Travel pro or no? (Part 2)

How to find the perfect TA for you

In Part One of this two-part series on whether you should go with a pro or give DIY a try when it comes to making travel arrangements, I talked about some of the questions you need to ask yourself and the qualities you need to have if you want to (successfully) handle your own planning and booking. Now in Part Two, we’ll discuss the best approach to take if you’ve decided that you don’t want to deal with all the hassle and havoc yourself, but instead want to let a travel professional do it for you.

The human factor

Human relationships are funny things. We all have met some people with whom we instantly “click,” and others we can’t wait to get away from. How many times has a friend introduced you to someone with the preface of “you are going to just love this guy/gal” and instead, the friend’s friend didn’t impress you at all? 

Just as we have different tastes in food, decor, or what constitutes a fun time, we also have different tastes in people. And that’s a good thing; otherwise we would all want to marry or be besties with the same person, and all the rest would be left out in the cold.

Certainly it makes sense to listen to others’ reviews of their TAs – especially when those others are people you know to be objective and have no hidden agendas. Strangers’ reviews can be useful, too; just remember that the very qualities that turned one reviewer off might be characteristics that will make that TA perfect for you. The best reviews are detailed ones, not vague ones along the lines of “this person was awful and made a mess of everything” or “my TA is the best in the world!” Find out what the TA does that makes the client love him/her, or vow never to use that agent again.

When you start looking for a TA, then, the first criteria is that it should be someone whose personality “clicks” with your own. That doesn’t mean you have to have a personal relationship with your TA; in fact, it might be better if you aren’t too close.  Mixing business and friendship has been known to end up badly on both counts.  But your TA will be helping you make decisions that determine whether you get what you want out of your trip; that person should be someone you like, respect, and most of all, trust.

Gotta have faith … but also distance

Trust, faith, confidence – whatever you want to call it, it’s an essential element of every good personal or business relationship. Even though you might not directly pay your TA anything, an incompetent or negligent agent can cost you a lot of money, not to mention a big chunk of your peace of mind.  A TA’s failure can turn your long-awaited and much-anticipated dream vacation into a nightmare.  That’s a lot of power, and a lot of responsibility, that you’re putting into this person’s hands.

There are many hardworking, professional TAs out there. In fact, sometimes it seems to me that half the people I know are either travel agents or real estate agents. I have some very close friends in both of those fields. You might think that, since I just stated that trust is such an important element in an agent-client relationship, I would use the services of one of those very good friends. But you would be wrong.

I have a few good friends with whom I also do business. In almost all cases, though, the business relationship came first and a friendship grew out of it. I’ve found this works a lot better than the other way around. When you’re already good friends with someone, it’s much more difficult to evaluate whether that person is really the best one for the job because your feelings for him/her as a person (vs. as a professional) get in the way.

You may be hesitant to ask the hard questions of someone you care about, and you may not be as insistent about issues for fear of hurting  your friend’s feelings. You might feel obligated to give your friend your business, especially if he/she is just getting started and really needs clients. And if this results in an unsatisfactory travel experience, you might end up feeling a little resentful. Even if you don’t, your friend may feel guilty about it and this could affect your friendship.

Note that I’m not saying it will end up being a disaster every time someone patronizes a friend’s business; I’m just saying to be sure and think about and consider the pros and cons and whether you want to take the risk of ruining the friendship before you do. We all think “it’ll never happen” – but those people to whom it did happen thought the same thing.

Another reason not to do business with one of your best friends, if you’re like me and have a dozen or more good friends who are TAs, is to avoid the dilemma of “which one do I pick?” and the worry of the others feeling rejected. If you have a blanket rule that you don’t do business with good friends, there’s less chance of jealousy among your friends.

On the other hand, if a TA does a really great job for you and goes above and beyond the standard, it’s hard not to start thinking of him/her as a friend. And that’s okay. Friendship came after the business relationship was established and wasn’t the reason for the business relationship. That makes it less likely that the two will cause conflicts (although it doesn’t guarantee it).

