September 22, 2021

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Just Do Travel

Should You Really Use a Travel Agent?

4 min read

HOW EXCITING it is, at last, to be planning a vacation. For many, it’s the first one since the pandemic grounded planes, shuttered hotels and created legions of new windowsill farmers. But where to go that’s welcoming Americans? And where to start sorting out what’s required to get there? Anxiety can eclipse the giddiness when the realities of the world come into focus. “When travel gets more complicated,” said Gary Leff, the blogger behind ViewFromtheWing, “people will look for guidance.” Suddenly, interest in travel agents is higher than it was in 2019—which was a good year for the industry. Even seasoned independent travelers are turning to pros. Laurie Kantor Finn, a small-business owner in Los Angeles who is traveling to France with her husband, son and friends this summer, hadn’t used a travel agent in 20 years. “We’re control freaks,” she said. “We like to plot, read articles and guides, use the internet to research and find great rates. We enjoy the process.” This time, though, it’s different. “Due to Covid, it’d be helpful to have someone on the ground.” So she’s hired an Italy-based adviser who specializes in France to smooth the way. In normal times, enlisting someone to design a hiccup-free trip might seem like a bourgeois indulgence; in these times, it feels more like common sense. Here, four reasons to use a travel agent now—and two reasons not to.

WHY NOW?
1. To Provide a Reality Check.

Borders open up and just as quickly close again. Some airports require proof of vaccination—a print version, not just digital. Does the country where you’re catching a connecting flight allow U.S. citizens in if you miss the plane and have to stay overnight? Keeping abreast of and making sense of the craziness is now the business of the travel agent. Shelby Dziwulski, founder of the travel company Authenteco, has had to let some clients down easy. “New Zealand?” she said. “That’s not happening soon. Another client wanted to go to Alaska in August—but there are no hotels or rental cars available.” Some last-minute trips are manageable (hiking, say, or a road trip), but by and large, travel advisers recommend planning nine to 12 months in advance.

2. To Troubleshoot.

Schedules are screwy, rules are slippery and circumstances are impossible to predict. “I’m generally allergic to nonrefundable, non-cancellable arrangements,” said Mr. Leff, who recommends booking with miles rather than risking cash. And ask yourself: Are you in a position to know what the rules are and when they change? Not just for the countries you’re going to but countries you’re connecting in. What if you test positive for Covid-19? What if you have to quarantine? Can you rebook? “You want a knowledgeable advocate who can help,” he said.

3. To Have Eyes and Ears on the Ground.

Local expertise is at a premium right now. You’ll want the inside scoop on countless practical details. Among them: Which hotels are fully functioning, which restaurants are back on top form and what hours they’re keeping, if certain museums are selling timed tickets and managing crowds.

4. For Group Travel.

It’s tricky enough to book a week at the beach for a family of four these days. Planning an international jaunt with several generations or a dozen friends might make you feel like a juggler running out of hands. For her week at a château in Provence this summer, Ms. Kantor Finn handed over the reins to Jennifer Frusci Virgilio, a travel adviser with Queen of Clubs. “We’re 12 people, I don’t speak French and they do have expertise,” she said. “They’re setting up kayaking, driving us to wineries, getting a private boat for the whole group…That’s invaluable to me.”

WHY NOT?
1. The Expense.

The cost of a good travel adviser is not incidental (some charge a minimum planning fee of $500), and it’s not necessary when plans are well-defined and manageable in scope. For instance, if you’re flying to Paris for 10 days and do your homework ahead of time, you can skip the agent. (Or consult one, for a more modest fee, on the itinerary you devise.)

2. The Expectation.

If you don’t need the “best” hotel, an audience with, say, the country’s foremost rare book dealer or the perk of skipping lines, a fancy agent’s talents may be wasted on you. If the ferry is fine, you don’t need a private yacht to island hop.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

How has a travel agent helped you navigate traveling during this time? Let us know in the comments below.

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Appeared in the July 3, 2021, print edition as ‘When to Use a Travel Agent—and When to Wing It.’