July 25, 2024

Adventure Destinations League

Navigating Travel Wonders

When to Use a Travel Agent

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I’ve always thought that planning my own trips was the most cost-effective way, but I’ve been hearing more about travel agents making a comeback and saving their clients a lot of money. What kinds of outdoor trips should I turn to a travel agent for, and are there any who specialize in working with adventurers like me?

Technically, I’m a professional traveler. As a journalist, it’s my job to research and connect with locals to get beneath the surface of a destination. So I have never really used travel agents. What could they plan better than I could?

A lot, it turns out. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know many travel specialists, and I consider them magicians. My big aha moment happened two winters ago on a trip to Iceland. A massive storm shut down internal flights for a day, causing me to miss my return flight to the U.S. Normally, I would have spent frustrating hours on hold with the airline. But because I’d paid $65 to have Ana Gloria Garcia, an air-support specialist at the travel agency EmbarkBeyond, find and book the most affordable and convenient flight option for me, she handled the rebookings while I soaked in the Blue Lagoon.

A woman soaks in Iceland’s Blue Lagoon.
Smiles, not stress. Would you rather be soaking in the Blue Lagoon or on the phone trying to rebook a cancelled flight? (Photo: Ivan/Getty)

During the pandemic, agents became advocates helping travelers get refunds on canceled flights and trips. As travel has come roaring back, an agent’s superpower is now their access to the best hotel rooms, most in-the-know guides, free amenities, and more, says Cory Hagopian, senior vice president of sales and partnerships for Virtuoso, a global network of travel agencies.

And they’re attracting a young clientele. According to a recent industry survey, 38 percent of millennials and Gen Zers are opting to use travel agents as opposed to booking on their own trips. That number is far greater than Gen Xers and baby boomers, of whom only 12 and 2 percent respectively use agents.

What Do I Gain from Using a Travel Agent?

I recently had a friend tell me she spent close to 40 hours researching a family trip online. She probably could have gleaned the same intel from an hourlong conversation with a travel adviser. Knowledge is priceless, and advisers act as your insiders. They know what you don’t and fill in the blanks for things you might not have considered, says Erika Richter, a spokesperson for the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA). Their firsthand knowledge, vast network, and on-the-ground connections all combine to provide a unique perspective for crafting the perfect itinerary for you.

Kayak, paddle, raft—a river trip down Costa Rica’s Pacuare is good fun. And Danielle Meyer of Coastline Travel likes to book clients in the riverfront, all-inclusive, 20-suite Pacuare Lodge. “The way to get to the property is by whitewater rafting, so you truly begin with adventure!”
Kayak, paddle, raft—a trip down Costa Rica’s Pacuare is an adrenaline boost. Danielle Meyer of Coastline Travel likes to book clients in the riverfront, all-inclusive, 20-suite Pacuare Lodge. “The way to get to the property is by whitewater rafting, so you truly begin with adventure,” she says. (Photo: John Duran/Getty)

Most travel advisers specialize in certain regions and countries and travel to them frequently, so they have up-to-date intel on not only the best safari camps but the perfect tent to book for the most incredible views and the best local restaurants you won’t find on Tripadvisor. They want their client’s trips to go well to keep them coming back, so it’s in their interest to have sussed out hotels and itineraries before they send you out into the world.

Nicole Forster, 29, considers herself a savvy traveler. She’s been to 20-plus countries and enjoys destination research. But when it came to planning her honeymoon in Africa, she felt overwhelmed, so she reached out to Danielle Meyer at Coastline Travel Advisors, which specializes in bespoke itineraries. “Originally, I wanted to go to South Africa, Victoria Falls, and Madagascar,” Forster recalls. “Danielle convinced me that if we wanted to relax, we should stay in South Africa and save the other countries for separate trips.”

Over five phone conversations and multiple emails, they crafted a 15-night itinerary that included Cape Town, the winelands, the Cape Peninsula, and a safari at the Thornybush Game Reserve. Forster established her budget early in the process, and Meyer sent her a variety of lodge options to choose from.

“I initially wanted to start with the safari, but she pointed out that we’d be jet-lagged and would need to wake at sunrise for game drives,” says Forster. “The safari was our highlight, so it was a perfect way to end the trip.”

