors really show their value when the going goes wrong. “Thanks to our relationships and our experience, we are able to get clients out of a bad situation.”
Scully says she also had customers re-let when their flights were canceled, long before their travel companions contacted the airline’s customer service line or found the way to a representative. at the airport.
They know where to send you because it’s their job
Another reason to use a travel agent is to get information about a new destination. I discovered how precious you can be when I first visited Costa Rica last March. Like many in my thirties, I figured I could plan a trip on my own. After a few hours of researching online, I realized I was out of my element as I was trying to visit a foreign country I had never been to in the midst of a pandemic. I enlisted the help of Tom Pyman at Black Tomato, a luxury and adventure tour operator. I explained that I had about 10 days to travel and was trying to choose between Costa Rica and Egypt, two of the few countries open to American travelers at the time.
Pyman, who specializes in both destinations, recommended Costa Rica because I could do a combination of adventure activities (like ziplining and whitewater rafting) and beach trips. He put together a comprehensive itinerary that included tours of the Arenal Volcano area, Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast, and Santa Theresa on the Pacific coast, all with no planning fees.
They know the best way to get around your destinations
On my last trip, Banning knew that the flight I had to take from Dubrovnik to Athens only worked on certain days of the week. This meant that she had to plan an itinerary that would involve traveling between Croatia and Greece on a Thursday or Saturday, which would have taken me a while to figure out on my own.
In addition, Embark Beyond can arrange VIP meetings at the airport, where their guide will meet passengers at the aircraft gate, clear them through customs, and take them out of the airport with luggage while the other passengers of their flight still waiting to pass passport control, Scully said.
Black Tomato and Embark Beyond were also on top of Covid protocols during my travels. Black Tomato arranged for a local guide to take me to a lab in San José for the rapid test I needed to return to the United States; it was one of the few labs open that Sunday and it wouldn’t have been easy to find it on my own. Embark Beyond provided clear and detailed pre-departure information on the online documents I needed to complete to enter the countries I was visiting. (As a vaccinated American, I didn’t need to take a Covid test to enter Italy, Croatia, or Greece, but I had to show my vaccination card.)
They have flexible cancellation policies
During the pandemic, Black Tomato launched a policy called State of Flex that offers travelers full refunds and free deferments on bookings if Covid complications arise between booking and travel, up to 30 days before departure.
They can get you upgrades that you can’t get yourself
“I asked a guy to come over to me with his Centurion card and say, ‘Anne, I don’t see what you can do,'” says Scully (American Express’s most exclusive credit card, the Centurion card would offer a number of hotel benefits). “I said, ‘I will let you know when you arrive. You will be recognized on arrival, not the card. ‘ The card is a banking advantage. Connection and human relationships are changing the way people travel. “
Scully says she had another client she had booked a cruise for, and the client called to say she was able to get a better rate from another agent. Scully spoke to her contact at the cruise line and, as she suspected, the other agent was offering the client a discount to earn his business. While Scully was unable to match the fare, it was able to do even better by leveraging its connection with the cruise line to get an upgrade to a 200 square foot cabin larger than the one on the ship. client had reserved.
They can set up special experiences
When she learned that two of her clients were celebrating a 50th wedding anniversary, Scully coordinated with the couple’s children to secure 50 photos throughout their wedding and arranged for each photo to be printed on a balloon for party.
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Black Tomato travelers may choose to be surprised by their destination at the airport if they opt for the tour operator’s bespoke Get Lost service. All the necessary equipment is provided at destination.
While I’m not sure I’m ready for this level of uncertainty, you can bet I’ll bring in a travel agent the next time I’m in another new destination.
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