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Why You (Still) Need a Travel Agent

By Liza Weisstuch
January 12, 2022
hands pointing to paper map
Watchara Kokram/Dreamstime
If you think you're better off researching and booking your next vacation entirely online, you may be wasting serious time and money. Here's how a good travel agent can help.

Ask Aurelio Giordano why someone should use a travel agent these days, and his reply is reflexive: “Do you have a couple of minutes?” The Brooklyn-based travel agent founded his company, Ace World Travel, in 2012 and has seen his business grow exponentially in recent years.

These days it’s easy to assume that a vacation is a DIY undertaking. At least that’s what the countless websites that allow us to book a flight, make a hotel reservation, buy insurance, and explore area restaurants and sites would have us think. Not so fast. While you might see fewer travel agency storefronts than you did 20 years ago, it doesn’t mean that the industry has gone the way of Blockbuster Video. That’s because travel agents provide a valuable service that can feel rare in our digital era: personal guidance. And that’s hardly all. According to the American Society of Travel Advisors, the top three reasons people go to an expert are to save planning time, avoid mistakes, and improve the overall vacation experience. ASTA studies show that on average people can save 3.5 hours in planning and more than $300 per trip by working with a pro. We spoke to some veteran travel agents to get a full understanding of how they can help us travel better.

The Travel Agent Industry Is Growing

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Grand Canyon? Been there. Boston’s Freedom Trail? Done that. And your parents did it, too. And your grandparents. Travel today ain't what it used to be. “Travelers these days are looking for different, exclusive experiences. They don’t want the kind of cookie-cutter trips they’d get through Expedia,” says Aurelio. “My agency has grown tremendously because people are looking for more specified and personalized itineraries." For plenty of people, time off is a rarity. It could take three years to save the time and money for a vacation, and they don't want just any trip, he says.

ASTA reports that the Census Bureau’s 2015 figures, the latest available, showed that U.S. travel agencies employ 105,085 people, an 8 percent increase over five years. It’s a growth that Paloma Villaverde de Rico, editor-in-chief of Recommend Magazine, a trade publication, attributes to the boom in younger travelers. “What I can tell you from writing about the travel agent industry for the last 15 years is that there is definitely a surge in interest among millennials and even Gen Z (the young 20-somethings) in this profession—and this in reference to an industry that everyone thought would go away due to the Internet,” she says.

Hand-Crafted, Personalized Vacations

“It all starts with a conversation,” says Aurelio (facebook.com/aceworldtravel/). “I think people miss the human connection. They wanna talk to someone, they’re tired of pressing ‘one,’ but we're conditioned to accept that as the norm. There’s a huge lack in customer service these days because everything’s so automated and accessible through the touch of screen.” That human connection is the travel agent’s stock-in-trade. The better Aurelio understands a client’s particular preferences and interests, the more exclusive and fine-tuned and authentic the itinerary will be. There’s also the fact that not every travel business sells their services or product online. Some tour operators, for instance, only work business-to-business, which means a travel agent can connect you to services that you wouldn’t find on the web.

According to Margie Jordan, vice president of the TRUE network, a division of the trade organization CCRC, a travel agent's job is best explained as a concierge service. “What I love about travel agents is the personally built relationships. The places I’m recommending are the best, say, hotel I’ve slept in. I’ve been there, I know staff, I’ve talked to them.”

The Immeasurable Value of Insider's Knowledge

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“You wouldn’t go on a DIY architecture website to build your home, would you?” says Paloma. And so it goes with travel agents. An agent spends her career learning the tricks of the trade and building an arsenal of insider knowledge, then advises accordingly. She’ll know, for instance, that the best deals for cruises are available during wave season, so that’s the best time to make your purchase.

Or consider you’re in London and you want to see Paris. A website won’t necessarily suggest that you drop the idea of packing up your stuff and staying overnight. Aurelio will tell you to simply make it a day trip—it’s only a two-hour-ish train ride, after all.

