Valerie Schneider has worked in the travel industry since 1995 as a travel agent, marketing manager, and corporate travel consultant.
The best agents ask a lot of questions. You, in turn, need to answer honestly concerning your personality and interests. If you're not into museums, say so. If you live for adventure, speak up! We're not mind readers, and there's nothing worse than a client who expects us to coordinate the perfect getaway without any input as to what, in his thinking, constitutes perfection.
Most airlines don't pay commissions, so agents have little incentive to issue tickets unless it's part of a package or tour. Besides--let's be honest--if you're flying a simple round trip, you'll do just as well booking online. But if you're going off the beaten path or are booking a complicated itinerary, it's smart to use an agent. You'll usually pay a service fee (anywhere from $15 to $40), but that's money well spent. Remember, we have access to international consolidator airfares that aren't available online.
Agencies sometimes pay staffers incentives of $5 or $10 for each booking made with preferred companies (ones that give the biggest commissions). Cash rewards work as a motivator--but do they serve the customer well? Not if the client winds up booking a more expensive, less convenient, and less enjoyable trip. So, if an agent recommends a cruise or tour, ask why it's right for you. If the response is just "Because this is a good company," take your business elsewhere. On the other hand, agencies receiving above-average commission percentages from certain suppliers are sometimes willing to give special discounts to customers. An agency receiving a 20 percent payout from a cruise line--12 or 13 percent is more typical--might hand a portion of that right back to you. Many cruise lines have cracked down on rebates--as these backdoor discounts are called--but agencies can always find some way to reward your business, including onboard credits, free transfers, free champagne, and cabin upgrades.
I don't know everything. No agent does. Even an agent who specializes in a destination can't be an expert on every resort, hotel, restaurant, pub, tour guide, and beach. We try to stay abreast of travel trends around the world, and many of my colleagues study for certifications such as Destination Specialist, but these are no substitutes for firsthand knowledge. Feel free to ask your agent if he or she's ever visited your desired destination, and how recently. As inconceivable as it seems, I know agents who rarely ever travel at all.