But the work didn’t end once Vaughn and his husband boarded their flight from Los Angeles to Delhi. When their flight from Delhi to Agra to see the Taj Mahal was canceled, Rubin came to the rescue. “They would have been on the phone for the next several hours trying to sort out what to do,” he said.
Instead, they went sightseeing while Rubin’s local contacts did the sorting. By the time the couple returned to their hotel, their bags had been packed and loaded into a car, and a driver whisked them off to Agra.
The irony, Vaughn said, is that Rubin had initially tried to get them to drive to Agra rather than fly, but they hadn’t taken his advice. “Ultimately, he was right,” said Vaughn, a public-affairs consultant. “Seeing a camel going through a toll booth on a highway is not something you get to see while you’re flying.”
For years, it looked as though the travel agent had gone the way of the milkman. As online booking sites such as Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity and others soared in popularity, travel agents became the butt of jokes. A scene from a “30 Rock” episode this season said it all. Desperate at the prospect of losing her writing job, Liz Lemon is invited to live in a subway tunnel with people whose occupations have become irrelevant: an American auto worker, a rock band saxophonist, the CEO of Friendster — and a travel agent.
But the travel agent has been given a reprieve. That’s because many vacations have become as hard to plan as the name of last year’s traveler-stranding Icelandic volcano was to pronounce. Natural disasters cause flight cancellations. Revolutions put tourist destinations off-limits. Airlines and rental car agencies confound with ever-increasing fees. And the Internet spews so much information that it manages to hurt consumers as much as it helps them.
Travelers are starting to need vacations from planning their vacations.
“Not only are customers confused and frustrated by new airline fees and events, but they are bombarded by social media,” said John Clifford, president of the luxury travel consultancy InternationalTravelManagement.com. “Everyone is trying to tell you where you should stay, where you should eat, what you should do.”
A study by Forrester Research found that the number of leisure travelers who enjoyed using the Web to plan and book their vacations dropped from 53 percent in 2007 to 47 percent in 2010. And in an American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) survey, 44 percent of agents said that they had more clients in 2010 than they’d had the previous year, with the strongest rebound in rail and hotel reservations.
Travelers “don’t have hours to spend on research to compare multiple flights, multiple cruises, multiple packages,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Forrester Research. “It’s not unlike doing your taxes. Depending on who you are, what your priorities are, there are some people who will choose to do it themselves or to use a professional.”