A man sitting in an open-air vehicle while on safari in South Africa smiles at the camera while an elephant is just over his shoulder, approaching.
On a safari at South Africa’s Thornybush Game Reserve in Kruger Park, Brad and Nicole Forster saw elephants, giraffes, lions, cheetahs, hippos, and zebra. (Photo: Courtesy Nicole Forster)

Not only did Meyer book all of the flights, hotels, and transfers, but she created a detailed, day-by-day trip app for the couple that included useful information like check-in times at hotels and how much to tip guides.

Agents also act as advocates. If something goes wrong during your travels, they’re on call 24/7 to handle it. When Forster left the battery and charger for her camera at a hotel, Meyer arranged for an on-the-ground contact to go to a camera store and buy new ones that would be delivered to her hotel the next day.

The cost for the honeymoon planning: $150 per person. “I wouldn’t use a planner for a trip to Hawaii,” Forster says, “but if I ever took a big trip like this again, I’d 100 percent work with an expert.” 

When to Consider Using a Travel Agent

For savvy trip planners, the best time to use a travel agent is for complicated international travel. It can save you hours of planning and peace of mind that if anything goes wrong in your chosen far-flung destination, there’s someone a What’sApp message away to handle it.

Domestically, I’d consider using a travel agent when planning a multi-week national park trip or multi-island trip in Hawaii. They will save you time, guarantee you get the best guides, and help you land reservations at always-booked lodges and hotels.

Dream Trips Delivered

Jessica Cook and her husband both work in the travel industry. Decision fatigued, they handed their honeymoon logistics over to the team at Askari Travel, an agency that specializes in South Africa. Their original plan was also an African safari, but just as they were about to put a deposit down, the Omicron variant of the coronavirus made headlines. Worried about getting stuck abroad, they reached out to Askari’s founder, Muriel Truter, who is from Zimbabwe, and upon her advice, changed their focus to South America.

Knowledge is priceless, and advisers act as your insiders. They know what you don’t and fill in the blanks of things you might not even have considered.

Truter suggested they stick to Colombia rather than country-hop. Cook supplied a budget and a wish list: 12 days, no more than three destinations, a barefoot-luxe feel, and adventures like horseback riding and mountain biking. The rest was a surprise that Askari pretty much nailed, with the exception of one hotel.

“Everything felt so authentic, but this one hotel on Barú island felt really fabricated and was full of American tourists,” recalls Cook. She immediately messaged the Askari team, saying, “Hey, this place really isn’t our vibe,” and within an hour they were on a water taxi headed to Blue Apple, a B Corp hotel—and an Outside pick for tropical adventures—on Tierra Bomba island. “It was honestly the best trip we’ve ever taken,” she says.

Tierra Bomba, a 15-minute boat ride from the Colombian capital of Cartagena, is an affordable Caribbean destination with a relaxed pace and soft white sands.
Tierra Bomba, a 15-minute boat ride from the Colombian capital of Cartagena, is an affordable Caribbean destination with a relaxed pace and white sands. Knowledgable travel guides suggest vacationing there during the week, as the weekend gets busy with mainland day-trippers. (Photo: Gustavo Ramirez/Getty)

Are Travel Agents Expensive?

It depends. Cost varies. Some travel agencies won’t charge any fee, as they receive a commission from the bookings, while some high-end agencies will charge pricey annual membership fees for their services. Still others charge nominal “professional” fees starting at $150. Fees often fluctuate based on the length and intricacy of a trip and how far out you do the planning (6 to 12 months is recommended). You may occasionally come across agents who charge a percentage of the total trip price or hourly rates.

Basic travel enquiries are generally free. In 2016, Leah Smith, founder of Tafari Travel, opened an old-school brick-and-mortar location in Denver’s Cherry Creek neighborhood so her services would feel less intimidating to first-time users. “With our retail-office location, we’ve become part of the community, and both clients and non-clients are welcome to pop in and ask whatever questions they may have, no charge,” she says.

Matt Lindsay, founder of the surf-guiding and travel company LuxSurf Travel, builds relationships with resorts and property owners to get discounted rates that he can then pass on to guests.

