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Travel agents are changing. Here’s how to choose the right one.

Finding the right travel agent used to be easy. The top agents had a defined set of skills and certifications, and they belonged to the same trade groups. So for someone like Kathleen Corcos, who recently contacted me for help finding a “reputable” travel agency in the Chicago area, the answer should have been pretty straightforward.

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travel agent sitting at her desk with a friendly smile

Finding the right travel agent used to be easy.

The top agents had a defined set of skills and certifications, and they belonged to the same trade groups. So for someone like Kathleen Corcos, who recently contacted me for help finding a “reputable” travel agency in the Chicago area, the answer should have been pretty straightforward.

“I’m planning a trip to Europe and I need someone with experience in booking rail trips,” said Corcos, a retired university administrator from River Forest, Ill.

Specialists in travel

A quick visit to what was then the American Society of Travel Agents’ website to find a specialist in European travel would have yielded a few usable leads.

But in the fast-changing world of travel, is anything that simple? Maybe not. The airline, car rental, and hotel sites enable you to act as your own travel agent. If you need a little hand-holding, you can visit an online travel agency and avoid some fees. And now, to add to the confusion, some travel agents aren’t even calling themselves agents anymore.

That’s right, those agents are now advisers. Last year, the American Society of Travel Agents changed its name to the American Society of Travel Advisors.

Discard the label

Paul Metselaar says it’s an important shift. Travel agents are no longer “order takers,” or intermediaries between the traveler and a company, he says. People now think of them as professionals, like lawyers or accountants. As the CEO of Ovation Travel Group, a New York-based agency, he was among the first to discard the “agent” label in favor of “adviser.”

“As travel advisors, we’ve built a significant level of trust with each of our customers on a highly personalized level,” he says.

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In the face of fierce competition from online agencies, travel agents are also upping their game, says Dave Hershberger, ASTA’s chairman and owner of a Travel Leaders agency in Cincinnati. “That’s the biggest change,” he says.

Instead of offering a broad range of services, many agents now specialize in niche products such as honeymoons or cruises.

If agents — or advisers — don’t see themselves as intermediaries anymore, are there some tips you should book yourself? Yes. For a simple weekend trip, self-booking might be easier. Plus, you can avoid an adviser’s consulting fee, which averages about $100 per trip. But for a complicated rail adventure through Europe, like the one Corcos is planning, you’ll probably want to hire an adviser.

people lying in a park on vacation, after dealing with travel agents
You don’t need a travel agent if you’re planning a simple weekend trip. (Photo by DepositPhotos)

How to find an agent

You’ll still want to look for certifications and association memberships. For example, the Travel Institute’s Certified Travel Associate (CTA) and Certified Travel Counselor (CTC) designations mean an agent has taken the time to study and understand travel. In 2017, ASTA created a Verified Travel Advisor program, which indicates that an adviser has met “a higher level of verifiable professional knowledge.”

Of course, membership in ASTA or in the Association of Retail Travel Agents is also a sign that your travel adviser means business.

Some of the best travel agents, or advisers, are affiliated with well-known franchises, such as American Express or Carlson Wagonlit Travel, or with an agency network such as Travel Leaders, Signature or Virtuoso. These affiliations offer peace of mind and, sometimes, lower prices.

Reputation, experience, and professionalism

For example, membership in Travel Leaders or a similar network means that the agent is properly trained and insured and that there’s an 800 number you can call 24/7. “It ensures that you have someone to help you if your trip is disrupted or you need advice once you arrive in your destination,” says Roger Block, president of the Travel Leaders Network.

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There’s more, says Matthew Upchurch, the CEO of Virtuoso, a network of luxury travel advisers. “Reputation, experience, and professionalism certainly come into play,” he says. “But then you have to count on the X-factor, which really comes down to chemistry.”

Virtuoso’s directory of advisers includes detailed biographical information, including years of experience, languages spoken, verified reviews and recommendations from clients, travel specialties, and destinations personally visited.

Full-service travel

“A great travel advisor will be happy to provide references — not just online testimonials, which can be posted by anyone,” says Christine Hardenberger, owner of Modern Travel Professionals, a full-service travel agency in Virginia Beach. “People are less likely to lie when contacted directly.”

Above all, stay flexible as the industry changes. Behind the scenes, the economics of being a travel adviser is still shifting, says Jack Ezon, the founder of Embark, a new platform for travel agencies. “The next generation of travel advisers will turn the entire model upside down to be more customer-centric.”

(Featured image by DepositPhotos)

DISCLAIMER: This article expresses my own ideas and opinions. Any information I have shared are from sources that I believe to be reliable and accurate. I did not receive any financial compensation for writing this post, nor do I own any shares in any company I’ve mentioned. I encourage any reader to do their own diligent research first before making any investment decisions.

Christopher Elliott's latest book is “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). You can get real-time answers to any consumer question on his new forum, or by emailing him at chris@elliott.org