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Planning a trip can be a very exciting time.  Still, there can be a lot of stress to go along with it. Sometimes it's OK to plan things yourself.  This applies if it's a simple trip or if you have made arrangements before.  But, if you're taking a trip that involves going somewhere new and/or has a lot of detailed planning, you might find value in using the services of a travel agent.

We've used a travel agent twice in planning trips.  Both of them fit the criteria above, as the first was for our honeymoon trip to Hawaii back in 2007, and the second was for our family trip to Disney World last fall.

How Our Travel Agents Earned Money

In both cases, our travel agents worked for us and we got the same pricing for the services or goods that we purchased as we would have had we gotten them on our own.  (Trust me, I checked!)

How they work is to establish relationships with a variety of providers and will often guarantee a certain number of sales, so the agent collects the full rate from you, but will pay the vendor (e.g. a hotel) a ‘discounted' rate, and pocket the difference.

I know there are other models that come into play, but since both of ours were very high volume areas, there are an abundance of agents who have established these relationships on the back end.  Point being, if you travel to a lightly traveled area, you might not be able to take advantage of this, and might have to pay full price plus pay a fee on top to the agent.

What A Travel Agent Should Provide

Having worked with a travel agent twice, I now have a certain list of things that I believe a travel agent should provide, and will expect any future agent to provide should we use a travel agent in the future.

Specialty knowledge tailored to your needs.

One might think that with the Internet, you can find out everything that you need to know.  This is absolutely true. The problem with this when you're setting up travel plans is that you're going to find all that and a million times more, and weeding out what's applicable to you can be daunting if not impossible.  You should expect a travel agenmb-oars201308t to ask you questions, and provide planning based on your specific needs.  Let them be your Google.

Provide options specific to your needs.

A well seasoned travel agent will have knowledge and relationships available with a variety of vendors, and should be able to provide you multiple options that meet your needs.  For example, when we booked our Hawaiian vacation, our agent provided us a few different hotel options.  I'm sure that he had relationships that were to his benefit, but we never felt like we were being steered in a direction we weren't comfortable with.

Be timely and responsive.

We've found that when in both of the trips we planned using an agent, we had a lot of questions.  A lot of the answers would generate follow-up questions, so we found that timely and thorough answers were very important.  You can't expect an agent to respond within 15 minutes of every e-mail.  Still, you should establish a reasonable expectation up front and expect most responses in this time.  I think one day is more than reasonable.

Tell you what to do.

Our agent for the Hawaii trip was great because he sat down and listened to the list of things that we had created for our to-do list, and took it one step further.  He basically said “Since you like these things, here's some other things I think you might enjoy”.  In some cases, we declined, and in other cases, we changed things around, and for the most part, he was right!

Tell you what not to do.

In going along with the item above, we had some items that we thought would be fun, and he steered us away from them.  Now, again, you don't have to take their recommendation if you don't want to, but the point is that they should be working to provide you the best time you can have, as that will reflect solidly and favorably on them.

Provide an itinerary.

Your agent should provide you an itinerary of your trip, definitely including all services for which you used the agent, and they should also be open to adding in items that you might book yourself.

Discuss the stuff that might not be fun.

Things can always go wrong on a trip.  Hopefully they won't, but sometimes they do.  Your agent should give you a run-down of what you should do if your flight is delayed or your room is not up to par or your rental car isn't working.  Should you call the agent or escalate with the actual company?  The answer in many cases is probably “It depends” but your agent should run through that, at least on a high level.

Follow up (a.k.a. say thank you).

This one seems like a no-brainer but in fact, it may not.  Our agent for our Hawaii trip contacted us after the trip to make sure that everything had gone well.  He even sent us a Christmas gift later that year!  Would we have used him again had we wanted to go back to Hawaii anytime over the next few years?  Absolutely!  (He's since retired)  A lot of that has to do with the fact that he followed up.  I'm sure that he learned that doing so is a good way to set up ‘the next sale'.  Our Disney agent never followed up.  This left a poor taste in our mouth.  As a result, she will not be getting any future business from us.

Those are some of the things that we found are important.  Little things can separate an average travel agent from an exceptional one.

Readers, do you use a travel agent to plan your trips?  What are the must have attributes you've found, if they're not on the list above?  Please share in the comments below.