What to Look for in a Travel Agent

By: Stephanie Larkin

In this day of online trip booking and lowest price airfare searches, do you still need a travel agent? According to the ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents) and most travelers, the answer is a resounding yes. Travel agents still book nearly 90% of all cruises and over 80% of all tours and packages. A consumer-conscious travel agent will work hard to find you the best possible combination of price and features to make your tour a dream vacation. Here are some questions to ask that will help you evaluate travel agents and be sure that you find the best one for your booking and travel needs.

1. Do you know a good travel agent?
Yes, start by asking around. A good travel agent will build a good reputation. If you have friends and associates who travel often, ask them for their recommendations. Those will be a good starting point for your own search.

2. How long have you been doing this?
Look for an agent that has been in business for five years or longer. While length of time in business is no guarantee of commitment or knowledge, experience is a great teacher.

3. What are your qualifications as a travel agent?
There are a number of professional training courses that your agent may have taken. The highest certification for a travel agent is a Certified Travel Consultant, which requires five years of full time travel industry experience and the completion of twelve courses. Other certificates include Certified Travel Associate, and Destination Specialist. While it is not necessary for a travel agent to hold any of these qualifications, they do provide proof of commitment and knowledge in the industry.

4. Are you affiliated with an agency?
On the other hand, even a younger, newer agent who is affiliated with an established agency has access to the resources and information of the entire agency. That's not to say that outside agents - those who work outside an agency - are not as good. An outside agent has the advantage of flexibility in booking trips that are not part of their agency's offered products.

5. Are you affiliated with any professional organizations?
U.S. travel agents are not generally regulated or held to uniform standards, but there are two major professional bodies to which they may belong, the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) and the Association of Retail Travel Agents (ARTA).

6. What questions is the agent asking me?
One of the most important qualifications for a travel agent is an awareness of and sensitivity to your needs. The agent you're working with should be full of questions aimed at learning as much as possible about your needs. A good travel agent will be focused on you and your needs, not just on the products they are selling you.

7. Do you have any specialist knowledge?
Some agencies and agents specialize in a particular type of trip. If you have special needs or are seeking a unique type of vacation - like the new and very popular eco-tours - you may do far better with an agent who is experienced in that special field. Other specialties may include booking tours and trips for people with limitations and/or disabilities, booking adventure tours, or booking trips to a specific destination.

8. How do you find me the best deals?
You can ask more specific questions, but you're really trying to find out how well-connected your travel agent is within the industry, and how current they are with the latest technologies and developments. You're looking for answers like, "we have preferred supplier arrangements with these travel companies" and "I subscribe to these databases of travel offers" - answers that make it clear your travel agent uses all the resources available to find you the best possible trip.

9. What will happen if I have an overseas emergency while your agency is closed?
Your travel agent can and should be your strongest advocate before, during and after your trip. Being able to contact your agency during their off hours can mean the difference between sitting in a hotel lobby waiting until the office reopens. The answer you want is: "There is always an agent on call to resolve problems that might arise even when we're closed."

10. Do I like this person and feel comfortable with them?
While it's not necessary to like someone in order to do business with them, it's a very good gauge of how well they're relating to you. You'll get the best service and vacation experience from a travel agent who is focused on you, your companions and helping you arrange the vacation of a lifetime. After all, a good agent isn't looking for a sale - they're looking for a long-term relationship.

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