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Dreaming about warmer days on a tropical beach somewhere (only not sure where)? We feel you. Before you go down the Google rabbit hole trying to decide where and when to go, you might want to consider using a travel agent. You may think of a travel agent as a pre-Internet thing, but if you’re a busy mama like us, there are plenty of reasons to work with one.
We spoke with four NJ-based travel agents about what they can offer to help plan your vacay, and save you money in the process. Here are a few reasons to go the travel agent route:
They know best.
Sure, you can scour search engine results, but travel agents are pros. It’s their job to know the details on every destination they send clients to, not to mention all the special ins-and-outs you can’t find online.
“Travel agents are trained to be knowledgeable about all destinations,” says Lisa Federico, owner of Academy Travel Inc., one of three DIAMOND Level Disney Vacation Planners in the world, in Manahawkin. “Some destinations they even specialize and have extensive training in.”
“Our agents are constantly taking online training, getting certified and becoming ambassadors for different locations as well as taking time and traveling to different destinations and cruises so that we know them intimately and not just through a computer screen,” says Dina Barreto, owner of Magical World Vacations in Jackson. That means they can tell you the truth about what to expect in terms of the area, climate, accommodations and more (there’s no need to worry about being misled by a spot that seems great online, but not in person).
Julie Shotmeyer, founder of Jet Set Getaways in Wyckoff, explains that there's a big difference between planning online and using a professional. "Online booking can't replace human relationships: relationships advisors have with clients, and also relationships a great travel advisor invests endless hours to keep their network relationships strong with hotel owners, management and their teams to benefit their clients' vacations."
Agents also know peak seasons around the world, and the best times to book or go based on weather, crowds and pricing.
They can save you money…
Seemingly good deals often come with hidden fees and downplayed costs. “Travel agents can take the guesswork out of the equation and determine if a deal is really a deal after crunching all the associated costs,” says Grace Roth, a travel consultant of 10 years at ABC World Vacations in Westfield. “A good travel agent will focus on making the most of a client's budget.”
Travelers and agents may come across many of the same deals, but agents have a leg up on knowing all the options. Plus, if you find a trip for less than the one your agent’s booked, they should be able to match or beat your quote. “The prices we see are the prices you see, but of course, we’re always keeping up on the best deal and promotions available that the client may not know about, and we’re big on saving our clients the most money we can,” says Barreto. “We also keep track of the trips our clients are taking, and if a promotion comes out, even after you’ve booked, we’re always checking to see if the new promotion applies.”
There are also travel agent-exclusive deals from certain destinations and venues. “Some of our suppliers only work with travel agents and have discounts that aren’t available to travelers if they tried to book the trip on their own,” says Roth
Tour operators (like Royal Caribbean, Universal Studios and Sandals) pay the travel agency, so you’ll get expert help without having to eat the cost.
…especially if your family loves Disney.
At Disney parks specifically, there are tons of perks waiting to be enjoyed—you’ll just need to go through a Disney Destination Specialist to find them. “Discounted room rates, shipboard credit, free dining, kids-fly-free and room upgrades are just some of the perks travel agents have at their disposal,” says Federico.
“They can help you with dining reservations, Tee-Times, shore excursions and tours. Disney Destination Specialists can assist you with setting up your My Disney Experience…Disney Cruise Line Specialists and Adventure by Disney Specialists can offer perks at no extra cost to the client.”
They can also save you time (and headaches).
A quality vetted agent will make sure you won’t get stuck anywhere questionable. “While there are some solid online travel companies, there are also some sketchy outfits that scam travelers and it's not necessarily obvious to travelers to differentiate,” says Roth.
Agents also know how to plan a packed itinerary that makes sense. The flow of the trip and activities will make the most of your family’s time at a given destination, so you’ll get to skip looking for things to do and mapping out your trip’s order of events. If you’re going to Disney or Universal, agents know which days are best to visit each park, or which rides take Fast Passes and when.
And if you have a great experience with your agent, future trips will be a breeze to plan. “A travel agent is your personal concierge that can be reached at any time—even while you are on vacation,” says Federico. “A travel agent will get to know your interests and needs. They’ll keep a file with your birth dates, airline preferences, dietary needs and anything else needed to put together the perfect vacation. When you call them again for another vacation, they’ll have your profile ready in hand.”
Says Shotmeyer: "It's important to collaborate with a professional travel advisor to manage your most valuable thing: free time and time with [your] loved ones."
If something goes wrong, they can help.
Despite your best-laid plans, things happen: bags get lost, flights get canceled, inclement weather can interfere. Agents work to prevent any of these from putting a damper on your trip.
“While initially planning a trip online may be easy, if there’s an issue during a trip, there’s rarely the ability to reach a live person to help you while you’re dealing with the issue from afar, or you may be stuck waiting on hold for hours to speak to someone,” says Roth.
Travel agents can do everything from re-booking flights to managing unexpected cancellations. But they’ll all still recommend buying trip insurance from them just in case something doesn’t go according to plan.
“Travel insurance provides coverage for flight issues [like] lost baggage and missed connections, as well as trip interruptions or cancellations due to illness of the travelers or close relatives,” says Roth. “Some travel insurance policies give free or discounted coverage for children traveling with parents, making travel insurance very affordable.”
They’ll tailor trips to your family’s needs.
Have a big family? Are Grandma and Grandpa coming along? Kids with special needs in tow? It’s crucial you tell your agent in detail your family’s needs and hopes for the trip before they plan your trip.
The more information you give your agent, the more seamless and accommodating the trip will be for everyone on it. “[Agents] work closely with clients who have special interests and needs. This includes and is not limited to [special needs] travel, food allergies, group travel, wedding planning, adventure travel, cruises including land excursions, luxury accommodations and transfers,” explains Federico.
Be sure it feels like the right fit before settling with an agent; don't feel pressure to go with the first one you find. "Finding a travel advisor that's a good match for your family needs is just like any other profession you'd invest in, like a financial advisor," says Shotmeyer.
They can also give you fresh ideas for future trips. The better your agent gets to know you and your family, the better they’ll be able to plan your perfect vacay. Many travelers stick with an agent they like because their family’s likes, dislikes and special circumstances are already known.
How do I find the right agent for my family?
As with anything else, personal referrals from other parents are the best way to find a great agent for your family. Nothing beats a positive testimonial from someone you trust.
But an agent that worked for one family might not be best for yours. In addition to the agency being reputable, the connection between you and the agent needs to feel right. “The client should also never be shy to ask questions and make sure they have a ‘good vibe’ with the agent/agency. Ask about the certifications and knowledge base of the agents and agency as a whole,” suggests Barreto.
If it’s specifically a trip to Disney or Universal, only use an agency that’s an Authorized Disney Vacation Planner. This title means the agency handles a high volume of trips here and therefore have unique access to perks and discounts. Disney has five designations for authorized agencies from Bronze to Diamond. Federico explains, “Diamond designation is awarded to top agencies. These agencies have been in the business the longest and have a team of experts who specialize in Disney destinations, including Walt Disney World, Disneyland California, The Disney Cruise Line and Adventures by Disney.”
But no matter which agency you go with, being upfront about your families needs, likes and dislikes is the best thing you can do to help the agent craft your dream vacay. Says Barreto: “Communication between the agent and client is key. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know!”