Of course, that insider’s expertise extends far beyond transportation logistics. Giordano’s recommendations are based off years of networking, going to conferences and expos, visiting hotels, going on cruises, and so forth. His vast knowledge of places and people make him a valuable resource when someone has a specific need, like dietary restrictions or a disability. Group trips can also be easier to plan when you sit down with someone who’s seen the layout of the hotels and restaurants you’re considering.

And as the travel industry grows and becomes more specialized, an agent can tailor a trip to niche interests. “What good travel agents are doing is becoming experts in one specific type of segment," Paloma says. "For example, there are travel agents who specialize in family travel, and within that you can find travel advisors who sell to LGBT family clients, or family clients with special needs. There are other advisors who sell wellness vacations, while others dedicate themselves to booking cruises, and still others to destination weddings and honeymoons (there are many millennials, for example, that dedicate themselves to this for obvious reasons)."

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Travel Tips

Skincare to Go: 5 DIY Hacks for the Road

It’s happened to the best of us: You arrive at your destination only to realize that you left your moisturizer at home. You’re in a foreign country, and you can’t get a replacement. Who knows what effect a different brand might have on your skin? With or without your favorite product, however, breakouts and dryness could happen—that’s just one way your body might react to the various stressors brought on by travel. But there are ways to get your body back in alignment that don’t have to involve a visit to the drugstore. To get the details on tried-and-true do-it-yourself remedies, we turned to Violet Mkhitaryan, an aesthetician and spa owner who’s carrying the torch for time-tested skincare regimens—no designer products or fancy labels required. A trained biochemist in her native Armenia, Violet long ago realized her preference for the recipes and healthy practices learned at her grandmother's knee, and today, she incorporates those tips and tricks into the additive- and preservative-free products she makes by hand to use and sell at her spa, Violet Skin Boutique (violeltskinboutique.com), in Brookline, Massachusetts. She showed us how to bring some of her long-practiced tactics to modern life, especially when travel calls for you to reboot your bod. 1. Exfoliate to Clean and Refresh Anything abrasive gives your skin a deep clean and helps remove dirt and oil. There are plenty of natural ingredients that’ll do the trick, and chances are you already have them at your fingertips. Violet recommends mixing used coffee grounds with a teaspoon of sour cream, massaging the blend into your skin, and leaving it on for 10 to 15 minutes. The grounds act as an exfoliant, and the cream moisturizes. 2. Renew Your Natural Glow To help close pores, nourish skin, and rejuvenate your look, Violet turns to a dense, soothing slather: a tablespoon of oatmeal blended with a dollop or two of heavy cream. Apply to your face and leave for 10 to 15 minutes, then rinse off. 3. Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate Fruits and vegetables have a higher moisture content than any other food. Take two strawberries, three grapes, and a third of a banana. Mash them together in a bowl with the back of a spoon, add a dollop of sour cream, apply the mixture to your face, and leave it on for 10 to 15 minutes. Rinse and feel refreshed and hydrated. 4. Tone It Up Regardless of whether or not you’re traveling, your skin needs a regular boost. Think of a toner as the skincare equivalent of yoga: It simply gives skin a chance to open up and breath. Violet turns to cucumber or watermelon juice. Use a cotton ball to apply, then lay a tissue over your face as a sheet mask. Let it sit for five minutes, then rinse off. 5. A Simple Cure for Puffiness Nothing can mess with your skin’s moisture levels more than a plane’s recirculated air. At high altitudes, you’re dry. Back on the ground, things can change drastically, especially if you arrive somewhere humid or rainy. The consequences aren't pretty: puffiness, especially around the eyes. According to Violet, though, there’s an easy solution. Massaging your face with ice for a few minutes should help recalibrate everything.

