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In the era of the Web search, whither the travel agency?

Although most of their services are no longer free, agents' help still can prove invaluable. Here's how to choose the right one.

May 11, 2003|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

Several years ago, when I had a crisis at London's Heathrow airport, I was grateful to have a travel agent. My travel partner had lost her plane ticket, and we needed to catch another flight. After a call to my agent, a replacement ticket was on the way, and we were cleared to board.

The agent's intercession was priceless. In fact, it cost me nothing because airlines still paid commissions then, and he wasn't charging a service fee.

Things are different now, of course. "Only a dullard would buy an airline ticket from a travel agent," a colleague says. Indeed, if you're booking a $150 round trip, it makes little sense to pay an agent $20 or more to do a job that takes a few minutes online or on the phone, unless your time is less plentiful than your money.

But there are many situations in which a travel agent is useful -- and some in which it could prove foolhardy not to use one. These may include cruises, tours (especially exotic ones), foreign travel, multiple-leg or lengthy itineraries, or really any complicated trip that requires time or expertise to plan.

Finding a good travel agent can be vexing, though. It's akin to finding the right doctor, lawyer or real estate agent. As with those searches, you should start with recommendations from friends, experts say.

"I don't know of any other good way," says Ed Perkins, a travel columnist for www.smarterliving.com and a former ASTA spokesperson for consumer issues.

If your friends aren't helpful, visit chat rooms of Internet travel sites. Scott Ahlsmith, vice chairman of the Institute of Certified Travel Agents (ICTA) in Wellesley, Mass., suggests asking, "Has anyone had a good experience with a travel counselor?"

ASTA, at www.astanet.com (click on "For Travelers"), and Ahlsmith's outfit, at www.icta.com (click on "Find a Travel Professional"), maintain searchable databases of agents who are members or are credentialed.

For specialists in travel abroad, contact the national tourist boards, says Bob Kern, president of ASTA's Southern California chapter. Some travel agents may have a DS -- or Destination Specialist -- certificate from ICTA, which means they have completed a course on a country or region.

Once you meet an agent, make sure from the start that the two of you can communicate. "The chemistry has to be right," Ahlsmith says. "If it doesn't feel right at the beginning, it's not going to get any better."

Then start asking questions. Among them:

* What are your credentials?

In California, sellers of travel must register with the attorney general's office and prove they have a consumer protection plan. Ask to see the agent's registration number, and make sure it's current. You also can search for an agent's registration online at www.caag.state.ca.us/travel.

Travel agents don't have to belong to a trade association such as ASTA or the smaller Assn. of Retail Travel Agents (ARTA) to do business legitimately. But those who do come with certain guarantees.

ASTA members, for instance, must either be accredited by the Airlines Reporting Corp. (ARC) or similar organizations, or hold $1 million in errors and omissions insurance. They're supposed to adhere to an ethics code requiring them to provide full and accurate information about the trips they sell.

An agent may also be a Certified Travel Associate (CTA) or Certified Travel Counselor (CTC). That means she or he has completed a 12-course program on operating a travel agency, updated with 10 units of workshops each year. ICTA, which runs the training, has graduated more than 30,000 agents since its founding in 1964.

* How long have you been in business?

Generally, the longer the better, and preferably full time. A CTA must have been in the industry full time for at least 18 months and a CTC for five years, according to ICTA requirements.

* Do you have references?

Get the names of several of the agent's customers. "People can often answer questions well and still can't perform well," Perkins says.

* What are your fees?

Once upon a time, the answer would probably have been "Zero." Agents made their money from sales commissions and didn't charge fees.

Today, major cruise and tour companies still pay commissions, so you generally shouldn't have to pay a travel agent to book those trips. Many hotels pay commissions too.

But the big airlines started reducing commissions in 1995 and largely dropped them last year. Now most agents charge service fees, typically $15 to $50, to book airline tickets.

If you want an agent to custom-design a complicated tour itinerary for you, you may be charged an hourly fee. "I've had agents who spent days on end doing a tour," says ASTA's Kern, who is also president of the PNR Travel agency in Los Angeles.

There are really no rules for what a "fair" hourly fee is. Perkins figures $30 to $40, maybe more in a big city. Ahlsmith says $75 may be an average; more if the agent is a specialist, less if a generalist.

In any case, fees sometimes are negotiable, and you should ask upfront whether the agent charges by the service, by the hour, or not at all.

* Do you have access to Web fares?

Agents should be willing to search Internet sites, along with the computerized reservation systems on which agents have traditionally booked, to get the best deal on air tickets. After all, you're paying them.

* Do you know everything there is to know?

The correct response is "No," Ahlsmith says.

It's impossible for an agent to know everything about a destination, even if he or she specializes in a region or country, he says.

"You want to have a travel agent who says, 'I don't know the answer, but I'll find out and get back to you,' " Ahlsmith says.

And then follows through, of course.

Jane Engle welcomes comments and suggestions but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or e-mail jane.engle@latimes.com.

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