Back when it started to be clear that this internet thingy was really catching on, major upheaval was expected in the tourism industry. One of the first occupations that were predicted to disappear were those related to travel agents.
Along with newspaper travel sections, guidebooks, and travel discount clubs, most pundits said travel agents might as well just switch careers right now (say, in 1999) because they were going out like the dinosaurs. Funny about these “____ is dead” predictions though. They’re almost always wrong. Usually the job, the platform, or the media type isn’t going to die. It’s just going to adapt and evolve. It might not look the same or be as influential in the same way, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to go away completely.
Just as paper books didn’t disappear because of the Kindle and e-mail marketing didn’t disappear because of social media, travel agents are alive and well. They just don’t do the same things as they used to.
The Rise of the Travel Consultant
In the pre-internet days, you needed a travel agent because it was difficult to make all your arrangements direct. I remember taking a vacation to Jamaica in the early 1990s where I let them work out the flights, hotel, and airport transfer because it would have been really tough to arrange all these things myself. I just paid the money and picked up a wad of paper documents and vouchers from a physical location. Unless you were a backpacker who was just going to show up and find a hotel on the spot (which I did for years in the mid-90s), you needed someone who could access the big reservations systems all the airlines and hotels were hooked up to.
Now we can research and book nearly everything from the comfort of our couch with a few clicks, or even from a park bench on our phone. This doesn’t mean it’s always the smart thing to do, however. If you’re planning the perfect honeymoon or the trip of a lifetime through three countries in Central America, you may want to use a travel specialist you can trust to make all the arrangements.
The reports of travel agency death were greatly exaggerated. Although it may be hard for some always-independent travelers to believe, this is still a thriving industry. The upscale agency organization Virtuoso has a huge conference in Vegas every year that’s attended by a who’s who of travel companies. Virtuoso has some 17,500 travel advisors in 50 countries. The other big one, Signature Travel Network, has 7,000 advisors and generates eight billion dollars in revenue each year. Then triple that total to get all the independent travel advisors that belong to smaller networks or none at all. It’s still a big business.
Travel Specialists for Regions and Certain Activities
Did you know that there are 77 cruising ships to choose from in the Galapagos, with tours between 4 and 21 days? Did you know that there are more than 1,600 tour companies running safaris in Tanzania? Or that there are 3,240 hotels to choose from in Florence?
If you have way more time than money, you might find it kind of fun to spend a week researching all your options before deciding where to spend your money. If you’re making $200 an hour though in your job or business, this is probably something you’re glad to outsource. For many people, it’s a no-brainer to hand off the heavy lifting to someone who already knows which tour companies are the most trustworthy and which hotels are most likely to be right for you.
A travel specialist who knows Ecuador, or Tanzania, or Italy inside-out is going to take a lot of guesswork out of the equation and magically deliver what you want. Sure, you’ll pay them something now as a fee since industry commissions are not what they used to be, but if that eliminates hours and hours of research time and gets you a better experience, it can be worth it.
One way to figure out who has authority and insight in an area is to do some Googling around. Who gets quoted a lot in the media? Who has won awards? Who shows up near the top of organic search results with in-depth articles about the place or activity you’re looking at?
There are some shortcuts out there too. One way the big travel magazines are still relevant is they spend a lot of time each year figuring out who the top specialists are for specific regions of the world and for certain activities. Go here to see the lists from Conde Nast Traveler as an example. Sure, these online travel agent destination specialists are going to cost you, but it’ll probably be money well spent if you want your vacation to really be something special.
When to Use a Travel Agent
In the interest of full disclosure, the writers here at Perceptive Travel don’t use travel agents on a regular basis because frankly, we’re often the ones giving advice, not getting it. We’re trying to seek out the novel, the offbeat, the path less traveled. If a friend or relative with ample funds asked me how to plan a vacation for some country I didn’t know well, however, I’d tell them to find a specialist. This is especially true for areas with many choices but only a few good ones.
You don’t need travel agents for the following:
– Finding the cheapest or best plane ticket
– Booking a 3-star hotel in the city center
– Going on an all-inclusive resort vacation
– Taking a two-month backpacking trip somewhere
– Renting a car
– Sorting out day trips like you can do with Viator or GetYourGuide
When you should consider using a travel consultant
– When the itinerary is complicated, with multiple cities involved
– When you’re going somewhere with lots of similar-looking choices (Galapagos, Machu Picchu, Serengeti, Botswana, Kilimanjaro, Italy, New Zealand, etc.)
– When you’re trying to do something akin to project management with villa rentals, activities, and transfers for multiple travelers—especially if it’s a multi-generation vacation.
– When you want to use “the best” in your destination, not just any old provider you find.
– When you want extra perks, exclusive access, or unusual experiences set up for you.
– When your planning time is limited and you don’t want to just wing it in a hurry.
– When you want someone at your beck and call to fix things that go wrong or reroute you if there’s a flight issue.
– When you want to book a cruise. (A specialized cruise travel agent often can get you a better deal or a cabin upgrade.)
In short, if it’s a commodity travel purchase that’s straightforward, or you view intricate planning as a hobby, it’s possible these days to do it all yourself. If you want something special, above normal quality, or complicated, however, get in touch with an experienced, well-traveled agent like Carmen at Exotik Traveler.
What about you? Have you ever used a travel consultant or specialist? Or have you gone on a trip with someone else who did? Tell us how it went.