Travel Tips

9 Ways to Plan an Affordable (and Amazing) Honeymoon

Honeymoons are romantic, but they can also be expensive. On average, couples are shelling out $5,342 on their honeymoon, according to a recent report from The Knot, an online registry and wedding planning site. That’s on top of what they’re spending on their wedding, which costs, on average, $33,931 nationally. But, there are ways to trim your honeymoon budget without taking away from the romance of this special trip. Here are nine things you can do to plan a budget-friendly honeymoon. 1. Book Flights Early Do a Google search for “best time to book a flight” and you’ll find a seemingly endless number of studies claiming what the best day is to hit the “buy” button. Don’t fret, though—we’ve sifted through the research and found there’s a consensus: travelers typically get the best prices by booking flights at least three weeks in advance. Indeed, CheapAir.com recommends booking within a window of 21 to 105 days ahead, depending on the season, with a domestic-flight sweet spot of 54 days before departure. Supporting that is a 2018 report from Expedia and the Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC), which examined billions of data points to identify travel patterns and found that bargain-minded economy travelers should book 30-plus days in advance. 2. Avoid Paying Foreign Transaction Fees Planning to honeymoon abroad? Some credit cards charge up to a 3% fee on foreign transactions. Though that may seem small, it can effectively negate whatever rewards points, dollars, or miles you’d earn using the card. That’s why Bill Hardekopf, a credit expert at LowCards.com, recommends international travelers always bring a credit card with no foreign transaction fees such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred card or the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard. One caveat: some destinations, such as Cuba, do not honor U.S.-based bank or credit cards—meaning you’ll have to arrive with cash if you’re heading to one of those locales. 3. Save Big on Lodging Good news:T are some simple, yet effective strategies to save on lodging. If you’re planning to stay at hotels, call the concierge to find out what the rate is—sometimes the over-the-phone price is cheaper than the online price—or use a bidding site like Priceline where hotels compete for your business. If you’re shopping for vacation rental, such as an Airbnb, don’t be afraid to haggle with the owner for a lower rate. (You’ll have more leverage if can request a multi-night stay.) 4. Choose a Destination Where Your Dollar Will Go Far One way to trim your trip’s expenses is by choosing a location with a strong exchange rate. On the extreme end of the exchange-rate spectrum, you may want to consider honeymooning in Argentina, Sweden, or Nigeria, where the exchange rate for the U.S. dollar is predicted to decrease by double digits in 2019, according to a forecast by Carlson Wagonlit Travel, a U.S.-based travel management company. But you can also opt for a more moderate exchange rate by doing your homework before choosing your destination. 5. Travel During the Shoulder Season Traveling during the “sweet spot” between high season and low season can help you nab a great honeymoon at a shockingly low price. Though shoulder seasons can vary when traveling abroad, most airfares and hotel rates in the U.S. drop in popular summer destinations as summer turns to fall, especially in beach towns, National Parks, and theme parks. 6. Want Fixed Costs? Book an All-inclusive Honeymoon For couples that have trouble sticking to a budget while traveling, staying at an all-inclusive resort may be the most cost-effective option. With an all-inclusive resort your room, meals, drinks, taxes, and airport transfers are paid for as one flat fee—meaning you’ll never feel tempted to whip out your wallet and make an impulsive splurge. Pro tip: Staying at an adults-only resort will up the romance—letting you enjoy candlelit dinners for two and couples’ massages without the hustle-bustle of families with children nearby. 7. Take Advantage of Free Entertainment When you’re on the ground you can curb expenses by going to free museums and events. Nearify, a free mobile app (available on Android and iPhone) that compiles happenings in hundreds of cities, can help you discover free events near your location. Also, a number of cities offer free walking tours, which you can find on Google and FreeToursByFoot.com. 8. Redeem Discounts for Premium Memberships Many hotels, rental car companies, and attractions offer reduced rates for members of frequent flier programs, credit card holders, and organizations like AAA and AARP. However, you may need to do a little digging to find these discounts, or inquire about them when booking reservations. 9. Need a Bigger Budget? Set Up a Honeymoon Registry Nowadays many couples are creating a honeymoon registry to supplement their travel expenses. Having this registry will make it easy for your family and friends to donate cash for your honeymoon. Most wedding registry websites, including WeddingWire and The Knot, let you set up a honeymoon registry alongside your gift registry.

