Not so fast: Travel agents aren't as irrelevant as you think

Now I get it.

Travel agents. Maybe travel web sites have seemingly made them obsolete to a large portion of the public, but I just returned from a four-day summer vacation, having used my first travel agent, and now I'm a convert.

I'm not an expert on the topic, and obviously my one great experience isn't going to be replicated across the world with every other vacation, so consider this travel commentary and not hard-nosed reporting. I'm not imploring every person who travels to ditch Expedia and Travelocity or the lesser-known but well-regarded Kayak.com and never darken their doorsteps again. In the landscape of travel planning, they have their place, of course, but I'm convinced that travel agents do, too. Still.


Before planning my summer vacation, I went to Julie Sturgeon, who runs Curing Cold Feet, after several freelance writers I know raved about her services. As well as being a travel agent, Sturgeon is an Indianapolis-based freelance journalist herself, and in the full disclosure department, I should mention that I've known her professionally through email for about six months. So, trusting my colleagues' opinions and my own opinion of Sturgeon herself, and liking the idea that while travel agents take commissions from hotels, airlines and rental car agencies, I don't have to pay her anything upfront for employing her services, I told her that I was thinking of taking my family out on a beach vacation. I added that I had a certain price range (think: cheap), and suddenly, we were off.

She wound up finding us a really cool, family-owned hotel on the beach. It wasn't exactly inexpensive, since no hotel planted on the edge of the beach is going to come cheap, but it was within my as-cheap-as-possible budget. And maybe Sturgeon didn't locate any flight deals or hotel gems that I couldn't have eventually achieved on my own after I'm betting what would have been 386 hours of intense research, but who has time for that? I don't. And given my luck with some hotels I've wound up in over the years, my suspicion is that she saved me from a possible lousy vacation.

Before we left on our trip, Sturgeon even sent me a packet of information about our hotel and surrounding area, an extra bonus that she was able to provide, probably because she steered me to a hotel and area of Florida (Ft. Lauderdale) that she had been to many times and was very familiar with. I'm not sure if she would or could have done the same thing if I had planned a trip to Easter Island, though you never know.

Meanwhile, a larger travel agency that she's associated with -- Montrose Travel -- kept alerting me every time there was a change in my airline information. For instance, had I done the prep work on my own, I suppose I may have never learned that our flight had been bumped several hours, which would have kept us in Florida several extra hours -- no complaint there -- but would have had us landing at our airport after midnight. When you have two kids who are six and four years old, and you're landing at an airport two hours away from your home -- well, it's not the optimal way to end a vacation.

So I'm all for travel agents now. If you're planning a big family vacation or are feeling overwhelmed with the shrinking airplane options these days, consider engaging one to help you. It's short-sighted to think of travel agents as a relic of the pre-internet age. The best ones offer a level of personal service no internet travel site can provide you.

I know using a travel agent saved me time, and I'd like to think it saved me some money somewhere. But maybe best of all, I know it saved me from the nervous breakdown that would have occurred had we shown up at the "great" hotel I had booked on my own, only to learn that before going to the beach, we'd all have to first sit down and listen to a quick, eight-hour seminar about the wonderful world of time shares...

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).

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