My nephew got married this summer, and with not a lot of lead time, told me they wanted to honeymoon for two weeks, split between Venice and Greece. That’s a good trip – so good that these happen to currently be the two hottest summer destinations in Europe – if not the world – and have been pretty much sold out for months.
I often give detailed local travel tips and advice to family and friends, but this time my advice was succinct and spot on: “You need to use a travel agent.” I referred him to one of my favorites (Anne Scully at Embark Beyond, an industry legend at a top tier agency) and fortunately – as it turned out – he took my advice (My first tip is to seek a referral from a friend or colleague, the best way to find a good travel agent for you – especially since demand is running high and some are not even taking new clients).
FYI, good travel agents now like to be called advisors, not agents, since their role is much more akin to consultants in other fields. But the public still knows “travel agent” better, so I use the terms interchangeably, though what you definitely want is someone who goes by travel advisor (that’s my second tip).
Ten years ago, I wrote a big 2-part feature here at Forbes about all the reasons why you should be using a travel agent to plan your trips, whether it’s for work or pleasure, “normal,” luxury or ultra-luxury travel. That really resonated with readers, and I still get the occasional thank you from consumers who took my advice.
But the topic has recently resurfaced in a big way, thanks to the convergence of two factors – the huge uptick in travel and Bucket List aspirational travel following pent up demand from the COVID lockdowns, and the fact that there is so much screwed up in the travel industry right now. This is especially the case with airlines, airports and rental cars, but just about every hotel, restaurant and service provider is short staffed.
“Now the stakes are even higher!” said Beth Washington, an advisor at and founder of Getaway Guild, a top Washington, DC agency affiliated with Virtuoso (more on this below). “Pre-pandemic, if you showed up in Paris with just a hotel reservation and no plans or dinner reservations, you might be able to wing it and get some tickets and reservations after waiting in line or working with the hotel concierge. Now if you show up with no plans, you could very well be out of luck. Advance dining reservations are basically imperative these days. Many sites have changed their max capacity or other protocols, also making advance planning so much more important. Working with a good travel advisor can take these details off your plate and make sure nothing falls through the cracks.”
This true honeymoon story immediately illustrates four of the many reasons why travel agents/advisors are indispensable to great vacations.
One: They get better rooms and can get rooms at “sold out” hotels when you cannot. It’s hard to believe, but while the internet is great, many top hotels do not list their suites and better rooms online, and many keep vacancies just for top producing advisors. Good travel agents bring them multiple bookings every year (or month), while even luxury travelers bring them just one booking every now and then or maybe one in a lifetime. Who do you think they care more about keeping happy? Plus, top agents personally know the GMs, in many cases for decades. Bingo, through their advisor, the newlyweds got rooms at a very popular hotel in booked up Venice in the busiest summer on record.
“We’ve gotten a lot of new luxury clients, not from other agencies, but from converted DIY travelers,” said Anthony Goldman, third generation owner of leading Australian agency the Goldman Group. “They’ve realized that when they book directly, even if they spend thousands of dollars, they get the worst room in the category because they don’t know anyone at the hotel.”
If you are a celebrity or CEO, good for you (and almost every celebrity and CEO uses an advisor). If you are not, a good advisor turns you into someone who is treated like one. By way of comment, Anne Scully instead sent me a thank you note quote she got from a customer: “The General Manager and his staff of this 5-Star property knew us on arrival and kept treating us like we were top VIPs…that was a first for us and we loved the upgrade and the beautiful amenities in our room – or should I now say suite!”
Two: Priceless advice, local knowledge and local connections. Greece was the first major foreign destination to welcome visitors back from the Covid lockdowns and for quite a while it appeared that it might be the only place in Europe people could go, so it immediately became a super-hot destination for 2021 and 2022. But most Americans know only international hotel brands—not as big a factor in Greece—and a handful of place names they’ve seen in travel magazines: Athens, Santorini and Mykonos. The advisor I suggested steered them to Crete, the largest Greek isle, and one where they still were able to get availability at a top but not well-known resort and enjoy great restaurants.
“We’re seeing a desire to avoid places that are overcrowded and over visited,” said Getaway Guild’s Washington. “One of the ways to do that is that we know alternatives that will suit our clients style and wishes – maybe this summer Malta instead of Italy, Guatemala instead of Costa Rica. Also, now more than ever, it’s so important to have confidence in who you are working with. Our clients work with us because we have built a level of trust. In turn, we have years of building trust with our suppliers. Sadly, many travel suppliers didn’t weather the pandemic, and we are seeing lots of new companies popping up. How can an individual traveler properly vet all the options out there? Certainly, you can look up online reviews, but do you know if the person who wrote the reviews has similar tastes or standards to you? We have built relationships with our partners and suppliers around the world, and we know what they have been doing for the past two years. We know who kept paying their staff and guides to keep them on. We know who spent their time traveling and researching new product within their own country even when Americans weren’t able to travel there. We are really selective about who we trust with our client’s precious investment in travel. Now that ‘travel is back’ we have already had on-the-ground experience with the ‘current normal’ of travel in different destinations, so we can speak with confidence about what it’s like, the level of service of our suppliers, and know that our clients are in the best hands.”