Matt Lindsey of LuxeSurfTravel can arrange a surf safari on a 165-foot boat, complete with dive masters. surf guides, and a spa. Guests spend a week cruising around atolls in the Maldives seeking out perfect swell and swimming with whale sharks and manta rays.
Matt Lindsey of LuxSurfTravel can arrange a surf safari on a 165-foot boat, complete with dive masters, surf guides, and a spa. Guests spend a week cruising around atolls in the Maldives, seeking out perfect swell and swimming with whale sharks and manta rays. A similar itinerary would be difficult, if not impossible, to plan without a travel agent. (Photo: Courtesy LuxSurf Travel)

Dominic Allan, the founder of Real Latin America, specializes in travel to Belize and Nicaragua and caters to independent travelers who are happy to book their own flights and hotels but are seeking his local intel. Allan’s three-tier pricing structure starts at $300 for up to three hours of phone calls, during which he might weigh in on where to eat (or not to), the best room to request in a certain lodge, or whether you really need a guide to hike.

”Totoro Eco-Lodge, in Nicaragua, has always been one of our favorites,” says Dominic Allen of Real Latin America. In addition to its laid-back vibe, it’s spectacuarly placed on Ometepe Island, with views out to the active Conception volcano. Allen recommends volcano hikes, rainforest excursions, tours of a chocolate farm, and sunset paddles in search of caiman.
”Totoro Eco-Lodge, in Nicaragua, has always been one of our favorites,” says Dominic Allan of Real Latin America. In addition to its laid-back vibe, it’s spectacularly placed on Ometepe Island, with views out to the active Concepcíon volcano. Allan helps clients coordinate volcano hikes, rainforest excursions, tours of a local chocolate farm, and sunset paddles in search of caiman. (Photo: Courtesy Totoco/Real Latin America)

Value Versus Savings

If you’re just looking for deals and steals, you might not be ready to work with a travel adviser, says Richter of the ASTA. “Anything you invest in with a travel adviser comes back to you in the form of amenities, customer service, peace of mind, better access to unique experiences, and handcrafted itineraries,” she says. “You could save money by cutting your own hair, too, but most people go to someone who knows what they’re doing.”

Agents work with preferred partners who can guarantee perks for clients, such as free upgrades, early check-in or late check-out, and resort credits. Those add-ons often translate into savings, says Justin Huxter, cofounder of the UK-based Cartology Travel. “We had a client go to Maui for a week, and because of our partnership with the resort, breakfast was included,” he says. When breakfast costs $120 for two, that’s a savings of $840.”

A meerkat sits atop a man wearing a ball cap and scans the horizon of Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pans.
Justin Huxter (seen here with a meerkat on his head) of Cartology Travel loves recommending a stay at San Camp, Arabian-inspired lodging amid the massive salt flats in the Makgadikgadi Pans of Botswana. “Walk with the Indigenous Khoisan people—and the native meerkats—horse-ride, fly across the desert on ATVs,” he says. He suggests requesting tents five or six, which face west and have the best sunset views. (Photo: Courtesy Justin Huxter)

Some of the Best Travel Agents in the Adventure World

Some of my go-to resources for finding a person to work with include travel expert Wendy Perrin’s annual Wow List of tried and trusted agents, the Adventure Travel Trade Association’s adviser network, and the ASTA’s advisor directory.

In addition to the agents mentioned throughout this story, others I highly recommend for adventurous travelers include:

  • Dan Achber of Trufflepig, for Africa and the Middle East
  • Miguel Cunant of Sri Lanka in Style
  • Javier Echecopar of Journey Costa Rica
  • Daniel Fraser of Smiling Albino, for Southeast Asia
  • Elizabeth Gordon of Extraordinary Journeys, for Africa
  • Kleon Howe of the Art of Travel, for French Polynesia
  • Jay Johnson of Coastline Travel, for Hawaii and California
  • Antonello Losito of Southern Visions Travel, for Puglia, Italy
  • Rabia Malik of Fora Travel, for general worldwide travel
  • Robyn Mark of Mayamaya Travel, for Africa, the Alps, Patagonia, and Japan
  • Marisol Mosquera of Aracari, for Peru and Bolivia
  • Zach Rabinor of Journey Mexico
  • Raluca Spiac of Beyond Dracula, for Romania
The author immersed in the hot waters of Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, with mud on her face. It beats being on the phone trying to reschedule a flight cancellation.
The author, immersed in the hot waters (and mud) of Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, was happy to have used a travel agent for this particular trip. (Photo: Courtesy Jen Murphy)

Travel-advice columnist Jen Murphy is now a believer in using a travel agent. Thanks to their expertise and connections, she’s avoided dozens of trip catastrophes. 

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