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Choosing the Right Agent for You


A few years back, I asked a travel agent to book a complicated itinerary to South America for me. She came back with an air fare of more than $2,000, which I thought was too high. So I talked to another agent, a specialist in South American vacations, and she was able to quote a more acceptable fare of $1,400. How could there be such a discrepancy?

The easy answer is that one agent knew her business and the other didn't, but there's more to it than that.

The first agent was one who normally catered to business travelers within the United States, and she did that job quite well. To her credit, she admitted up front that she knew nothing about South America but would tackle my request anyway. She actually sounded relieved when I told her I wasn't satisfied with the results. Obviously, she didn't much like working in unfamiliar territory.

The second agent, the specialist, quickly won my confidence with her obvious knowledge of South American airlines and air fares. Among several suggestions, she advised me to delay my tentative departure for several days to take advantage of a lower fare and to alter my itinerary slightly for even more discounts.

The specifics aren't as important as the savings she achieved. I learned an important lesson from the experience: You ought to choose a travel agent with a great deal of care. And that means finding not only an agent who is honest, friendly and hard-working, but one who has at least some expertise in your destination or the willingness to do the necessary research to become adequately informed. As in any profession, the proficiency of agents can vary. There are stars and there are laggards, and they may work for the same agency.

Currently, there are about 200,000 travel agents working in some 35,000 agencies in the United States, and the number is growing. As an indication of their importance in the travel industry, they account for 83% of airline-ticket sales, 95% of cruise sales, 90% of package-tour sales, 50% of car rentals and 25% of hotel bookings, according to the American Society of Travel Agents in Alexandria, Va. The vast majority offer their services at no charge to the traveler. Their income is derived from commissions paid by airlines, lodgings, rental-car agencies and tour operators.

The society, along with at least two other trade organizations--the Institute of Certified Travel Agents in Wellesley, Mass., and the Association of Retail Travel Agents in Arlington, Va.--monitors the practices and ethics of the profession. Nevertheless, travel agents have come under sharp criticism in the past couple of years.

Consumer Reports Travel Letter, a publication of Consumers Union, suggested last year that agents might be guilty of bias by recommending only those travel suppliers--hotels, car rentals, tours and cruises--that paid them the highest commissions.

In 1988, Arthur Tauck, president of Tauck Tours, a major U.S. tour operator, publicly questioned the geography skills of younger travel agents. And increasingly, clients unhappy with the way a vacation turned out have filed suit against their agents seeking a refund and damages for lost time. Newsweek magazine in its Dec. 10 issue cited the case of a couple who is suing an agent for $50,000 for sending them to an island resort hotel that was under renovation.

Some of the criticism is probably justified. On the other hand, a number of the court suits are "bizarre" and "outrageous," charges Paul Ruden, senior vice president for legal affairs at the American Society of Travel Agents. He contends that agents at times suffer as the most convenient targets of blame for mishaps over which they had no control--such as lost luggage or an overbooked hotel.

Travelers turn to agents for diverse needs, requiring them to have the skills both of a counselor and a computer-wise research whiz. At one extreme, some clients show up with no idea of where they might want to go on vacation.

"Give me some ideas," they say, according to numerous travel agents. Their opposites are the adventurers for whom travel is a lifetime pleasure. These folks tend to draw up their own itineraries and choose the hotels themselves. They use a travel agent to find the best air fare and car-rental rates and to relieve them of the chore of actually booking the hotels.

Few travelers, however, can do without an agent, if only to book a flight. The nation's air-fare structure is so complex--and fares change so frequently--you really do need professional help in finding the lowest fare that meets your needs.

What should you expect from a travel agent?

In large part, the answer depends on knowing what kind of agency you are dealing with. You may want to choose an agent or agency based on the nature of your trip. Among the varied types of agencies:

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