By John Frenaye Travel columnist
updated 2/5/2007 5:39:15 PM ET 2007-02-05T22:39:15

Remember when you were a kid and you came upon that big, gray hornet’s nest? Ever poke it? Well, a recent column elicited a similar response. It was called “ How not to book your vacation ,” and it infuriated travel professionals from all over the country, who resented the implication that booking travel with a travel agent is a mistake. After reading the comments and addressing e-mails from my agent colleagues, I felt that telling the other side of the story was only fair.

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I spoke with a 15-year veteran of the industry, John Felker, of Baton Rouge, La., who operates Go Away Travel/Travel Planners International to get his opinion on the need for a travel agent. I had my own notions, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t off base. Immediately, John borrowed the recent American Society of Travel Agents tagline: Without a travel agent, you are on your own.

“After reading the column, you might think that going it alone is the way to go, but that is a dangerous road,” Felker said. The column told a story about the author’s friend Maryam, who booked a vacation through a travel agent that seemed to serve the agent's interest more than hers. In particular, the writer criticized the agent for booking airfares and room rates that got the agent a commission but restricted the client’s ability to upgrade. The story presented only one side of Maryam’s tale of woe. We will never know the other side, but the insinuation that the travel agent ruined someone’s holiday vacation is surely off the mark.

I asked John to tell me a few tales out of school about some of his clients and what he routinely does for them. He offered the following two illustrations, which really demonstrate the value a professional travel planner can bring to the transaction.

Happy 20th, hon!
A very good client came in to see me after having trouble making reservations for a 20th-anniversary trip for him and his wife. He wanted first-class air, a top-notch hotel, show tickets — the whole shebang. When he contacted the airline to use his frequent-flier points for air tickets, he found there were no seats available on the chosen dates. He asked if I could get the airline to release some seats for him. I let him know that frequent-flier seats are strictly capacity-controlled, and that the airlines generally allow only one or two per flight. I offered to search for upgradeable fares instead, and he agreed.

I turned to my CRS (Computer Reservation System, a system that offers far more information than is available on the Internet and which is directly linked to the airlines’ systems) and began the search. Bingo. Although the flight times weren’t exactly what my client wanted, I did find flights with fares that allowed him to use some of his frequent-flier points to upgrade to first class.

While I was checking for airfares, I checked out the various hotel loyalty programs in which he participated, and realized that my client had enough points with one hotel group to qualify for a better room category. So after finalizing the flights, I got on the phone with my hotel sales rep and secured my client a suite instead of a standard king-bedded room. My client thought I was a miracle worker, and to this day remains one of my most loyal clients.

Communication is obviously critical and it must go both ways. John apparently has the right attitude for a customer service career. He understood exactly what his client wanted, provided a reality check and then pulled out all the stops.

Agents to the rescue
John then told me about helping another client, just when she needed help most:

Slideshow: Around the World Another time, a woman called my agency out of the blue, having found our phone number in the Yellow Pages. It seems that her husband suffered a heart attack on a business trip in London, and she needed to get to his bedside as soon as possible. She looked for a flight on the Internet and, finding fares that were several thousand dollars, called the airlines directly, but with no better luck.

As a last-ditch effort, she contacted us to see if there was anything we could do to help her get to London. We put all hands on deck, and soon every agent in our office was doing a computer search for fares and making calls to various consolidators with whom we had relationships. (Consolidators are companies that do not sell to the public and can offer steeply discounted fares). We had worked on this for about 20 minutes when Kevin, one of my co-workers, stood up and said, “I got it!” He had found a fare with a consolidator that would allow the woman to leave the next day, without a stipulated return date, and save her almost $600 over the published fares. The trip was successful, the husband recovered and this couple became loyal clients.

As John’s two examples show, a good travel agent does a lot more than simply make reservations. If agents’ work were that simple, would 80 percent of packaged vacations and cruises still be booked by traditional agents?

Going for the relationship, not the sale
As I have said before, your travel agent is not after this one, particular sale. He is after the next one, and the one after that. A good agent wants to build a relationship that mutually benefits the traveler and the agent. Yes, we do need to make money. Yes, we charge fees. Yes, we sometimes earn a commission. You can’t fault us for that. But for your buck, you will receive a  wealth of concrete, actionable information that goes beyond the author’s advice to speak to the hotel manager if you want your room upgraded.

We'll never know if Maryam told her agent that she wanted to upgrade, but I would venture to guess she did not. I don’t know any reputable travel agent who would book a restricted ticket if he knew the client was hoping for an upgrade. At the same time, I would point out that upgrades for Hawaii during the holiday season are a rarity.  I agree with John that consolidator fares are not for everyone, but they can save you a considerable amount of money — if you can live with the  restrictions. Again, the key is communication. The agent needs to know what is important to you.

Good travel agents serve as advocates. They want to know your needs, wants, expectations and budget, and they take the time to ask you many questions. They want to make your trip as hassle-free as possible, and they look out for what is best for you, not them. Remember, they want you as a repeat customer — that’s how they make money, not by scamming a client.

Play the odds
This is not to say there aren’t bad agents out there. Of course there are — just as there are bad doctors, attorneys and insurance brokers. Interview a prospective agent to make sure you can get along. Make sure you convey what is important to you, and that he understands that. Once a relationship is established, your travel agent will become one of your most trusted advisors, along with your CPA, attorney and doctor.

Slideshow: Around the World I think if Maryam had followed the above advice, her trip to Hawaii might have been more enjoyable. I am pretty confident that the upgrades would not have happened with or without an agent — not unless her full name was Maryam United-Hilton. I hope that she has taken this experience as a learning opportunity and will, in the future, give the agent community another chance.

As for some of the author’s other tips, again, I contend that it is the rare traveler that can get through to the general manager of a hotel. It is rarer still to have that phone call result in the hotel kowtowing to a guest’s every whim. Besides, who is the hotel or airline more interested in pleasing? A single businessman with his million miles and 365 nights a year? Or John Felker, whose clients put in 10 million miles and 365,000 nights a year?

Give it some thought.

John Frenaye is the president of JVE Group, Inc., a diversified company based in Annapolis, Md. With nearly ten years as a senior executive in the retail travel industry and a background in business management, he writes about the travel industry as an insider with an outsider's perspective. E-mail him or visit his Web site . Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Frenaye's forum.

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