How to find “the one”

Whether or not you’ve decided to disqualify your close friends from consideration, the process of determining which TA to use is the same for friends or strangers – but it’s not the same for every traveler.  After all, the whole point is to find someone who’s compatible with you and your style. That means first you need to know yourself and what you want from the relationship.

Start by asking yourself some questions:

  • Do you want a TA who provides a “turn-key solution,” or one who just handles the “dirty work” after you’ve researched for yourself and made all the important decisions? Some people want to put it all into the TA’s hands and not have to worry about anything other than approving the purchases.  Others want to figure it all out and then have the TA do the actual transactions but don’t want or appreciate suggestions or input on the plans.
  • By what means do you prefer to communicate with the TA?  Some people (I’m one) like to keep everything in writing.  I like to do business via email or chat/texts so I have an “electronic paper trail” and can go back and see exactly what was said. Some prefer to conduct business over the phone as they feel it’s more immediate and more personal, or they don’t trust the security of the Internet. Still others are most comfortable with a local TA whose offices they can visit and work things out in person. None of these choices is “right” or “wrong” – they just differ from person to person and if you want to communicate one way and your TA insists on doing it a different way, you may end up feeling frustrated and avoid communicating at all – which can result in vacation disaster.
  • How often and how much do you prefer to communicate with the TA?  Some people get nervous if they don’t hear from their TAs often. They need reassurance that their bookings are all intact and their plans are a “go.”  Others don’t want to be bothered unless there’s a problem or a decision that they need to make.  Some people want a TA who’s “all business,” takes care of what needs to be addressed, and says goodbye. Others want to get to know the TA a little as a person, and they like someone who’s more chatty.  Again, both preferences are valid, but if the “all business” customer gets matched up with the chatty, I’m-your-friend TA, or vice versa, the relationship may not run as smoothly as if the two are more in sync about this (and a really good TA will be able to sense – or will come right out and ask – whether the client wants more or less communication and adapt his/her style to each individual).

Once you’ve determined what your preferences are as to “style,” here are some factors to consider when comparing TAs:

  • Is he/she certified and/or affiliated with recognized travel agent organizations? Most states don’t have requirements for training or issue licenses for TAs.  Pretty much anyone can set up shop as a TA.  Many TAs have voluntarily taken home study/online courses or community college or industry-sponsored classes to learn the ins and outs of the travel profession and to learn the individual quirks of specific travel companies.  Some large host agencies may require their TAs to have specific training.  There are industry certification programs such as the CTA, CTC and CTIE issued by the Travel Institute, as well as travel industry specialist programs for those who focus on particular segments of the market. 

    Training and certification can indicate that a person is serious enough about the job to invest the time and money, but they don’t guarantee that he/she is the best agent for you.  Also, remember that a person who has been working in the industry for many years, starting as an apprentice with an agency or working for different travel providers, might have more knowledge and all-important contacts within the airlines, cruise lines, hotels, etc. than someone who just got out of school with a handful of certificates to hang on the wall. 

    One thing that most TAs have in common is that they love to travel.  It’s smart to select a TA who likes the same type of travel as you – whether that’s luxury cruising, budget cruising, all-inclusive resort travel, off-the-beaten-path adventures, family outings, or something else – and has done a lot of it.  Studying brochures is no substitute for having actually “been there, done that.”

  • Is the TA independent or part of a big agency?  Many TAs are retirees or entrepreneurs running home-based businesses; they may work at it part-time for supplementary income. Others are dependent on their travel business to make a living. Some are sole proprietors or partner with one or two other agents. Others work for large companies that employ dozens or hundreds of agents.

    There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these arrangements. A part-timer may have fewer clients competing for their attention; they can afford to accept only as many as they want, and to devote more time to each. However, if a lone agent gets sick or otherwise indisposed, clients may be left dangling or unable to contact their agent.  A partnership helps to ameliorate this risk. Large companies provide a lot of backup for such situations, and also may have the money to get their agents more training and send them to more destinations where they can experience things for themselves. However, their services might also be less personalized and you might be more likely to get shuffled from one agent to another.