Travel Tips

Hotel Concierges Tell All: The Good, the Bad, and the Wacky

Hotel guests can be very particular, and nobody knows that better than a concierge. They are a cornerstone of any hotel's daily operation. If the check-in desk and administrative departments are the brain, keeping logistics and operations functioning, then concierges are the heart, minding the rhythm and energy of the lobby and, perhaps more importantly, infusing the property with the soul that comes from hands-on, face-to-face attention and care. Over the course of their career, a concierge can meet tens of thousands of individuals, if not more. Requests can range from eyebrow-raising (a concierge in North Carolina who asked to remain anonymous reported receiving a delivery of a 50-inch television screen for a guest who wanted to play the video game Fortnite during his one-night stay) to the all-out astonishing (a concierge at a luxury property in South Beach, who also asked to remain anonymous, spoke of a guest who checked in with a small dog and requested inordinate amounts of raw meat be sent to her room.) We checked in with a few seasoned veterans about their more memorable encounters, some of which might even make a superhero blanch. Concierge to the Rescue in Winston-Salem It was around 7:00 a.m. on a crisp spring morning last year. Things were normal enough as Mary Beth Wilhelm prepared for her shift at the Kimpton Cardinal Hotel in Winston-Salem. She greeted a regular guest, a business traveler, who was coming in from his habitual jog. But normalcy was upended when he approached her, clutching his chest. “My first reaction was to laugh because that’s how I feel after I take a jog,” she recalls, but within an instant it was clear that he wasn’t kidding and she immediately slipped into crisis-management mode. She called 911 and sat with him until the paramedics arrived and rushed him to Wake Forest Baptist Medical, a few minutes away. In that time, he had the wherewithal to give her his wife’s cell phone number. As he underwent bypass surgery, Mary Beth corresponded with his wife, who was making her way to North Carolina from the West Coast. The surgery was a success, and the couple stays with them regularly now. “He tells me, ‘You saved my life,’” Mary Beth says. “I just did what anyone else would do.” Going to Extremes in New Orleans As anyone who’s spent the bulk of his career at a hotel on Bourbon Street, Wayne Adams will be the first to tell you that alcohol does funny things to people. With 30 years in the New Orleans hotel industry under his belt, suffice it to say he's seen some things. Presently the guest services manager at the Royal Sonesta who regularly works the concierge desk, Wayne has borne witness to pretty much everything, including a career ice skater taking a 3:00 a.m. tumble into the hotel’s fountain while attempting to show off some new moves, a meeting organizer doing an impromptu late-night burlesque dance for the many, many meeting attendees, and the escapades of the attendees of a convention for swingers. Yes, swingers. (“Bourbon Street is pretty risqué. They’re really risqué,” he says.) With bars that hardly ever close, a large history and culture of voodoo practitioners, and laws that allow drinking in public, New Orleans errs on the side of eccentric and attracts many travelers who relish the vibe. One of Wayne’s more memorable requests was from a guest who asked him to make a Sunday brunch reservation for her and her guests at one of the city’s more formal restaurants. She wanted Champagne