Recreation & Destinations

Why Use a Travel Agent in an Online World?

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Don’t write off the travel agent yet. These seasoned, professional travelers have the insider discounts and hands-on knowledge to enhance vacation planning. Take that, Internet!

Dave Valenti isn’t afraid to plan his own vacations, especially when he’s heading for a city he knows, like Denver or Washington. But when traveling abroad, he first puts in a call to Dick Sturm, co-owner and agent at Lindstrom Travel, 5970 Guilford Road, Rockford.

“I remember talking to Dick about this trip, and he’d been on that tour before,” says Valenti. “He’d make comments saying, ‘You have to see this, or you should go there.’”

For 20 years, Valenti and his wife have booked through Lindstrom Travel, a third-generation, family-owned business. Sturm has helped the Valentis to plan getaways to Europe, Alaska and many exotic destinations, often in travel groups connected with Lindstrom. He enjoys the convenience and advice from a trusted friend, and the inside knowledge from his tour groups.

“We saw lots of places, and one of the advantages I saw was having a licensed tour guide, who can tell you things you wouldn’t otherwise know,” Valenti says.

Younger folks often avoid travel agents, preferring to arrange their own vacations through online booking services. While companies like Expedia and Priceline may be convenient, there are some things that a person just does better.

“The Internet is great, but you have to know where to go and how to ask the right questions,” says John Sturm, Dick’s brother, president of Lindstrom Travel. “If you don’t know where to go and don’t ask the right questions, you can get yourself into trouble.”

Sturm has visited nearly 70 countries around the world, including exotic places like Africa and Cambodia. Because he’s traveled both with groups and individually, he has plenty of advice to share with customers.

When he recently booked a couple’s Ireland trip, he drew from his own travels and corporate connections to plan and book their entire excursion, from airfare and rental cars to lodging and tour groups. Along the way, he suggested other destinations that he had enjoyed.

“I contacted Brendan Vacations because I’ve taken groups with them before, and I knew from my dealings with them that they’d direct me in the right way,” says Sturm. “I had some choices that I made because of my past travels and had some recommendations for the clients, who told me what they wanted.”

Because of his insider knowledge, Sturm has also connected travelers with services they couldn’t easily find online. For example, he recently booked two new college graduates on a trip to Italy and Austria. For two young women, a tour group called Contiki seemed the perfect option. It allowed them quick access to sites like the Sistine Chapel and was geared toward a younger crowd.

“While the Contiki tour is geared for 18-35 year-olds, they could have gone on the Internet and decided, ‘Well, we’re going to take a tour, so let’s book this Trafalgar tour,’” says Sturm. “And then they end up on a motorcoach with a bunch of retirees.”
For Valenti, a retired middle school principal, the right tour group makes everything simple and easy.

“When you’re doing your own thing, you’ve got to do all of your own research,” says Valenti. “You’ve got to buy a guide and select the things you want to see. An example might be France and the Eiffel Tower. When you’re with a group like Trafalgar, you get line passes so you go right off the bus and into the tour.”

He’s also found safety in numbers. Once pickpocketed in Rome, Valenti finds that travel groups often advise travelers about unsafe areas and unscrupulous practices. “They tell us that when we’re standing in line to get into the Eiffel Tower, and someone asks us to sign their petition, don’t do it, because while you’re signing, they’re picking your pockets,” he says.

While travel agents relieve a lot of headaches for leisure travelers, they also save a lot of time for business travelers. When corporate travelers call Camelot World Travel, 2633 N. Mulford Road, Rockford, agents have everything at their fingertips to make speedy arrangements. Thanks to an advanced computer system, corporate agents quickly nail down airline and hotel reservations, rental car arrangements and frequent traveler discounts. Unlike tourists, business travelers sometimes need last-minute changes.

“We can create the ideal reservation for them, everything all confirmed, but when they get out on the road, things happen,” says Ann Wilson, office director at Camelot. “Flights are delayed, luggage gets misplaced and business needs change, requiring airline tickets to be exchanged. There are so many things business travelers can encounter while on the road and we are here to support them.”

Bad weather can strand travelers at the airport, says Wilson. When that happens, agents can quickly rearrange those travel plans, and if it’s after-hours, travelers can access a 24-hour emergency service. “At the airport, travelers are required to speak with an airline representative, but that line could be 50 deep,” she says. “By the time they get to the counter there may be a seat left, but within minutes of calling our agency, we’ve already held a seat.”

Almost daily, Kristine Stewart works with Camelot to arrange or rearrange travel plans. As executive assistant for Ipsen, a Cherry Valley, Ill.-based manufacturer of industrial furnaces, Stewart coordinates travels for company executives, managers and field service engineers, who fly to all parts of the world. She’s most interested in time of departure and price, and Camelot delivers.

“If I say I need flights, hotel and car, they do everything,” says Stewart. “If it’s international, they can find all of those things so I don’t have to call all over to find a car.”

Most agents in corporate and leisure travel have years of experience behind them. It’s hard to find a rookie. Like Sturm, who’s been in the travel business for more than 35 years, travel agents typically have personally visited the places they recommend. At Camelot, agents routinely take “familiarization trips” to places like Disney and the Caribbean, to discover new attractions and rub elbows with resort staff. While they’re there, they can visit other hotels and sample food and amenities. That knowledge quickly trickles down to customers.

“I continuously learn just by listening to the agents,” says Wilson, who’s been in the industry for 21 years. “The agents will say to clients, ‘If you’re going to this restaurant, men will need to wear slacks, women need casual dress, no flip-flops, and no swim attire.’ They’ll say, ‘I was there last year and I had this to eat,’ and they love to share that experience.”

In some cases, agents have their own specialties. Katie at Camelot specializes in destination weddings. Ben has behind-the-scenes knowledge of Walt Disney World. At Lindstrom, Josephine specializes in Hawaiian retreats. Sturm and his brothers, Dick and Charlie, have traveled to Alaska about a dozen times each.

It’s also important, says Sturm, to ask your agent the right questions. See if they’re part of the American Society of Travel Agents, and ask how long they’ve been in the business. Also, be sure to ask about cancellation insurance and visas. Trips to Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean require a passport; business travelers need a blank passport page and six months of validity beyond their return. Some destinations, like Australia or Kenya, may require visas.

“I got a phone call from someone and they got an airline ticket on the Internet for Australia, and they called me for some travel advice,” says Sturm. “As we were talking, I asked, ‘Did you get your visa taken care of?’ They said, ‘What?’ Some countries, you need visas, others you don’t. An Australian visa is very easy to get, but the customer wasn’t notified about it by the Internet company.”

The Internet may look cheaper, but surprisingly, the cost is roughly the same as buying from an agent. Thanks to insider discounts, agents often find better prices. They can also offer on-demand service. “If you want to book on the Internet, at least call us and find out what rate we can get for you,” says Wilson. “We can usually beat it.”

Stewart doesn’t think twice about working with an agent. Personally arranging so many trips for a staff of about 150 is something she can’t do as efficiently as her Camelot agent.

“Do it myself? Not with this size company,” she says. “If it was small and we didn’t travel so much, I would probably do it myself, but it’s a lot for one person.”

Seasoned traveler Valenti has friends who prefer booking their own trips, but he values the input and connections from his agent. As a picky consumer, he knows the math.

“Whatever I spend, if it’s $5,000 or $10,000, I ask a lot of questions. I’m not shy about asking,” he says. “I don’t mind paying the agency, because I feel they make it easier for us.”

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