July 24, 2024

Adventure Destinations League

Navigating Travel Wonders

Short on time? Have special requests? A travel agent may be just the ticket.

When Debbie Reynolds embarked on a whirlwind trip last fall it nearly turned into a disaster, but her travel agent saved the day.

She was flying to Amsterdam to meet family and continue on to Africa, but another passenger had a medical emergency. The flight was delayed five hours and Reynolds missed her connection to Tanzania.

“That gets really complicated when you’re trying to rebook flights and connections and do it on your cellphone,” the 75-year-old St. Louis Park resident said. “The travel agent figured out how to rebook me and I didn’t have to do a thing. I was able to join my family a day later.”

Once thought to be on the brink of extinction due to digital platforms, travel agents are enjoying a revival.

Travel agents say they see more older clients seeking assistance as travel has become more complex — with considerations like foreign visas, tourist taxes and travel insurance. In addition to serving as an anchor during an emergency, they can save you time, reduce stress and help meet older travelers’ special needs — from dietary restrictions to hotels with elevators to wheelchair accessibility.

“Travel has changed quite a bit over the past four years,” said Erika Richter, spokeswoman for the American Society of Travel Advisors. “[Travel advisers] leverage a network of travel suppliers they know and trust. People place more value on that type of advocacy these days. There are so many things that can go wrong.”

As post-pandemic leisure travel exploded, many travelers turned to one of the more than 66,000 travel agents nationwide. Nearly three-quarters are home-based independent agents and many market through social media sites like Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. The number of travel agents is expected to grow through 2032.

Teri Waataja, a travel consultant at Preferred Adventures Ltd. in Mounds View, with 27 years of experience, estimates that 60% to 70% of her clients are age 50-plus.

Travel agent clients tend to be older and wealthier than the average traveler, with 72% over age 40 and 55% with annual incomes of at least $100,000, according to a report by tourism research firm Phocuswright Inc.

Whether they’re world nomads or people on their first international trip, many don’t have the time or inclination to research, plan and book itineraries. Others are overwhelmed by the online options. Phocuswright data shows the top reasons people frequent travel agents are a personal relationship (34%), customer service (34%) and expertise (28%).

Here are five ways travel agents can help travelers.

They sweat the details.

Laurie Johnsrud, a travel adviser with Travel Leaders Market Square in Rochester with 40 years of experience, has noticed that some older adults aren’t comfortable booking online or are wary of inputting their credit card information.

“Many times, we can get a better deal for them,” she said. “We can think of things they don’t think of such as they book an air-and-hotel package and forget to look at transportation between the airport and hotel.”

They’re experts.

Nowadays, travel agents often specialize in certain parts of the country or world, such as Europe, or in certain types of travel like adventure and family travel. Phocuswright data shows that ocean cruises are the most common specialization (63%), followed by Disney (59%) and tours/packages (53%).

Charuta Fadnis, senior vice president of research and product strategy for Phocuswright Inc., also thinks travelers increasingly will turn to travel agents for luxury travel to “ensure that a high-cost, luxury vacation goes off without a hitch.”

Minneapolis resident Beth Hawkins began working with a travel agent a few years ago when she found an airfare deal to Bali, but felt “so out of depth for how to prepare for that trip” that she contacted a travel agent referred by a friend.

“The travel agent arranged a number of tours for us with bilingual guides” and booked a three-bedroom villa with a kitchen and a pool “that I never would have imagined we could afford,” Hawkins, 59, said.

They handle complexities.

As 50-plus travelers book complex bucket-list and adventure trips, travel agents can advise them on where to go and stay, what to do and ensure that special requests are conveyed to the travel provider, Fadnis said.

On a more recent trip to New Zealand trip this past winter with her 21-year-old autistic daughter, Hawkins was short on time so once again she turned to a travel agent.

“The travel agent was a godsend with the New Zealand trip because I have aging parents [both in their 80s who live nearby] and literally did not end up with time to figure that trip out,” she said. In addition to planning and booking the whole trip, the travel agent also helped obtain their visas and replace a lost passport.

Some travel agents also help you determine if you need travel insurance, what type and file a claim for you.

They troubleshoot emergencies.

Waataja, who is available by cellphone 24/7 for emergencies, recalls once taking a 3 a.m. call when her clients’ flight was canceled in Europe. Over the years, she has helped handle the death of a client in Cambodia, arrange an airlift to the United States from the Costa Rican jungle for a woman with an aneurysm and rebooked travelers who went to the wrong hotel.

“I have some clients who are very seasoned travelers,” she said. “Regardless of if they book something on their own, they always book their airfare with me because if there’s a schedule change or they miss a connection, they have somebody to call and help them work through it and fix it.”

They can access deals and discounts.

Travel agents’ buying power and network lead to services, such as free upgrades, free Wi-Fi or spa credits, that travelers can’t get on their own, Richter said.

Some travel agents don’t charge a fee for their services, usually if they’re getting paid a commission by a tour operator or preferred partner such as a resort. (Airlines and railroads don’t pay commissions.) Others charge a service or booking fee, depending on the trip length, number of people and services required, but others don’t. Some charge a flat fee for services like booking hotels or obtaining visas.

“The power of access is really what you get when you’re working with a travel adviser if you’re willing to spend the money,” Richter said. “If you want to camp on an iceberg in Antarctica, they can make that happen.”