Several times each month I get an email from a TID (traveler in distress). No broken bones are involved, but often there’s a question about using miles, a complaint about complex airfares or an urgent request for information.
Sometimes I can type out the answer quickly on my phone. But often, problems that look simple require the services of an expert. That’s where a good travel agent comes in handy.
There still are brick-and-mortar travel agents who can save you time and money. But the metrics have changed a bit. Twenty years ago, airlines, hotels and tour companies routinely paid agents a 10 percent commission. That’s no longer the case — and agents now charge travelers for issuing tickets and itinerary planning.
Bill Beck is one of the owners of Alaska Travel Source in Anchorage. He and his business partner, Sally Huntley, work mostly with business travelers in Alaska. But they also do a lot of international business, which often involves several airlines, hotels and tours.
“Our specialty is the difficult stuff you can’t do online,” said Bill. “We’re also your back-up in case things go wrong.”
In today’s busy travel world, things always are going wrong, it seems.
“There were more than 700 flights canceled in Denver this week because of weather,” said Bill. “Lots of folks were standing in line. But not our clients — we got them rebooked.”
There are tricks to every trade, including airline routings during peak-season.
“One fellow wanted to go to Australia at Christmas. He was going to fly to L.A. on miles and buy four tickets from there, about $1,700 per ticket. I told him to use miles and fly to Honolulu, then buy tickets from there. That saved him about $1,000 per ticket,” he said.
Most travel agents now will make your frequent flyer mileage reservations. “We’re experts in mixing miles and money,” said Bill. “That’s especially true for Alaska’s partner airlines for international travel,” he said.
Alaska Travel Source charges $35 to issue a domestic ticket—and can charge up to $150 for a complex or detailed itinerary.
Cindy Bettine started ABC Travel Time in Wasilla when she was 26. “I started working with Holiday House Travel on Capitol Hill in Seattle,” she said. “This was pre-computer, when we had stacks of reservations cards and called them into the airlines.”
A large part of ABC Travel Time’s business is cruises and tours. “We’re working on a river cruise in Europe right now with seven cabins. This type of travel is growing,” she said.
“Since we work on airline tickets and cruise arrangements all day, we’re better at it,” said Bettine. “And we charge for it. Several of my agents have been in this business for more than 30 years.”
Bettine’s clients include a mix of travelers who don’t want to book online, don’t know where to begin to plan their trip or “just want an expert to handle it.”
ABC Travel Time charges $40 for a domestic ticket — or $45 if there are frequent flyer miles involved.
Many travel agencies only handle business travel. Others only handle a specific destination. Here in Anchorage, there are several agencies that only do Alaska itineraries, including Alaska Tour and Travel and All Alaska Tours. Others work with a particular group of travelers. Alaska Skylar Travel, for example, specializes in bringing Chinese travelers to Alaska.
John and Christina Cooper started Willamette International Travel in Portland back in 1977. Originally from England, the couple is quite familiar with European travel. “Europe is our bread and butter,” said John Cooper. “We take care of lots of independent travelers to France, Italy and the U.K.”
But it’s Africa that has captured the Coopers’ hearts. “We’ve been traveling to Africa for 35 years,” said John. “We just returned from a 12-day safari in Tanzania and we’re going back soon to Namibia and Kenya,” said John. “This will be my fourth trip to Namibia.”
Because of their extensive experience, the Coopers spend more time designing their own itineraries and accompanying groups to different parts of Africa.
Don’t expect the Coopers to lead a group to the mountains of Rwanda or Uganda to see chimps or gorillas. “These types of trips typically are very exclusive and very spendy,” said John. “Plus, you’re only allowed a very limited time to see them.”
Rather, the Coopers spend most of their time in Kenya, Botswana, Tanzania and South Africa. “Everyone wants to see the Big Five on our Africa trips — and we always do,” said John. The “Big Five” refers to seeing the lion, the leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo.
There are powerful tools available for travelers to plan and book most parts of their vacation. But the trick is to know what questions to ask to make sure you’re getting exactly what you want. Most travelers can handle booking their ticket to Seattle or Orlando. But when you’re looking to explore some lesser-known overseas destinations, it might be worth the money to hire a professional.