Should You Really Use a Travel Agent?

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WHAT IS EXCITING it’s finally planning a vacation. For many, this is the first since the pandemic ground planes, closed hotels and created legions of new farmers on the windowsill. But where to go to welcome the Americans? And where do you start to determine what is needed to get there? Anxiety can eclipse dizziness when the realities of the world come into focus. “When travel gets more complicated,” said Gary Leff, the blogger behind ViewFromtheWing, “people will seek advice”. Suddenly, interest in travel agents is higher than in 2019, which was a good year for the industry. Even seasoned independent travelers look to the pros. Laurie Kantor Finn, a small business owner in Los Angeles who is traveling to France with her husband, son and friends this summer, had not used a travel agency for 20 years. “We are control freaks,” she said. “We like to map, read articles and guides, use the Internet to research and find great rates. We enjoy the process. But this time it’s different. “Due to Covid it would be helpful to have someone on the ground.” She therefore hired an advisor based in Italy and specialized in France to smooth the way. In normal times, enlisting someone to design a hiccup-free journey may seem like a bourgeois indulgence; in these times, it sounds more like common sense. Here, four reasons to use a travel agent now and two reasons not to.

WHY NOW?
1. To provide a reality check.

Borders are opening and closing just as quickly. Some airports require proof of vaccination, a printed version, not just digital. Does the country you’re on a connecting flight in allow U.S. citizens to enter if you miss the plane and have to stay overnight? Keeping up to date and making sense of the madness is now a travel agent’s business. Shelby Dziwulski, founder of travel company Authenteco, had to let some customers down easily. “New Zealand?” she said. “It won’t happen anytime soon. Another client wanted to travel to Alaska in August, but there are no hotels or rental cars available. Some last-minute trips are manageable (for example, a hike or a road trip), but overall travel counselors recommend planning nine to 12 months in advance.

2. To troubleshoot.

The schedules are complicated, the rules are slippery and the circumstances are impossible to predict. “I’m generally allergic to non-refundable, non-cancellable arrangements,” said Leff, who recommends booking with miles rather than risking the money. And ask yourself: are you able to know what the rules are and when they change? Not just for the countries you go to, but also for the countries you connect to. What if you tested positive for Covid-19? What if you had to quarantine? Can you re-let? “You want a knowledgeable lawyer who can help you,” he said.

3. Have eyes and ears on the ground.

Local expertise is paramount at this time. You’ll want the scoop on countless practical details. Among them: which hotels are fully functioning, which restaurants are back on top and what hours they keep, whether some museums sell timed tickets and manage the crowds.

4. For group travel.

It’s hard enough to book a week at the beach for a family of four these days. Planning an international getaway with several generations or a dozen friends can make you feel like a juggler running out of hands. For her week in a castle in Provence this summer, Ms. Kantor Finn handed over the reins to Jennifer Frusci Virgilio, travel advisor at Queen of Clubs. “We are 12 people, I don’t speak French and they have expertise,” she said. “They set up kayaking, take us to wineries, get a private boat for the whole group… It’s priceless to me.”

WHY NOT?
1. The expense.

The cost of a good travel counselor is not incidental (some charge a minimum planning fee of $ 500), and it is not necessary when plans are well defined and manageable. For example, if you fly to Paris for 10 days and do your homework ahead of time, you can ignore the agent. (Or check out one, for a more modest price, on the route you design.)

2. The wait.

If you don’t need the “best” hotel, an audience with, say, the nation’s largest rare book dealer, or the convenience of skipping the lines, the talents of a sophisticated agent can be wasted on you. If the ferry is good, you don’t need a private yacht to go from island to island.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

How did a travel agent help you navigate this time? Let us know in the comments below.

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Appeared in the print edition of July 3, 2021 under the title “When to call a travel agent and when to use it”.


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