  • Is the agent’s “free service” really free?  Here we are back to that trust thing again. As with any “middle man” (or to be politically correct, “middle person”) service, travel agents have the opportunity to cheat unsuspecting customers by adding a hidden markup to the charges. Because in most cases you pay the agent and the agent pays the travel provider, an unscrupulous TA could tell you the travel provider’s fare is $1200 when it’s really $1000, or add fake “service charges” that he/she says are being paid to the provider when they’re really being pocketed by the TA.

    I believe the vast majority of TAs are honest business people. In fact, most are able to save their clients money over what you would have to spend by booking on your own, or at least match those rates and also provide you with gifts and perks (such as onboard credit on cruises) as gestures of appreciation for your patronage.  But if you don’t know the TA, even if he/she comes recommended by friends, it never hurts to check out whether the prices that the TA gives you are in line with those you would get on the airline’s, cruise line’s, or hotel’s own web site or through one of the big online booking agencies. Trust, but verify.

  • Is the TA not only knowledgeable and experienced at booking travel, but is he/she knowledgeable and experienced at booking the particular type of travel you’re interested in?  Some TAs specialize in cruises. Ask them to book you a fly-and-stay vacation at an all-inclusive resort and they may be like fish out of water.  Some TAs specialize in cruises with a particular cruise line. Ask them to book you on another line, especially one based in a different country, and they may not be able to give you the level of help that someone who’s dealt with that cruise line can.

    If you only engage in one kind of travel, look for a TA who specializes in that. If you like to mix it up and do different types of vacations, either engage a TA who has a broad base of experience or consider using different TAs for different trips.

    Also, consider the TAs biases and the reasons for those biases. Some will try to steer you away from particular airlines, cruise lines or hotel chains and toward others. A good reason for that would be because they’ve had bad personal experiences traveling with that company, or because many of their clients have reported unpleasant times. A not-as-good reason would be because that travel company doesn’t give them as big a commission or as many perks and gifts to woo them as another does.  It’s understandable that a TA wants to make as much money as possible, and/or will favor companies that give them a lot of benefits or that are just easier to deal with – but their self-interest should never override what’s actually the best choice for the client (you).

    A good TA will try to dissuade you from making a mistake and booking a trip that he/she believes will not be a good fit for your personality, budget, and circumstances, but will  ultimately let you make that final decision, without chiding, lecturing, or trying to “guilt” you into bowing to his/her advice. You’re an adult, and how you want to spend your money is up to you. That’s a fine line for a TA to walk, and one who does it well should earn your respect, and your business, even if (especially if) it turns out the TA was right and you should have listened.

    A good TA also won’t use high pressure tactics to try to “upsell” you to a more expensive trip or extra amenities that you don’t want or can’t afford. On the other hand, a good TA will make you aware of options that would enhance your experience, and will make sure you know what you’re going to get (and what you’re not going to get) with the travel package and price that you’ve chosen. That’s another fine line.

    As you can see, travel agents need to have an empathetic personality, a sense of humor, and a lot of patience – as well as very good coordination for walking all those fine lines. Being a TA isn’t easy, so if you decide to use one, don’t abuse him/her. This person is working hard (much of it behind the scenes) to make your next journey the trip of a lifetime.

In my follow-up to this series, I’ll go a little further into my own personal experiences with TAs, why I stayed away from them, and why I’m using one now.

About debshinder

Technology analyst and author, specializing in enterprise security. Author of or contributor to over 25 books, including "Scene of the Cybercrime." Fourteen-year Microsoft MVP, married to Microsoft FTE Tom Shinder, and proud mom of two wonderful grown-up human children and three amazing Japanese Chin pups. In my spare time, I love to travel - especially on cruise ships - and write about my grand adventures.
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