LuxeGetaways Magazine – Fall 2016 | Conventional wisdom regarding travel agents is that their services should be reserved for complicated international trips, but that you are safe doing everything else on your own. Even agents, or advisors as many today like to be referred to, will talk about how consumers do not necessarily need them for simple trips.

However, when I was researching complaints about online travel agencies (in industry lingo, “OTAs” such as Travelocity, Expedia, Priceline,, etc.), I found that many were about fairly routine domestic roundtrip flights, and run of the mill hotel bookings.

For example, one traveler booked a trip with an OTA for a daytrip to a job interview with the outbound flight on one airline and the return on another; but the first flight was severely delayed or canceled, which caused a series of unfortunate circumstances. In another example, a woman wanted to buy a roundtrip ticket, but then stay in two different hotels during her stay. Her epic Instant Message chats with multiple OTA customer service representatives that she posted to Facebook seemed like the responses were coming from drones, or real people who simply had a series of cut and paste answers to use in these situations.

The biggest issues with the OTAs were their lack of customer service when something went wrong, and the inability to help make recommendations before you click the Buy button. What can go wrong? This typically revolved around things like strikes, cancellations and even bad weather. While OTAs were swamped with long waiting times, a good travel agent is always monitoring your itinerary and booking you on alternate flights before you even know that you have a problem. A good agent also has relationships with the hotels they book so if you, in fact, cannot make it there as scheduled, they are in a better position to help have the cancellation penalties waived. During last Fall’s series of Lufthansa cabin attendant strikes when consumers could not get through to the airline, there were numerous stories in the trade press of agents who were able to get all of their customers moved to other airlines. Agents played the same starring role after the Paris terrorist attacks.

One example of how you can lose a lot of money doing it yourself on a fairly simple trip is due to the complexity of airline pricing. For example, a family of four wants to travel from Dallas to London roundtrip, and is looking for the best fare. When you search online, the results generally posted are the best price applicable to all four travelers. However, a good travel agent may find two or three seats available at prices that are hundreds of dollars less than the fourth seat. Including paying a fee to the agent for ticketing, you can easily save hundreds, or in many cases, even thousands of dollars thanks to the agent knowing how to manage the system.

Cruises may seem fairly easy to book online. After all, you can now see deck plans and select your own cabin with ease. There are also some good review sites worth reviewing, such as Agents, however, can often offer upgrades and onboard credits, which can add up to hundreds of dollars. A good agent can also recommend specific cabins, and depending on the itinerary, which side of the ship gets the best view sailing into specific ports.

They can also be a huge asset when it comes to shore excursions, particularly if you want a private or customized experience, or just want to be on your own and not with fellow passengers. When I took my three children to Alaska on a cruise, my advisor arranged a great private salmon fishing daytrip where all of the kids could go home and tell fishing stories afterwards. We were also able to take our helicopter tour to a glacier while others on the ship had their trips canceled because of spotty weather; but thanks to our advisor, the operator was able to fit us in since it was just the four of us, and not a group of 40.

If you are thinking about just a single hotel stay, or perhaps cashing in frequent flyer miles, again the thought might be just to look online, particularly as you may already have in mind a specific destination or several hotels. Here again, travel agents often have some tricks up their sleeves. In the luxury arena, many agents belong to groups such as Virtuoso, Ensemble, Affluent Traveler, Signature Network or Travel Leaders – each of which negotiate perks on behalf of their member agencies, such as late check-outs, free breakfasts and upgrades.

Hotel groups also have loyalty programs for agencies that bring them a lot of business. For example, Four Seasons, Dorchester Collection, Peninsula Hotels and Mandarin Oriental do not have consumer loyalty programs, but they do have them for agents, as does The Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis, Luxury Collection, Fairmont, Raffles and many more. These programs offer similar perks for agent customers so that you can often get more extras when booking that weekend trip through an agent. With the costs of breakfasts running $40 per person and late checkout several hundred dollars, and a confirmed upgrade, you may be able to get $1,000 in free value on a two-night stay.

