Why You Should Use a Travel Agent

This past summer, I took one of the longest and most complicated trips of my life.

It was a 26-day tour of Italy, Croatia, and Greece that included planes, trains, cars, and ferries, all of which needed to be coordinated to make sure I adhered to Covid-prompted entry requirements for each country. The trip went off nearly without a hitch, except for the evening that my flight from Rome to Split, Croatia was delayed by 90 minutes, resulting in my missing the last ferry of the night from Split to the island of Hvar.

I found myself an inexpensive hotel for the night near the port in Split on Booking.com, but more important to me was that I would be forfeiting the approximately $325 I had already paid for that non-refundable night at the Adriana Hvar Spa Hotel—one of the most expensive hotels on my month-long itinerary.

It turns out I didn’t have to worry—because I booked the trip with a travel agent. When I was planning my European adventure, I asked a travel editor friend if she could recommend someone to help me plan my trip. She told me her go-to resource for travel was Jack Ezon, a founder and managing partner of Embark Beyond. I called Ezon in May and told him what I was hoping to do—visit Greece, Croatia, Italy, France, and maybe Norway. He kindly explained that my plan was too ambitious, not only because I was trying to visit too many countries in too short a period of time, but also because Norway and France were not open to Americans (France did later open to American travelers, but Norway’s borders remain closed).

Ezon referred me to one of his travel advisors, Julie Banning. Banning and I spoke by phone, and she put together a stellar itinerary that included stops in Florence, Forte dei Marmi, Portofino, Rome, Positano, Capri, Hvar, Dubrovnik, Mykonos, Sifnos, and Athens. Banning explained that for a trip of this magnitude, Embark Beyond would charge a fee of $1,000 (the company offered me a discount on the fee as a journalist—I paid $500). If she were only booking hotels (which compensate travel agencies through commissions), there would be no charge, but since she would be booking flights, trains, and cars, a fee would apply. While the fee seemed high to me when I first learned of it, I’m now happy to have paid it because of the value I got out of using a travel agent for my trip.

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Back to the Hvar situation. When I checked in the day after my expected arrival date, the front desk manager at the Adriana told me that the hotel would not be able to refund that first night. I explained that it would have been physically impossible for me to check in on time because I missed the last ferry to Hvar due to my flight delay. She told me that the best they could do would be to add an additional night to the end of my stay, but that would not work because I needed to get to Athens for my return flight to New York. I figured I was out of luck, but then I e-mailed Banning to fill her in on what had happened. “Leave it with me,” she replied.

A Travel Agent Is Your Best Advocate When Something Goes Wrong

Sure enough, an e-mail Banning sent to the hotel reservations department did the trick. A week later, the hotel refunded the cost of the first night’s stay to my American Express card.

“We’re advocates,” explains Anne Scully, a partner at Embark Beyond who has worked in the travel industry for 40 years. “A good travel advisor holds a client’s hands and takes care of them.” She adds that travel advisors really show their value when things go wrong. “Through our relationships and our experience, we are able to get clients out of a bad situation.”

Scully says that she has also gotten clients rebooked when their flights have been canceled—long before their fellow passengers have gotten through to the airline customer service phone line or found their way to a representative at the airport.

They Know Where to Send You Because It’s Their Job

Another reason to use a travel agent is to get intel on a new destination. I discovered how valuable one could be when I visited Costa Rica for the first time last March. Like many 30-somethings, I figured I could plan a trip on my own. After a few hours of online research, I realized I was out of my element since I was attempting to visit a foreign country I had never been to during the middle of a pandemic. I enlisted the help of Tom Pyman at Black Tomato, a luxury and adventure tour operator. I explained that I had about 10 days to travel and was trying to decide between Costa Rica and Egypt—two of just a few countries open to American travelers at the time.

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Pyman, who specializes in both destinations, recommended Costa Rica since I could do a combination of adventure activities (like ziplining and whitewater rafting) and beach excursions. He put together a comprehensive itinerary that included visits to the Arenal Volcano area, Tortuguero on the Caribbean Coast, and Santa Theresa on the Pacific Coast, all without charging a planning fee.

They Know the Best Way to Get Around Your Destinations

For my most recent trip, Banning knew that the flight I needed to take from Dubrovnik to Athens only operated certain days of the week. That meant that she needed to plan an itinerary that would involve traveling between Croatia and Greece on a Thursday or Saturday—something that would have taken me quite a while to figure on my own.

In addition, Embark Beyond can arrange for VIP meet-and-greets at the airport, where their guide will meet passengers at the door to the plane, whisk them through customs, and get them out of the airport with luggage while the other passengers from their flight are still waiting to get through passport control, Scully says.

Both Black Tomato and Embark Beyond were also on top of the Covid protocols during my trips. Black Tomato arranged for a local guide to take me to a lab in San José for the rapid test I needed to return to the United States; it was one of only a few labs that was open on that Sunday and would not have been easy to find on my own. Embark Beyond provided clear and detailed pre-departure information about the online documents I would need to complete to enter the countries I was visiting. (As a vaccinated American, I did not need to take a Covid test to enter Italy, Croatia, or Greece, but I did have to show my vaccination card.)

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They Have Flexible Cancelation Policies

During the pandemic, Black Tomato launched a policy called State of Flex that offers travelers full refunds and fee-free postponements on bookings if Covid complications arise between booking and travel, up to 30 days before departure.

They Can Get You Upgrades You Can’t Get Yourself

“I had a fellow come to me with his Centurion Card and say, ‘Anne, I don’t see what you can do,'” Scully says (American Express’s most exclusive credit card, the Centurion Card reportedly offers a number of hotel benefits). “I said, “‘I’ll make you known on arrival. You will be recognized on arrival, not the card.’ The card is a bank benefit. The human connection and relationships change the way people travel.”

Scully says she had another client for whom she had booked a cruise, and the client called to say she was able to get a better rate from another agent. Scully talked to her contact at the cruise line, and as she suspected, the other agent was giving the client a rebate to win her business. While Scully was not able to match the rate, she was able to do even better by leveraging her connection with the cruise line to secure an upgrade to a cabin that was 200 square feet larger than the client had booked.

They Can Set Up Special Experiences

When she learned two of her clients were celebrating a 50th wedding anniversary, Scully coordinated with the couple’s children to get 50 photos from throughout their marriage and arranged to have each photo printed on a balloon for the party.

Black Tomato travelers can choose to be surprised by where they’re going at the airport if they opt for the tour operator’s tailor-made Get Lost service. All the required equipment is supplied at the destination.

While I’m not sure I’d be up for that level of uncertainty, you can bet I’ll be enlisting the help of a travel agent next time I go to another new destination.

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About the Author: Tung Chi