It’s that time of year when our minds drift to white sand beaches with cocktails in our hands, ancient cities ripe for exploring or mountain oases away from the chaos of daily life. Here in Northern Virginia, we earn our vacations. And we drop big bucks on them, too.
If you plan on using your earned time off, you want the best knowledge and minds behind you as you plan for a week or more of splendid fun. It’s time to call a travel agent.
“We’re very used to going to doctors to take care of our health, and we wouldn’t think about doing legal things without a lawyer … and travel is the same way, too,” says Melinda Webb Huggan, founder of Dreams and Destinations, a full-service travel agency in Ashburn. “A travel agent is going to approach that trip knowing you and also knowing that destination with your best interests in mind and navigating all of the things that can pop up through the course of that trip.”
While most of us are used to planning trips alone, just us and the World Wide Web, travel agents can offer something that society has started to crave again: personal experience and guidance. There is a growing trend in services connecting customers to experts who, after filling out forms with our likes and dislikes or pressing a button on our phones, help us pick out clothes, hang shelves we bought a month ago or wash dirty windows we can no longer stare through. Travel agents can help connect us with our vacation dreams, package an experience we might not have even known was an option and get us a great deal to boot.
Knowledge of Destinations
Travel agents have a combined knowledge through training and personal experiences with great vacation destinations, explains Huggan. They stay on top of the latest travel destinations, hotels and different packages that are being offered. Agents also visit the spaces so they know the real deal, not the experience as seen through the eye of a perfectly lit photograph: “When we’re on a trip, we go to other hotels to check them out,” says Huggan, who adds that most of her agents pack up their families and experience the destinations as guests. “Just like any other career, you have to invest in your education.”
And they’re not being paid to sell a place either. “We’re paying for our trip,” says Huggan. “The days of the free flight and free hotel and wining and dining at no cost are long gone; that was the travel agent of 20 years ago. Agents’ experience at a resort is what the actual visitor will get.”
Personal Planning Assistance
But more important than knowing the hotels and the deals is knowing what the client wants. This, Huggan says, is where a travel agent really makes a difference. “We know what our client’s preferences are, and we approach the trip from what will be the best experience for them,” she says. “Destinations aren’t one size fits all. We take different approaches to the same trip for different clients and tailor [the trip] to the client’s interests. It’s very difficult to do through a computer that doesn’t know you. And there are a lot of options; it gets overwhelming.”
They’re There When Things Go Awry
When travel plans go awry (canceled flights, missed connections, bad weather), the travel agent is the one who deals with it. “[Our work] doesn’t stop with selling the package,” says Huggan. “Things pop up that you have no anticipation [of]. Our job is to find out what [clients] need. We’re there from start to finish and when you get back, too.”
Huggan even says that while it might not be best to book flights only through an agent if you’re trying to get the cheapest price possible, they can help out in a pinch. “If you’re looking at just getting the cheapest airfare, we’re probably not the best for you,” she says. She notes the $35 ticketing fee per person might stop travelers from using an agent, but an agent can help take the stress out of unexpected changes in an itinerary. “If you get stuck in an airport and your flight is canceled, that ticketing fee buys access to the travel agent services where the agent is getting you re-accommodated and working with the airline to get you a hotel or an alternate flight,” she says.
For international flights, though, travel agents can get wholesale fares with a significant reduction in airfare, and you can work with an agent for air-only reservations.
Travel Agents Don’t Charge Astronomical Fees
While Huggan can only speak to her company’s fees, she says a travel agent doesn’t cost what you might think. “In some cases, agents are compensated through the suppliers, so there are no additional fees toward the client,” she says.
At Dreams and Destinations, clients who request proposals for a trip with a multi-country itinerary or an itinerary that has a lot of different components to it might be charged a plan-to-go fee. “Just getting the proposal together, there is a cost up front to the agent, and it’s like a retainer,” Huggan says. But that up front fee, in a lot of cases, will be refunded on the final payment if the trip is booked through the agent, and for a lot of the all-inclusive vacation packages, no fee is charged at all.