A primary reason that travel agents are hot again has been the trends toward wanting more experiences, soft adventures, as well as traveling in extended groups, such as families and friends – all of which are hard to arrange online. If you have not used an agent recently (or ever), you will find that many agents specialize in specific types of experiences, varying from villa rentals to safaris to river cruises, LGBT and pretty much anything you can think about.

Today’s better agents also travel extensively. If your agent has not been to your chosen destination, chances are that they will know someone in their network who has; meaning a good agent should have the resources to get direct knowledge about a destination before making the bookings.

At the end of the day, a relationship with a travel agent is really no different than your lawyer, doctor, dentist, accountant, landscaper or interior decorator; although planning a trip should be a lot more joyful than a root canal. Remember, like the other service providers I mentioned, travel agents are professionals, so do not just call an agency on the phone and expect them to be able to chat with you at length. Call or email to schedule a time to talk. The point is to take the time to talk to friends for referrals, and also take a look at the agent’s website or profile before you contact him or her, and then see if the two of you click.

Finding a good agent can take a bit of work, but like other service providers you use, when you find a good one, they will save you money, create a better experience for the amount you want to spend, and have ideas and recommendations for things to do that you probably had not even considered.

LuxeGetaways Goes One-On-One With Travel Agents

Eric Hrubant | Cire Travel
Bio: Working in the travel industry is Eric’s vehicle for doing good in the world. As a trained social worker, he uses the skills that he learned then to now take the stress out of the travel process, making it easier and more fun for his clients. Being able to know when a flight is cancelled and proactively working to get his client on an alternate flight (often with a good seat or upgrade) is his specialty. Everyone works really hard, and having a travel professional as a dedicated ally is essential for everyone’s sanity, and the bottom line. []

Travel Tip: Be nice! Being nice, making eye contact and validating those people you meet while traveling will only come back to you.

Q: For someone who does not use a travel agent, how would you suggest they begin looking for a travel agent?

A: Ask your network of contacts (LinkedIn is my go-to) if they have worked with a travel professional that provided them with fast and excellent service. Once you have a few referrals, schedule a time for a call, and have a conversation. Working with a travel professional is relationship driven, so make sure that you connect and trust the person you want to work with. You also want to make sure that the travel professional that you are working with has a “little black book” of favors and contacts that they will use to help you during your own travels!

Q: What unique travel experience would you suggest for travelers looking for something out of the ordinary this fall?

A: I have been intrigued by the growing Wellness Travel opportunities. I find that people who have “been there and done that” now want fulfilling experiences, while still indulging in nice hotels and gourmet meals. I’m personally going on a “Day of the Dead” trip in the fall and the itinerary includes photography lessons, cooking demonstrations, spa treatments, and a day of volunteering at a children’s home.

Q: What destination/experience would you suggest to the traveler wanting something truly unique while on a budget?

A: Europe! The exchange rate is fantastic for Americans traveling to Europe. Go to Portugal, which is already affordable, but now plan to stay longer or upgrade to a 4 or 5 star hotel that you normally would find cost prohibitive.

Q: What destination/experience would you suggest for family travel?

A: When I first started working in travel 16 years ago, the term “All-inclusive” had a negative connation for our luxury clients. However, times have changed and there are luxurious all-inclusive resorts that are perfect for family getaways. Who wouldn’t want to go to a resort where the kids are happy with endless activities; while the parents are enjoying great food, golf, tennis and spa treatments!

Q: What destination/experience would you suggest for a romantic getaway?

A: I recently came back from a 5 night romantic getaway to Santa Fe, New Mexico. There is something magical about being in Santa Fe. I felt all the stresses of life melt away when we checked into our hotel, and my high-strung and overly caffeinated NYC personality softened. Spend a week sleeping late, eating good food (let’s not forget the tequila) and just experience a slower pace with your partner.

