Shivani Vora, CNN • Published 20th May 2019
(CNN) — Who says travel agents are obsolete?At a time when travel booking sites and apps are a dime a dozen, and travelers can plan an entire trip without speaking to a real person, travel professionals are actually in high demand.
Just don’t call them agents — today, the industry title for these planning professional is advisors. And the stance on this is official: The American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) was called the American Society of Travel Agents until it changed its name last year.
“Travel agents have become trusted advisors, akin to financial advisors, who make the overall travel experience better and get travelers maximum value for their travel dollar,” says the organization’s spokeswoman, Erika Richter. “That’s why we rebranded ourselves.
“As travelers discover the incomparable benefit of working with a professional, business for three of the biggest travel advisor networks is booming.
Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and the founder of Atmosphere Research Group, confirms travel advisors are alive and well. Harteveldt’s job involves looking at the role of online travel bookings and understanding how travelers are making travel arrangements.
Unlike the past when advisors traditionally worked out of a brick-and-mortar strorefront and had mostly local clients, today’s advisors are more likely to work virtually and have clients all over the world.
Harteveldt believes there are many perks to using a travel advisor. For one, while there’s no denying that online booking sites often offer unbeatable deals, travel advisors can typically find great deals, too.
Plus, they’ll leverage their relationships with hotels and cruise lines to arrange for amenities that you can’t get if you book on your own.
A real-life example of this: A search of online travel sites for a three-night refundable stay this October at Le Royal Monceau, in Paris, one of the city’s most luxurious hotels, turned up an average price of $930 a night without any additional amenities such as breakfast.
Now, a la carte breakfast at the hotel can easily run more than $100 for two people. Times that by number of days of your vacation, and that’s a lot of money on coffee and croissants.
Skylark, a luxury travel advisory part of the Virtuoso network, was able to get a nightly rate of $832 at the hotel for the same dates.
But that’s not all: Travelers who booked their stay through Skylark would receive a guaranteed room upgrade at the time of booking, daily breakfast, a sizable welcome amenity such as a bottle of champagne, $100 food and beverage credit and a late 4 p.m. check-out.
Skylark’s CEO and co-founder, Paul Tumpowsky, estimates about $400 worth of freebies in this booking.
Help on the way
The other big advantage of using an advisor, according to Harteveldt, is that they have your back if anything goes wrong during the trip.
Imagine you’re in London on vacation, and just as you’re getting ready to go to the airport to head back home after a fantastic few days, you get word that your nonstop flight has been canceled.
There’s a mechanical issue with the plane, and you’ve been instructed to call the airline to rebook your return. You could spend hours dealing with the hassle, or you could simply enjoy a leisurely afternoon tea in London while your advisor handles the situation behind the scenes.
Or, how about this travel nightmare? You check into your hotel only to find out that it’s in the middle of a renovation. It’s covered in scaffolding, and the spa that you were looking forward to using is temporarily closed.
The gym is out of service too, and in its place, the concierge apologetically offers you use of another space nowhere near the hotel.
This is not the hotel you were looking for. Fortunately, you planned ahead — with a travel advisor, and subsequently, you aren’t stuck in this hotel.
In the unlikely instance that your advisor didn’t know about the construction issues, they’d negotiate a refund on your behalf and book you into another property that meets your expectations.
The more likely scenario though is that you’d never have been booked there in the first place.
The hotel you check into welcomes you with open arms and a full tour of its fully functional facilities.
Time is money
Advisors are especially useful for people who are too time-pressed to plan their own vacations or for people who simply don’t enjoy the research part of travel. That’s not to say that working with an advisor discounts your preferences.
Virtuoso’s CEO, Matthew Upchurch, says the modern generation of advisors has a collaborative relationship with their clients. “Creating that perfect trip involves a back-and-forth discussion with clients about what they want and don’t,” he says. “Advisors do the work to make it happen and share their expertise to make your getaway as seamless and memorable as possible.”
So, when exactly should you use an advisor, and when should you DIY it?
It’s hardly surprising that both Harteveldt and Upchurch say that the former is a better bet, no matter how uncomplicated the trip, but a closer look at what the top networks are offering may convince you to change your approach to travel.
Plus, says Upchurch: “You almost always get more for your money when you use an advisor.”
Below is a breakdown of Virtuoso, Signature Travel Network and Travel Leaders Network.
All three work in conjunction with hotel loyalty programs. So, for example, travelers who are part of a program such as Marriott’s Bonvoy and who want to stay at a Marriott property will reap all the benefits of Bonvoy in addition to the benefits they’ll get through their advisor.