and all the fancy fixings, he recalls. Her guests? Her four cats. He’s lent a hand to more than a few guests who wanted elaborate setups to propose to their girlfriends, going so far as to round up clowns and track down a unicyclist for one couple. “I’ve seen people meet in the morning and marry in the evening,” he said. More than once. The extremes of his job swing both ways. During 9/11, there was a convention in the hotel with many people from New York. They had a command center set up in a music club, with many locals trying to reach the guests’ relatives and friends who worked in and around the towers. During Hurricane Katrina, they didn’t close. They played host to first-responders, cable news teams, and FEMA staff including Michael Brown, the Undersecretary of Emergency Preparedness and Response who famously became known as "Brownie." A Lifelong Career with a James Bond-Caliber Thrill At a point in every concierge’s career, an extreme request will arrive—a request that will involve duties far beyond the everyday. In Gaby Delgado’s case, there was a James Bond quality to it. Gaby is presently the senior concierge at a Fairmont Washington D.C., Georgetown, but years ago while working at a luxury property in Hawaii, a guest wanted to propose to his girlfriend, so he bought her a diamond ring and had it specially made and cut. Just one sticky wicket: the diamond was on another island. Gaby was called upon to get on a private plane—accompanied by a security guard, of course—to obtain it. (“I’ve never been around so many diamonds,” she says, still sounding mystified.) With prize in hand, she made it back to the hotel in time for dinner, an extravagant affair involving roses, a violinist, and a harpist. The woman said yes. Whether they lived happily ever after, however, remains a mystery. Service Goes to the Dogs in Boston In the 14 years that he's worked as concierge at the landmark Fairmont Copley Plaza, located on Boston's bustling Copley Square, Joe Fallon has taken care of countless guests, from Hollywood luminaries to some of the world’s most illustrious performers—even if he doesn't always recognize them. (He's still a little sheepish about not recognizing a woman he later learned was the biggest opera star in Italy.) But arguably, his biggest responsibility over the years has been Catie Copley, the black lab that was, until she passed in 2017, as much of a fixture in the glitzy lobby as the crystal chandeliers and Italian marble columns. To hear him tell it, he’s just the personal assistant to a famous dog: "I know my place,” he says, only half-kidding. As such, he was responsible for taking care at Catie after-hours at his home, accompanying her to schools, libraries, and hospitals, and keeping her calendar clear for an annual appearance with the mayor for the tree-lighting ceremony. Catie, he says, was as big of a star as much more familiar household names. Joe has photos of her with Leonard Cohen as well as an Elvis Costello shot that she photo-bombed. But perhaps her biggest fan was Paul Newman, a regular who celebrated his 82nd birthday at the hotel and, Joe says, "one of the nicest gentlemen I’ve ever met." He was such a Catie fan that the hotel presented him with a framed photo of her, imprinted with her “pawgraph.” (That’s dog-speak for autograph.) He was very open and conversational, and, Joe recalls, he eventually came clean: “He didn’t want to be actor, he wanted to be a race car driver." Apparently some concierges field confessions along with the regular influx of requests.