Stacy Small | Elite Travel International
Bio: A former luxury travel magazine editor and jet-setting journalist, Stacy founded Elite Travel International in 2005 with the goal of changing the landscape of offerings for the new generation of affluent luxury travelers. Ten years later, she is one of the go-to luxury travel advisors for a mixed portfolio of Silicon Valley executives, celebrities and entrepreneurs seeking a global-minded approach and efficient, fast, knowledgeable response time to any level of luxury travel request. Along with her dynamic team spanning the globe from London to LA and Mexico to Maui, Stacy specializes in taking the hassle out of high-level travel. []

Travel Tip: It’s never a bad idea to buy travel insurance, as you never know what can happen… and always make sure your passport is up-to-date!

Q: For someone who does not use a travel agent, how would you suggest they begin looking for a travel agent?

A: For starters, think about what your needs are, and what type of travel agent will be most helpful. Also, ask your friends who travel a lot who they use! Choose someone who’s not only knowledgeable about the destination for your upcoming trip, but also someone who is well versed in the style of travel you are envisioning. For example, choose someone who knows a lot about luxury travel if that is your style…or has a background in adventure or family travel if your future trips will call for that. Also, ask for a phone consultation so you can ask questions and vice versa, to determine if it’s a good match. The goal is for this to be a long-term relationship, similar to one you might have with your financial advisor, so you want to find someone you hit it off with from the start. Ask as many questions as possible and also be clear about the type of travel you are hoping to do in the future so the agent can give you an honest assessment if they think that they are the best match for you. If you prefer to work with an agent who relies heavily on email/text verses talking on the phone or meeting in person, be sure to mention this. Some agents will make themselves available seven days/week whenever needed, others keep strict hours… so be sure to also take that into consideration when making your choice. Inquire up front about fees so there are no surprises, and don’t be afraid to ask a potential agent for client references!

Q: What unique travel experience would you suggest for travelers looking for something out of the ordinary this fall?

A: A unique travel experience could be the combination of a few days in Thailand or India with Bhutan, as it’s best to fly via Delhi or Bangkok. Speaking from personal experience, I enjoyed spending time in Thailand (in Bangkok at The Siam hotel and possibly a few days at the beach in Koh Samui or Phuket) before heading to Bhutan for a totally unique experience (there are a limited number of tourists allowed at any one time, and also a limited number of hotel rooms…the best options include the Aman and the Como properties). Hiking to Eagle’s Nest, visiting the monasteries, meeting the locals, tasting Bhutanese cuisine and just relaxing in a country where everyone seems to smile is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Another unique experience would be a trip to South Africa—with it being a combination of safari, winelands + city (Capetown) rather than just focusing on the safari as many tend to do. South Africa’s Stellenbosch is not to be missed (a stay at La Residence is a must) and a few days in Capetown is often not enough… flying through London and staying a few nights at Coworth Park for a UK countryside experience before journeying home is also an experience we’ve planned for clients who have really enjoyed this type of itinerary!

Q: What destination/experience would you suggest to the traveler wanting something truly unique while on a budget?

A: For a traveler wanting something on a budget, I would suggest looking at a cruise considering they are (mostly) all-inclusive in the pricing, and provide the opportunity to visit multiple destinations that might be too costly to do a la carte. Celebrity Cruises offers wonderful itineraries in Alaska and Europe, as does Windstar… and the pricing typically works out to be less than when planned as an independent itinerary. I suggest choosing a port-heavy itinerary (rather than too many days at sea) in order to get the most out of the experience, and the budget.

Q: What destination/experience would you suggest for family travel?

A: It’s so hard to choose just one as we create itineraries for so many families customized based on the kids’ ages and interests. Italy is always a crowd pleaser… as there are multiple cities to explore, and we always try to include time on the Amalfi coast at a family friendly hotel on the water. Other destinations I find to be extremely fun for families — due to the variety of experiences we can set up — include a combo London/Paris trip, Australia, Iceland and more recently, Japan.

Q: What destination/experience would you suggest for a romantic getaway?

A: I love to suggest the Hawaiian Islands, as there is a mix of beautiful beach resorts, wonderful people/culture, multiple islands (each with their own personality) and easy flights between them. Maui + the Big Island, or Maui + Lanai are the combos I recommend, and book most often.

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