The cost: There is no membership fee, but some advisors may charge a trip planning fee that ranges between $50 and $1,500 or more, depending on the advisor’s experience, connections and the complexity of the itinerary. Many advisors don’t charge for simple requests such as hotel bookings, however, if you’re just looking to save some time on the legwork.
Number of advisors: 20,000 globally
Best For: Luxury seeking travelers who love VIP service and want and have the budget to pay for insider experiences such as an after-hours visit to the Sistine Chapel or a backstage meet-and-greet with the performers of the hottest Broadway show.
Hotel program and perks: The network has more than 1,300 hotels in 100 countries. 598 of these such as Four Seasons George V and the Café Royal London are exclusive to Virtuoso.
Travelers who book a stay at any Virtuoso-network hotel receive more than $500 of benefits per property including breakfast, $100 hotel or food and drinks credit, a room upgrade (depending on availability), and early check-in and late check-out preference subject to availability. They also receive an additional $100 benefit that varies by property such as a cooking class or massage.
Cruise program and perks: The network has 32 preferred cruise lines where travelers get various benefits such as a dinner for two in one of the ship’s specialty restaurants. The Virtuoso Voyages Hosted program includes 12 cruise lines including Silversea and Crystal Cruises.
Travelers who book a voyage on one are invited to a VIP welcome reception and can pick between three benefits: a Virtuoso designed shore event such as a private tour and lunch with a chauffeured car in Ho Chi Minh City at the former home of former U.S. Ambassador to Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., a private car and driver for a day at the port of their choice or a shipboard credit.
These perks are valued at least $800 per couple but could go up to several thousand dollars, depending on the sailing.
Signature Travel Network
The cost: There is no membership fee, but some advisors charge trip planning fees of up to several hundred dollars.
Best for: Travelers who enjoy high-end trips but who also need to stay at the most luxe, five-star properties around. Signature’s network is vast and the company doesn’t focus exclusively on over-the-top luxury trips.
Number of advisors: More than 7,000 globally
Hotel program and perks: The network has more than 1,100 hotels globally. Travelers who book a stay are treated to $500 of amenities per property including breakfast for two, an extra amenity such as $100 dining credit, a space-available room upgrade, a space-available early check-in and late check-out and additional amenities which vary by property.
At The Baccarat Hotel, in New York, for example, travelers who book their stay through a Signature agent get $100 credit to use at the two Michelin-star Gabriel Kreuther Restaurant in Bryant Park (Kreuther collaborates with the hotel on its food menu).
Cruise program and perks: The network has 32 preferred cruise lines where travelers get various benefits such as on-board credits, prepaid gratuities and shore excursions. These extras are valued at up to $2,000 per couple.
In addition, on select voyages, travelers get a private car and driver for the day at some ports.
Travel Leaders Network
The cost: There is no membership, but, depending on the complexity of the trip, some advisors may charge a trip planning fee that generally ranges between $25 and $200.
Best for: Although Travel Leaders caters to all demographic of travelers including those with free-flowing budgets, with its broad range of hotels, it’s a solid bet for frequent travelers who want customized trips and good customer service but aren’t necessarily interested in luxury vacations.
Number of advisors: 42,000 across the United States and Canada
Hotel program and perks: Travel Leaders has two hotel programs, and both give hotel loyalty programs a run for their money.
The first, SELECT Hotels & Resorts, is made up of more than 1,200 luxury properties worldwide. Free amenities for guests who book a stay include breakfast, $100 credit to use on food and drinks or at the spa, a space-available room upgrade and a space-available early check-in and late check-out.
The second program, called Worldwide Hotel Program, gets travelers access to the best available rate at more than 40,000 properties worldwide, access to rooms that typically show up on a hotel’s inventory as “sold out” and amenities that vary by hotel but could include breakfast or parking.
At the Alohilani Resort in Waikiki, for example, guests receive breakfast, early check-in and late checkout.
Cruise program and perks: The network’s Distinctive Voyages Hosted Cruise Collection includes ten cruise lines such as Celebrity Cruises and Regent Seven Seas. Travelers who book a sailing are invited to a VIP welcome reception and get a free shore excursion such as a city tour or a food market walking tour.
On six of the cruise lines, including Crystal Cruises and Oceania Cruises, travelers can pick between an onboard ship credit of $200 per person or having a private car and driver for a day at one of two ports.
In addition, travelers get various amenities on 17 cruise lines that vary by sailing but could include a welcome bottle of wine and chocolates, prepaid gratuities and on-board credit.
Shivani Vora is a New York City-based writer who travels as often as she can, whether that means going on a walking safari in Tanzania, a mother-daughter trip with her 10-year-old in Istanbul or surfing in northern Portugal.