Sally forth on the internet with mouse in hand and travel plans in mind and there's not too much you can't do. Flights, hotels, car hire – online travel sites tick all the boxes.
That's fine if you're organising a long weekend in Noosa or Bali for the fourth time, but maybe not so great if you're putting together an extended family trip to Vietnam or a first-time visit to Cuba with a New Orleans stopover.
While the internet is a razor-sharp information tool it's not always the best place to put wheels on your travel plans. When your wanderings are exotic, complicated or involving lots of people, questions such as visas, medical advice and access to cash are all vital, the landscape can change quickly and a travel agent should have the answers.
Here are five situations where a good travel agent can put a Teflon coating on your travels, and probably save you time, money and angst.
If you need a guide you need a travel agent
There are some places where it's almost impossible to go without a guide. Iran, most of Africa and the Middle East, the 'Stans – these are places where you're either backpacking with plenty of time on your hands or else you're travelling with a guide. It might be a guided group tour, just you and your bestie or even you on your lonesome but you need someone who knows the ropes, and a travel agent can help you find a local expert. Vital to this proposition is a specialist travel agent because nothing beats on-the-ground knowledge. When considering a trip to the Valley of the Assassins in Iran or a Nile cruise a crucial question to ask is "When were you last there?" If the answer is "never" or more than three years ago, the agent has less information than you have at your fingertips via the internet.
Hey big spender!
If you're looking for the lowest possible cost there's not too much a travel agent can do that you can't do for yourself. However if you're travelling in Prada mode a travel agent probably has access to information that you do not. It might be a freshly minted four-star hotel at your destination with an unbelievable introductory rate or a Mediterranean cruise that has just dropped the anchor on prices in a desperate bid to fill empty berths. Instead of a premium economy return flight to Europe that might set you back $6300, a travel agent might know of a business class round-the-world ticket with up to five stopovers for just shy of $8000.
The same applies to the special celebration. The honeymoon in June, the big birthday bash, the monsoon wedding, the multi-generational trip that whisks grandparents, parents and teens away to Hawaii to celebrate an octogenarian coming-of-age, these are things you can't afford to get wrong.
Do you know the way to San Jose?
That's San Jose, California, and should you drive, take a taxi or maybe public transport to get there from San Francisco International? Unfamiliar places can fox you and a travel agent can stop you from making foolish mistakes. I was chuffed when I found a flight that would get me from Milan to London at a rock bottom price. What I hadn't factored in was that my inbound flight arrived at Milan's Malpensa while the connecting flight departed from Linate. Malpensa to Linate is 67 kilometres and you do not want to be sitting between the two in an airport shuttle bus snarled in morning rush hour traffic with the clock ticking on your flight. The thought that maybe this would not have happened had I booked through a travel agent did cross my mind.
When time is not your friend
Are you sure you got the best flight deal off Hipmunk? Maybe you should have used Skyscanner instead. But then someone just said Google Matrix Airfare Search is the alpha and omega of flight search engines. You can spend ages in front of a computer fretting over flights, hotel bookings, and tours. Why not let someone else do it for you? If you need to speak to an airline, do you really want to spend 30 minutes on hold listening to the Vivaldi synth track?
Someone to watch over you
If a volcanic eruption grounds your flight and you booked via an online travel agent you might find yourself at the back of the queue for emergency accommodation. Ditto if you ski into a rock in Val-d'Isere and you need to delay your flight, or if your car-hire agency in Naples wants to charge you a phenomenal sum for that scratch on the bumper. If you've booked through a travel agent they should be prepared to argue on your behalf, and your chances of walking away with a smile are a whole lot brighter.
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