Are travel agents obsolete in the digital age?
That’s a question many are asking these days. Consumers have 24/7 access to travel information online and even on their cell phones. Travelers can research a destination, find package deals, book flights and hotels, and generally access all the services that were once the exclusive domain of a professional travel agency.
While no one disputes that the Internet has changed the travel business, several agents we talked with say there is still room in the industry for agents. They say clients still come to them for help in planning complex trips, visiting unfamiliar venues or to simply save them time and headaches.
Nola Snodgrass, tour planner with Boone Travels in Danville, Virginia, said her company uses the Internet extensively. “However, there are still a lot of people who do not have Internet access,” she said. “Some people just like the old-fashioned approach of getting on the phone and talking to someone.”
Boone Travels specializes in bus tours for student groups and senior citizens, although it also helps individuals with airfare, cruises and other travel needs. She said the company gets most of its clients through word of mouth or from their brochures.
Snodgrass said Boone has worked with many of the same area schools for years, providing sample itineraries and helping teachers customize trips that match their curriculum needs. For senior clients, “We can help them decide not only where to go but where not to go – such as places that involve a lot of walking.” The agency has also worked with groups who have interest in a certain trip but does not have enough members to fill that trip. “So we can check with another group and see if they can go together.”
Snodgrass added, “Some people just prefer a smaller agency that can meet their needs.”
Some travel agencies focus on certain specialties, such as cruises, eco-tourism or extreme adventure. Ann Lombardi, co-owner of The TripChecks in Atlanta, Georgia, said her full-service agency does mainly international destinations with a particular focus on Europe.
Planning and designing a trip to Europe can be a daunting task, particularly the first timer. For example, “There’s an art to knowing what type of rail pass to buy,” Lombardi said. There are a number of varieties, she said. “This is when an experienced, well-traveled agent can help you figure out the best bang for your buck.”
If a person travels across multiple countries and the train passes through one that is not on your rail pass, “you’re going to have to pay out of pocket,” Lombardi said. “You want to be sure you have the right combination of countries on your pass.” She said there are many rail options, including flexible passes spanning weeks or months, or simple consecutive-day passes. “If you miscalculate and underbuy,” Lombardi said, “you have to pay out of pocket, which is a bummer.” Also, the passes are not refundable, so if someone buys four days of travel but only uses three, they are wasting money.
Air-fare is also a huge expense. There are web sites such as www.kayak.com and www.farecompare.com where you can sign up for email alerts when fares between two cities go down, she said. However, it also helps to work with a travel agent “who knows about wholesale or consolidator tickets that are available during the high season, Lombardi said. “Those are negotiated rates that are not available to the general public and not in the computer.”
Finding cheaper air travel overseas is also an advantage cited by Carole Buonopane, owner/president of B&B Travel in West Peabody, Massachusetts. “If you’re looking at air travel to Europe, we can access services that provide access to cheaper flights,” he said. Wholesale tickets are often available to international destinations, she said.
B&B is a full service travel agency that has been in business for 27 years. Most of their business comes from repeat clients, customer referrals, ads in the local newspaper and web site traffic. While the clients are mostly families and individuals, Buonopane said, B&B also does groups. She also specializes in trips for single parents (typically men with children) and “girlfriend getaways.”
Buonopane said travel agents “are creative and have a passion for what we do.” She said her clients look for agents to save them time, money and hassle by providing personalized solutions and creative problem-solving.
“The Internet had definitely had an impact on the industry,” Bounopane said. “People may be able to find cheaper trips online, but cheaper is not necessarily better.” If a client only needs airfare, she said, “you can book your ticket at the airline’s web site for less than it would cost through me. But if you’re looking for a memorable vacation, it doesn’t cost you one cent more to tap into our knowledge and experience to design your trip.”