Travel TipsProduct Reviews

11 In-Flight Essentials to Pack for Your Next Trip

While we can’t do anything about the seatmate who takes over your shared armrest, or the drink cart that bumps your elbow with every trip down the aisle, or the lack of legroom in coach, we’ve put our frequent-flier miles to good use and collected the gear to make your time in transit as enjoyable as possible. From pillows and earplugs to blankets and socks, here’s what you should stash in your carry-on for a smooth, no-friction travel day. 1. Charge Up (Courtesy Anker) Yes, most planes have in-seat outlets these days, but if you’re on a short hopper flight, your aircraft probably won’t have a plug. Avoid outages with Anker’s tiny power bank—at just four inches long and weighing less than five ounces, it’ll keep your devices humming along until you’re back on the ground. Anker PowerCore 5000, $22; amazon.com. 2. Get Some Rest (Courtesy Travelrest) When it comes to long-haul travel, catching those Zs is critical, and Travelrest’s memory-foam neck pillow is one of our most highly rated nap-time tools. Between the under-chin support that keeps your head from dropping, an angled back that cradles your neck just-so, and a velour cover that feels extra-cozy against your cheeks, you’ll be nodding off in no time. Travelrest Ultimate Memory Foam Travel Pillow, $40; amazon.com. 3. Avoid the Noise (Courtesy the Grommet) Whether you’re blocking out your seatmate’s snoring or trying to catch every last word of your favorite podcast, a solid set of headphones is non-negotiable. These Bluetooth earbuds from ISOtunes come with a noise-reduction rating of 27 dB and a selection of foam tips—much more comfortable than, say, Apple’s hard-plastic AirPods. Plus, with 10 hours of playback time, they’ll take you from check-in to deplaning in one go.ISOtunes Audio Professional Noise Isolating Earbuds, $90; thegrommet.com. 4. Organize Your Essentials (Courtesy Flight 001) With labeled pockets and pouches for your tablet, smartphone, passport, and more, Flight 001’s in-seat organizer is a Type A personality’s dream. Unfold it and hang it from your tray table’s hook, or keep it zipped and put it in the seat-back pocket in front of you—either way, you’ll have instant access to your gear. Seat Pak Pro, $40; flight001.com. 5. Stay Moisturized (Courtesy Skinny & Company) Recirculated cabin air is notoriously drying and germ-ridden, but a good lip balm can help keep your skin's moisture barrier intact. Skinny & Co.’s formula relies on coconut oil, beeswax, cocoa butter, and vitamin E to prevent against the painful cracks and chapping that allow bacteria to sneak into your system, and it feels light yet substantial when applied. Stash one tube in the aforementioned organizer, one in your Dopp kit, and one in your coat pocket, and you’ll be covered on all fronts.Lip balm, $17 for three; skinnyandcompany.com. 6. Get Comfortable (Courtesy Slip) First-class tastes on a main-cabin budget? Slip’s pure-silk pillow and eye mask will keep tangles, flyaways, and sleep creases at bay, so you’ll arrive at your destination looking refreshed. The set is a bit of a splurge, both in terms of cost and how much space it takes up in your bag, but if you’ve got a serious beauty routine, you’ll want to make sure it’s protected, especially when you're crammed into a middle seat in coach.Beauty Sleep to Go! Travel Set, $120; slip.com. 7. Guard Your Ears (Courtesy Pluggerz) Changing air pressure on takeoff and landing often wreaks havoc on sensitive ears, especially during cold-and-flu season, when congestion can result in all kinds of aches and pains. Travel-specific earplugs, like this pair from Pluggerz, alleviate the pressure and keep your ears from popping, even when everyone around you is suffering. Pluggerz Uni-Fit Travel earplugs, $10; jet.com. 8. Corral Your Cords (Courtesy Aseismanos) If you’re an artist, by all means, load up this adorable waxed-canvas pencil case from Aseismanos with your must-have pens and tools, but don’t fear if you’re less creatively inclined—you can still put it to good use. At 7-½” long by 2-½” wide, it perfectly accommodates a small, two-port plug, an extra-long phone cord (complete with Cable Bite), and a small charging cable or two, and it’s slim enough that it'll slide seamlessly into your bag, no matter how full.Small pencil case, $28; aseismanos.com. 9. Keep Your Blood Moving (Courtesy VIM & VIGR) To reduce swelling, improve circulation, and give tired legs an energy boost, compression socks are the way to go. Most of the offerings on the market tend to be orthopedic in style, but with colorful patterns in cotton, nylon, and merino wool for men and women alike, these fun little numbers from VIM & VIGR grant you all of the therapeutic benefits with none of the seatmate side-eye.Compression socks, $33; vimvigr.com. 10. Stay Warm (Courtesy Bloomingdale's) In-cabin temperatures can be unpredictable at best, so you'll want to be prepared if you’re susceptible to the chills. This light, quilted blanket from Sparrow & Wren will have you snuggled up quickly, thanks to its down fill and generous 50" x 70" size.Sparrow & Wren Packable Down Throw, $45 (regularly $90); bloomingdales.com. 11. Pack It All In (Courtesy Topo Designs) Too many items for one central organizer? Split your gear between a few smaller pouches, and your bottomless tote will seem much more manageable. These accessory bags from Topo Designs are ideal: Stash eye drops, lip balm, and Advil in the smallest; hand sanitizer, lotion, and a compact in the next size up; and laptop chargers, power cords, and social-media equipment in the largest. Made from hardy Cordura fabric and boasting bright-red zipper pulls, they’ll withstand potential snags and tears, and they’re easy to spot in your bag too. Accessory bags, from $15; topodesigns.com.