An advisor recently told me that one of the biggest problems for them with the pandemic lockdown was that new hotels opened that they couldn’t go see, and they didn’t feel comfortable booking clients into any hotel their agency had not personally vetted. Think about that – how many hotels have you stayed in that no one you know checked out for you? In this exact vein, I wrote this here at Forbes a few years ago but it bears repeating when it comes to actual local knowledge and research.
“Want to rent a villa in Tuscany and do it on your own? It’s simple. Just type “Villa Rentals Tuscany” into Google, then wade through the four and a half million responses – most of which look the same, whether they are good or bad, legit or bogus. Spend just 10 seconds each vetting sites, and you’ll be done in a year and a half – and still won’t have rented anything.” 2022 update – there are now 6.2 million results!
Three: Stuff happens, often not good stuff. The day of departure, two days after the wedding, the very first flight leg of the honeymoon got cancelled. That’s not so surprising in a year for record flight cancellations and delays. I’ve recently called airlines where I have a high level of frequent flier status and gotten a recording saying if I’m not flying today to call back another day. That never used to happen. If you’ve seen the lines at airport “help desks”—often just a telephone—you can imagine what it’s like trying to rebook yourself on the go. A good advisor stays on top of their clients’ travel in real time, and they usually know flight changes before you do and can do something about it. In this case, they made the changes, and the happy couple were on their way to Venice without missing a day. Again, Anne Scully commented via a customer note: “Thank you, while so many were in long lines when our flight was cancelled you had us rebooked before we got off the plane.”
This alone is good reason to use a travel agent!
It’s also a good time to point out that while you have a relationship with an individual advisor, every good agency has a full support staff, including a specific department devoted to air. That’s how they can keep track—and it is also why they can often get better fares and better upgrades/use of miles than you can on your own, no matter how air savvy you think you are. I’ve seen it over and over again with my own eyes, it’s like magic, and I often use advisors to book air even though I fly as much as anyone I know and have a really good understanding of all the tricks and tips. Yet somewhat like Michael Holtz, founder of hugely successful agency SmartFlyer, knows far more than me, and has literally worked ticketing miracles (despite the name, while SmartFlyer has special airline expertise, they are a full service travel agency, one of the best).
Pre-pandemic I went skiing in Japan to do an article for Town + Country, and called SmartFlyer. They booked me to Tokyo in Business Class and the return in First for $1,500 and 100,000 United miles. This was less than a third of the miles United quoted me for the same trip when I called the Platinum line. On a more recent trip to Bali, SmartFlyer found me flights in Premium Economy to Hong Kong and then Business class for the five-hour leg to Bali on Cathay Pacific—one of the world’s best airlines—for less than Cathay was selling the trip in Premium Economy the whole way on its website. It doesn’t seem possible, but it is.
“It’s never been more critical to work with a seasoned travel advisor,” said Holtz. “In our current times, SmartFlyer advisors have found that having the ability to lean on relationships allows us to create flexibility where there sometimes appears to be none. For example, should delayed or cancelled flights cause a missed night at a hotel at the beginning of your trip, we’ll work on your behalf to adjust your reservation and find an amenable solution with the property. This is just one small example of how we advocate on your behalf to navigate the unpredictable aspects of travel in the current climate.”
Goldman added that one other key reason for the recent surge in formerly do it yourself travelers switching to advisors is the airline chaos. “They call the airline to change a booking and are put on hold for two hours and 45 minutes and we can do the change in two minutes because we have direct access to the GDS” (Global Distribution System, the same computerized ticketing and reservation backbone used by airlines and hotels).
Four: Plans change. Toward the end of the honeymoon, they found that a friend was also in Greece with a rental villa on another island. They decided to visit, and the advisor was able to get them on the right ferry and change their departure flights home. That’s the last thing you want to be doing from you vacation hotel room.
“I was recently approached by a potential new client who had already booked some of their trip through a credit card program, but needed help with the detailed planning,” said Washington. “Sure, the credit card program can provide hotel amenities (so can we!), but not the destination expertise of an experienced travel advisor. When the clients returned, their feedback said it all: the guides and drivers were really top-notch, and we would recommend them all unequivocally. We definitely saw the difference compared to when we arranged a tour on our own… They were also very helpful when we had some small last-minute changes. On-the-fly changes can be almost inevitable these days, so having a travel advisor to advocate and make adjustments on your behalf in-travel is a huge time and money saver.”
