Whenever Americans start traveling again, they will quickly find that travel planning looks significantly different in the era of covid-19. Instead of scouring the Internet for the best deals and new destinations, they will have to study border restrictions and quarantine requirements.
To navigate the complicated landscape of traveling during the pandemic, people are turning to travel agents, some for the first time.
InteleTravel, a company that has independent travel agents working from home in the United States, the United Kingdom and Mexico, says that before the pandemic, the travel agent industry had been on the decline since the 1990s. James Ferrara, the company’s president, says since the pandemic hit, travel agents are seeing an increase of demand. Since April, InteleTravel has added more than 4,000 travel agents per month, which is a 40 percent increase over 2019.
As someone who normally relies on her own incessant Googling to plan travel, I wanted to clear up my misconceptions about travel agents (increasingly known as travel advisers) about what they do, what they charge and how they can be helpful. So I spoke with Ferrara and Bahar Schmidt, the co-founder of the travel agency and resale platform Eluxit, about the appeal.
While we’ve been stuck at home, travel agents have been studying what’s happening in the industry.
For many people, travel is something to do for fun. For travel agents, it’s work. We may have stopped planning trips when the pandemic started, but travel agents continued to study it for their clients’ needs.
Schmidt says Eluxit agents have been staying informed by attending webinars hosted by airlines, hotel brands and destinations to better advise clients. “There are hundreds [of webinars] on a daily basis to choose from,” Schmidt says.
Unlike the average traveler, travel agents are constantly studying the industry. They’re surveying when an airline releases new routes, watching for updates on passport services, monitoring when countries open their borders to Americans. Then they digest that information and share what’s important with their clients.
They are also focusing on new safety concerns. Some agencies coordinate rapid coronavirus testing for customers, or they provide updated safety information for travelers’ peace of mind. For example, Schmidt recently worked with a client to decide on an airline based on its covid-19 precautions and a car transfer that she knew followed social distancing strictly.
“A lot of people are still kind of worried about traveling. It’s comforting just to hear somebody’s voice saying, it’s okay ... this is what they’re going to serve you on the airplane, this is what you should prepare for,” Schmidt says.
Travel agents can fight directly for your refund.
At a time when many travelers are scrounging for refunds on canceled flights, travel agents are better equipped to deal with those hassles.
“We have expert access. We have industry relationships. There are tools we can use,” Ferrara says.
He says “when customers have had to sit on the phone, wait and wait and wait, and the system hangs up and nobody ever calls a back, they call again,” his agents have special service lines that connect directly through to a supplier to resolve problems faster.
If something goes wrong, a travel agent can take on your travel problems.
Things go wrong all the time when you’re traveling, whether you’re a seasoned professional or taking your first big vacation. “Having a travel adviser, you can just text or call them right away, and they fix the problem for you,” Schmidt says.
Ferrara says disasters can be smoothed with an expert advocate on your side, and the pandemic has given rise to a whole new world of disasters.
“There are thousands of travel nightmare stories out there. I’ve become a collector of them in a way,” he says. “Costco, Expedia, not answering the phones. Websites down … people not being able to get any help to rebook flights, stranded at hotels. Hours, weeks, months of waiting, confusion and frustration, even desperation.”
Part of how agents can help is because of their ongoing relationships with brands. “When you call a resort with a problem or a complaint, a good resort will respect you as a customer, but that’s not the same as hearing from a travel agency that has hundreds of bookings at that resort,” Ferrara says. “You just don’t have the same resolution power as a consumer that a professional travel agency has.”
You can find an agent for any travel style, and even free.
One of the hang-ups I have had about using travel agents is that as a budget traveler, I don’t want to spend extra money on a trip to get help planning it. It turns out that while some travel agents charge for their services, many do not.
“In our case, at InteleTravel, most of our agents do not charge a fee for their services. They are paid by the travel supplier,” Ferrara says. Travel suppliers, like hotels or cruise lines, will pay travel agents commission once a trip is booked.
Some agents may charge a fee that is ultimately deducted from your trip cost, so that in case you don’t go on the trip, they still get paid for their time planning.
While I’ve always thought travel agents were for a particular type of traveler, Ferrara disagrees. “You have the widest possible range of agents out there who specialize in all markets,” he says.
There are specialized advisers whether you want to plan an extreme adventure trip, a river cruise or just want to travel as cheaply as possible. “I’ve met travel agents who are just brilliant at budget travel, and that maybe is … where you need even more help to truly find those best deals out there,” Ferrara says.
When you can skip a travel agent
Sebastian Modak, a freelance travel writer who flew nearly 200,000 miles in 2019 as the New York Times’ 52 Places Traveler, says there are certain trips where outside help for planning can be essential. For example, a travel agent may be key when figuring out how to get to extremely remote locations, like his trip to Olkhon Island in Siberia’s Lake Baikal. And remote places may becoming increasing popular as people seek to avoid crowds.
“I probably could have figured it out on my own with enough research and enough asking around,” he says. “But having someone help me figure out what bus I need to take and when I need to get there and which hotels and guesthouses that were open — that’s really when [help] came into play.”
“I think that a lot of cities have enough readily accessible, available tourist resources that it's a lot easier to acclimatize ourselves. I'm thinking, for example, of the fact that like a lot of cities around the world, there are city-sponsored free walking tours.”
Modak also thinks that solo travelers might not need the same help from a travel agent as families or big groups.
“I think the whole point of traveling solo is to improvise and rely on serendipity and kind of challenge yourself a little bit,” he says.