"I get calls from people who say ‘I spent all weekend online trying to work out a trip and this is exactly what I need,'" said travel consultant Sheri Doyle, the Seattle-based owner of Pacific Northwest Journeys.
Doyle, who specializes in creating itineraries for travelers heading to Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and beyond, finds that many of her clients are travelers frustrated by the overload of information on Expedia, TripAdvisor and other online travel sites and who want to be sure they are making good decisions about how to spend vacation days — and making good use of their time.
"It's time versus money. People find value in paying a fee for travel knowledge."
“It’s time versus money. A lot of people just don’t have the time or the expertise to plan a trip and do it well,” said Doyle, and they find value in paying a fee for the knowledge of someone who has actually stayed at the hotels, visited the sites and can negotiate good rates and extra perks.
Travelers who have found occasion to turn from the web to an agent include Alyne Ellis, a writer and radio producer from Washington D.C. who was planning a trip to Rome, Venice, and Croatia with her husband, who had never been to Europe.
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“We were overwhelmed with the logistics as we only had a few days in Rome and Venice and wanted to be near everything,” said Ellis. With the help of an agent, “We stayed in some of the nicest places ever and they all seemed very local in their feeling, at our request,” she said.
Karen Wickre, an internet industry veteran and founder of KVOX Media, relies on a travel adviser who can “see competitive pricing and scheduling,” when planning complex trips outside the U.S.
On a two-week, multi-city visit to Spain and Portugal, Wickre and a friend figured chose the hotels and length of stays in each city, but turned to the agent to book flights, trains, and airport transfers.
“All the travel documents and details were in one itinerary,” said Wickre, “They even have an app we could look at along the way. And it was easy to pay one bill to the agent.”
In 2015, 22 percent of consumers booked through a travel agent, the highest share reported in the past three years.
These experiences fit with the trend noted in a June 2016 report by the American Society of Travel Agents, which surveyed 14,000 U.S. households and found that, despite the rise of online travel agents (OTAs), in the previous year 22 percent of consumers booked through a travel agent, the highest share reported in the past three years.
In its most recent Portrait of American Travelers survey, travel industry research and marketing firm MMGY found the use of travel agents at a six-year high, with more than 9 million U.S. travelers planning to call on a travel professional to help book a trip this year.
“The higher the ticket price of the travel being purchased, the more likely they were to turn to a professional travel advisor,” noted the Travel Market Report in its review of the study.
“If anything, a good travel counselor is more relevant today than ever before,” said Grayce Walters, a travel agent with Maupin Travel that has a storefront in Raleigh, North Carolina.
“Ten years ago we were worried about the internet and all the sites that were popping up, but I’m seeing a lot more people — especially young people — who come to us when planning big trips,” said Walters. “Sometimes people say, ‘I can do it myself,’ but then they get into it, it gets complicated and they call me and are happy to pay a fee. When I save them money on the overall trip, I get a customer for life.”
Jack Ezon, a luxury leisure travel consultant with Ovation Travel, calls that the boomerang effect.
“There’s so much information out there that it makes it more difficult to do your own research now. So we serve as matchmakers, listening to clients, and finding what’s right for them,” said Ezon.
And, increasingly, ‘what’s right’ is also ‘special.’
“Younger millennials want the VIP treatment, to be on the other side of the velvet rope. Older millennials are planning honeymoons, having kids, and wanting to create unique experiences,” said Ezon. “And it’s not just millennials; increasingly, Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are acting like millennials and looking for savvy travel advisers who can make things happen.”
Harriet Baskas is an NBC News contributor who writes about travel and the arts.