How NOT to find a good travel agent

If you have never used a travel agent, or don’t want to use a travel agent, stop reading now.

not to find a good travel agentThe biggest problem most good travel agents I know have right now is wanting to hire good help, especially young people. Travel is a good and growing field, even in the age of the Internet. While the Internet has weeded out many not-so-good agents, not everyone in the profession is competent. Blame the combination of no licensing requirements, inertia with older agents, and a serious labor shortage.

Finding a great travel agent also requires personalities that are a match. I’ve had potential clients I don’t click with and vice versa. Like most professions, you need to find the person who works best with YOU. But if you’ve decided for the first time to find an agent, or if your agent retired, or you’re sick of dealing with the Internet, here is a list of six things NOT to do.

1. Don’t rely completely on “top agent” lists in the media. 
This one is tough. There are some publications with seriously good agents on their lists — rock star agents. But without naming names, some publications charge to be included. Others rely on applications written by the agents themselves. Many good agents I know are way too busy for the application process. I know agents on top lists who could promote themselves beautifully, but I wouldn’t trust them to book a local staycation.

2. Don’t say up front you’ll never pay fees. 
Some agents charge more than others. For some trips some travel agents will waive fees. (There’s a controversy in the industry if an agent should ever do this, but that’s another post.) It really depends on exactly what the trip is, and it’s not always just about price. Certain packages and cruises, for example, include a commission in the price, whether or not a traveler books through an agent. Yet some other travel, even expensive travel, pays absolutely nothing. Almost all agents charge for airline tickets. Again, it depends. Some travel agents will waive fees for a client booking a nice cruise or for tickets where they make a commission, such as some international business class tickets. But, if you’re adamant about not paying, most agents will be leery of taking you on.

3. Don’t tell an agent up front you think their job is easy.
Don’t tell them that you are surprised people still bother with travel agents, but you are just so busy or whatever you will try to work with us. Most travel agents have heard that or worse. Now, this isn’t the same as politely saying “What can you do for me that I can’t do for myself?” And again, it depends.

4. Don’t underestimate travel agent experience and deals.
Someone who only flies Southwest and stays in bargain hotels might well be able to do as well for themselves as a travel agent. However, when it comes to any travel a bit more complex, agents do have connections. They often have special deals with airlines, car rental, hotel and cruise companies. Good agents have knowledge that may save you time and money in knowing where and how to look. Other travel agents may suggest alternatives you haven’t thought of — for example, a nearby airport or a small date adjustment to save big money.

5. Don’t waste a travel agent’s time.
It gets worse when clients don’t say, “Thank you.” Some agents charge from the very beginning to do research. Many of us, though, will do a little work up front, especially if we think the traveler is serious or a known quantity. One potential client was referred by one of my favorite clients for a very last-minute vacation trip where they had flights already but needed hotels and heard I was a Hawaii expert.

Click here to subscribeThis friend-of-a-friend wanted something nice but reasonable for a family. One of the questions I asked was budget. Turns out he wanted something for about $150 a night, with a kitchen, for 4 people — maybe up to $200. In high season. Since it was a referral from someone I liked, I did a little research in places I knew and actually found some not horrible options at the upper end of his budget, and a tolerable place at the lower end. Sent the info. Crickets. Sent another email — yes, we’re still deciding, we’ll get back to you. But then, more crickets.  Not as if there was much money in the booking, but not even getting a “thanks for your time, we found an Airbnb” means I will politely tell him I’m too busy if he ever emails back.

6. Don’t demand the “lowest price.”
Even before the internet age a wise man, founder of Classic Vacations, told a group of us “NEVER promise the lowest price,” as someone with enough time on their hands will call around and beat it. Often, we do get the best price, but there are some online-only companies which (illegally or not) will give back some commission to clients in exchange for no service, and if you’re willing to book a hotel site-unseen through an “opaque” site, it’s probably going to be less. On the other hand, what an agent generally sells is value. That super-cheap room in New York for a family MIGHT end up being a king bed instead of two doubles. And that super-discounted garden view room in Hawaii is never going to be upgraded. (I was at a Hawaii hotel recently that wasn’t full, and the man in front of me was pushing hard to get an ocean view, but the check-in clerk told him no. As it turned out, he had booked a particularly low discount online rate, and I know the hotel won’t upgrade those on principle.

Most good travel agents I know love our work, and we love (most of) our clients, although quite frankly, I don’t know a good agent who isn’t busy. On the other hand, one of the best things in this business can be meeting new and interesting clients. In short, a little respect will go a long way.