Evaluating a travel agent? See if they belong to travel agency professional organizations or -- like these Results Travel agents seen at a training conference last year -- proactively seek educational enhancement of their skills and knowledge. Agents who invest in their own education so they know the "ins'" and "outs" of the travel products they sell are invaluable to consumers.*
A Good Travel Agent Can Be Invaluable
By Carol Eannarino
Many of us have booked airline tickets with one of the Internet giants. But when it comes to a more detailed trip – be it by land or by sea – a travel agent may prove to be your best ally.
A professional agent is a travel expert who specializes in matching up a traveler with the right vacation destination and ensuring that all goes seamlessly.
If something does go wrong, however, an agent is your consumer advocate, ready and able to smooth over any bumps along the way. So why settle for anything less?
If you don’t already have a travel agent, there are a number of variables that go into finding one to handle your specialized vacations to the U.S. South or cruises departing from a Southern U.S. port.
Word of Mouth
Just as you would ask friends and relatives for recommendations for a doctor or dentist, ask them if they have a travel agent who goes the extra mile. Then call or visit these referrals to find the one you feel best meets your needs.
Ask for a list of their clients you can call to reaffirm they were happy with the services provided.
An agent’s product knowledge is essential. If you’re interested in a cruise, for instance, look for an agency that is cruise oriented.
Look for Professionalism
One good sign is if the agent holds membership in a professional organization, such as ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents), which boasts more than 20,000 members in 140 countries.
ASTA offers members ongoing educational programs, management resources and a Code of Ethics. ASTA’s consumer Web site (www.travelsense.org) allows visitors to search for a member agency by destination (including the U.S. Southeast), specialties and zip code.
CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association), the trade association of the cruise industry, also has an online “Travel Agent Locator.” It can be accessed from its home page (www.cruising.org).
Click on “Planning Your Cruise” to search for an agent by zip code. Look for agents who have earned CLIA’s designations of Accredited (ACC), Master (MCC) or Elite (ECC) cruise counselors.
Speaking of zip codes, just how important is an agent’s location? The burgeoning number of home-based agents usually service clients through Web sites and do international bookings. This makes an agent’s location less important in this tech-smart age.
Generally, an agent’s specialty and product knowledge top the must-have list – and he or she doesn’t need to reside in the South to sell the South.
For example, Conde Nast Traveler’s online “Travel Agent Finder” (www.concierge.com; click on “Tools”) lists an agent from Erie, PA, whose specialties include Florida, from Sanibel Island to South Beach.
The list, vetted by a veteran Conde Nast editor, can be navigated by destination, interests, hotels and villas, and cruises.
Travel and Leisure has an online “Travel Agent A-List” (www.travelandleisure.com) that can be searched by destination and trip type, including cruises, active travel, hotels and spas, special interests, family travel and ultra-luxury.
If you’ve already decided on a specific cruise line, check out the “Travel Agent Finders” section featured on most major cruise lines’ Web sites.
Does size matter? Should you choose big or small? This is your decision. But consider this: even the smallest agency may belong to a travel consortium or co-op (or host agency in the case of home-based agents) that often provide members with excellent deals because of their mass buying power.
You should be aware of fees. Travel agents know all about “shoppers” – potential clients who are trying to get the lowest possible price and have no qualms about wasting an agent’s time by shopping around. Many agents have added consulting fees to ward off this type of “buyer.” However, they will often refund the fee or subtract it from the bill once a client has booked with them.
So start today in looking for a good travel agent to help plan your vacation heading south.