Holtz added, “The biggest surprise people who don’t use an advisor get when they switch to one is for those who switch from booking with the travel desk offered by their premium credit cards. They are shocked by the personalization involved in booking with a luxury travel advisor. They aren’t being passed from call center agent to agent anymore; instead, SmartFlyer clients work with one dedicated advisor who makes recommendations based on their preferences – which are learned and refined over the course of a long-term relationship often spanning years, even decades. And once they are on property, guests are often surprised to see that their reservations are prioritized at the very top of the list for upgrades and amenities. Switching to booking with an agent is a complete transformation for travelers who want a premium experience.”
When you call your credit card you don’t have an agent, you have a phone number. Ask any good advisor what the secret to their success is and you will likely hear the words “collaboration” and “individualized.” Another Scully thank you note: “There were nine of us on this trip and each of us thought this trip was created for each of us individually…how did you make that happen? We will never leave home without you!”
Those four reasons are just a few of the answers to the question why use an advisor? – all of which came up in one extremely important once in a lifetime trip. But there are a lot more, like:
Saving you money: Many people associate travel advisors with being more expensive, and some do charge either hourly consulting rates or per service fees for things like booking airline tickets (on which they get no commission). But they also often get cheaper fares than you can, especially for premium class travel, and extras like room upgrades and significant amenities.
This is where an association like Virtuoso comes in. Virtuoso is a global consortium of top tier travel agencies, most in the luxury realm, and agencies like SmartFlyer, Embark Beyond, Goldman Group, and Getaway Guild are all affiliated. Agencies belonging to Virtuoso are independent and free to recommend and book anything they want – and often do, because they have strong opinions and personal relationships. But travel suppliers, from individual hotels to chains to cruise lines to tour operators also belong, and to do so, they have to offer the agencies and their customers extras. They do so because collectively Virtuoso member agencies have enormous financial clout: in 2019, the last “normal” pre-pandemic year, they booked $26.4 billion in travel – and per trip spending is higher right now than it ever has been.
For hotels in Virtuoso (a luxury Who’s Who of Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental, Six Senses, Aman, Anantara, Auberge, Ritz-Carlton, Park Hyatt, Peninsula, Shangri La, Luxury Collection, and so on and so on), perks are contractually obligated. So, anyone who books through a Virtuoso agency gets automatic free extras such as complimentary daily breakfast, room upgrades, early check-in, late check-out, complimentary airport transfers, spa credits and so on (specifics vary by hotel). According to Virtuoso, just the hotel benefits are valued at an average of over $500 per stay – while you pay the same price you could get yourself (or less!).
Cruise benefits can be even bigger. It’s just utterly foolish to ever book a cruise yourself without using an advisor. It is an industry with large inventories that fluctuate wildly in supply and demand each week, built very much on loyalty, both of frequent repeat passengers and the travel agencies that book them, neither of which cruise line want to lose. It essentially costs the line no more to have you stay in a deluxe suite than a cheap room if that suite is available, and with the size of today’s ships, it often is. Unlike hotel rooms, once the ship sails, no one can show up last minute looking for a suite. But it’s the customers who use advisors who get gets these upgrades, often more than one class, along with free shore excursions, onboard credits and all sorts of things – for the same exact price you would pay going direct.
I’ve already covered how they can save you money on flights, sometimes thousands of dollars on a single trip. When you get more than you expected for the same price, that’s a win, and with travel advisors it happens frequently.
Again, the best way to find an advisor is through a recommendation for someone whose travel style or instincts you trust. If you don’t have that option, Virtuoso has an online “matchmaker” engine that lets you enter your favorite places, interests and types of travel, and it suggests advisors who are compatible. In any case, begin the process with an interview, which can be over the phone – in today’s world there is no need to be in the same locale, and a UK-based advisor told me he recently has gotten a lot of American clients as referrals. In fact, if your travel wants mirror those of another country, you may be better off, if for example, you ski in Europe, love the Maldives, and go to beach resorts in places like Mallorca or Bodrum frequented by Europeans, chances are a UK agency will know them better. In any case, if you don’t feel the conversation is enough about you and understanding your wants, move on.
The big key is good communication that facilitates collaboration. To me, a great travel advisor is proactive, not just reactive to you calling and saying you want to go to Paris. If you love golf, or food, or skiing, and some once in a lifetime opportunity comes up, or a new trip is launched that’s in your wheelhouse, I’d want the advisor to reach out to you and suggest it. For example, I recently wrote here about active travel company Backroads and how they had launched a new trip, Cycling the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. If you are an avid cyclist and whiskey lover, you probably have no idea that trip exists, but if you did, you’d want to take it. It is your advisor’s job to let you know—yet another reason to have one.
There are a ton of reasons to use a travel advisor at any time, but even more today in a chaotic world of uncertainty, cancellations, fast evolving border rules and last-minute changes. But at the end of the day, the best reason of all is because you will have a better trip, and that’s why you travel in the first place.
Again, words I wrote years ago here at Forbes still ring true: “They know more than you do, they are better connected, they have access to benefits you can’t get yourself, and they can match and often beat any prices you find. They plan a better trip and then provide a safety net. Having a top travel agent can make you an instant VIP, certainly will save you time and hassle, and quite possibly money.”