In 1996, Microsoft established Expedia, one of the world’s first online travel agencies. Suddenly, people who had been using the World Wide Web for email and chat rooms also could use it to make air, car and hotel reservations.
It seems almost quaint now. Back then, however, it was a revelation.
Travel agents were on notice: Like cobblers, blacksmiths and lamplighters, they were about to become obsolete.
But travel agents — or travel advisors, as they call themselves — didn’t disappear. Instead, they adapted.
“One of the things I hear all the time is, ‘Oh, I didn’t know travel advisors still existed,’” says Laurie Marschall, owner of Lakáma Luxury Travel in Phoenix. “There aren’t as many travel agencies with storefronts, per se — most of us work remotely — but we are very much still here.”
It’s a good thing, because demand for travel advisors has soared in the wake of COVID-19, according to the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA). Before the pandemic, just a quarter of travelers (27 percent) always or often used a travel advisor, according to ASTA. After the pandemic, 44 percent say they’re more likely to use one.
ASTA President and CEO Zane Kerby points to Americans’ growing appetite for travel — there are more than 143 million U.S. passports in circulation today compared with just 7.3 million in 1989 — but also to pandemic-related difficulties with trip planning.
“Consumers have awakened to a very challenging travel ecosystem, so it pays to have a really good travel professional on your side who understands all the new and ever-changing restrictions,” explains Kerby, who asserts there’s at least one more reason travel advisors are making a comeback: The Travel Channel and social media have made travelers crave trips that are more elaborate, more active and more exotic — and, therefore, more complicated to plan. “For fairly simple trips and trips to places you know well, (online travel agencies like Expedia) are a really great resource. But for other trips, travel can be a very complex web of suppliers and schedules. … Travel professionals can help you navigate all that.”
If you’ve never worked with a travel advisor, there are a few things you should know before you reach out:
What they do
These professionals are in-the-know trip planners, according to Atlanta-based travel advisor Stacey Gross of Favorite Place Travel. She says most engagements begin with a consultation during which your advisor will learn as much as possible about who you are, where you want to go, what you want to do and how you like to travel.
For instance, do you like to explore or be waited on? Do you prefer physical activities like hiking and biking, or cultural activities like dining and theater?
“Each vacation is the result of time and money set aside for a specific purpose. A travel advisor … will help craft a trip to suit those needs and desires,” Gross says.
Travel professionals will curate potential hotels and activities for you to choose from based on your time and budget, plan a detailed itinerary and make reservations on your behalf. They will often secure special rates or upgrades that you typically wouldn’t be able to obtain on your own.
“All of that is before the trip even begins,” Gross continues. “During travel, a trusted travel advisor will be available or will have provided their traveler with a contact in-destination who is able to assist should the need arise.”
What they charge
While initial consultations typically are free, Marschall and Gross say travel advisors often charge a planning fee, which they should disclose up front. They also receive commissions from hotels, tour operators and other travel vendors — but shouldn’t let potential commissions influence your itinerary.
“Our members have agreed to a code of ethics, and that means they put their customers’ interests above their own,” explains Kerby, who says ASTA has a consumer affairs department that mediates disputes with travel advisors who violate its code of ethics.
How to find one
You can search for a travel professional based on your destination and other criteria at the ASTA-run website TravelSense.org, or through a consortium of independent advisors like Signature Travel Network, Virtuoso or Ensemble Travel Group.
Gross says the best approach, however, is to seek recommendations from family and friends and be clear about your expectations with your travel consultant.
“Ask questions,” she advises. “Be thorough about what you want in this working relationship. And communicate that you are looking for a long-term travel partner, not just someone who can book this one hotel room for this one trip. You want to … share your bucket list and make it happen together.”