In early 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic forced the closures of international borders and stay-at-home orders became the norm, many travelers were left scrambling. Along with expensive rebooking and cancellation fees, travelers were faced with long lines at borders and even longer wait times with customer service representatives. But for consumers who had employed a travel agent, or travel advisor, to book their trips, it was a different story. “We saw travel advisors grabbing flights with no change fees; negotiating future travel credits; doing the legwork on behalf of their clients to avoid their clients having to pay anything out of pocket,” says Erika Richter, the senior director of communications for the American Society of Travel Advisors. As Richter puts it, “Travel advisors were made for that moment.”
So, what’s the difference between a travel agent and a travel advisor? There isn’t one. It’s a matter of updated terminology within the industry: Thanks to a 2018 rebrand by the ASTA, travel agents are now known as travel advisors. They are still able to help those planning everything from epic honeymoons to family vacations to far-flung international trips, in addition to assisting travelers with other perks. Though a travel advisor may seem obsolete (with the prevalence of travel booking sites like Expedia and the ease of booking flights and accommodations directly online with an airline, a hotel or a vacation rental property), Richter explains that travel advisors are no longer just transactional. “They do so much more than booking tickets and pushing a button, and we know now that it’s going to be a little more complicated than just pushing a button,” Richter says. “There’s a lot more to consider.”
As borders reopen and the vaccination rollout continues, you may be eager to plan a trip and wonder if a travel advisor is right for you. U.S. News spoke with Richter and John Rees, owner and founder of J5Travel, a travel agency based in Davidson, North Carolina, that specializes in luxury travel. They explained the benefits of using a travel advisor, including ways an advisor can help you navigate the ever-changing testing, vaccine and quarantine requirements, as well as the hotel capacity and international border restrictions. Read on to understand what travel advisors can assist with and to learn several savvy tips to help you find the right travel advisor for your next vacation.
Help You Navigate COVID-19
Though COVID-19-related restrictions across the U.S. and the globe are starting to loosen, there are still a lot of variables for travelers to keep in mind. “The CDC’s numerous orders that were intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 have also created confusion and uncertainty, and also scarcity and unpredictably in the planning process,” Richter says. A travel advisor can help you navigate the evolving state-by-state and country-by-country accommodation and dining restrictions and help you better understand local regulations. “You really need to narrow in on where you’ll be staying, what the new rules are, and consulting with a local professional in the destination where you want to go can save you a lot of time and hassle, truly,” Richter says.
And if you’re hoping to travel abroad, you’ll have to contend with even more regulations, including testing requirements or proof of vaccination. “There’s added work involved because all these countries have different restrictions, different requirements, and you have to get them right,” Rees says. “I would say using a travel advisor gives you a big leg up on having to do that work yourself because a lot of this information is really hidden away. You have to track all this stuff down,” he says.
In addition to helping you understand the rules and requirements of the destination you’re hoping to visit, a travel advisor can also educate you on your travel insurance options. “Travel insurance is more important than ever,” Rees says. “If it’s the worst case and you’re abroad and you are COVID-19-positive abroad and you don’t have travel insurance, you’re in a lot of trouble,” Rees says. “[Travel insurance] is something that travel advisors will always recommend – that doesn’t mean the client takes it, but we think it’s important.”
And the guidance and assistance from your advisor doesn’t stop after you’ve booked your trip. Should you encounter any trip disruptions during your vacation, such as a canceled flight, you can rely on your advisor to help you. “They read the fine print for you so you understand the complete terms and conditions so you’re not in a position that you would have to go it alone and navigate refunds or future travel credits or be on hold for hours on end trying to get your money back – that’s what travel advisors do,” Richter says.
Use Their Relationships to Score You Perks
Travel advisors don’t just handle the logistics of your trip; they can leverage their relationships with travel suppliers, such as hotels and tour operators, to score you perks like hotel room upgrades, free breakfast and spa credits, according to Richter. “They have dedicated industry relations that give them their own dedicated customer service access, in essence, and because travel advisors work in larger groups, they have this sort of collective buying power and influence that they pass on to their clients,” Richter says.
Plus, many will up the wow factor with special touches along the way, as was the case for Richter during a recent trip to Greece in which her travel advisor arranged for a personalized note and a bottle of wine to be delivered to her hotel room upon arrival. “It’s the surprise and delight element that makes it memorable,” Richter says.
And as Rees puts it, it’s not just his knowledge you’ll be tapping into, it’s his network’s, too. “I’m going to get you all the information and I’m going to get you extra amenities,” Rees says.
Help You Use Your Travel Rewards
Hoping to use your points or miles to pay for your trip? A travel advisor like Rees can help you navigate the various travel rewards programs and help you maximize your elite status to enhance your vacation. “If we’re successful [in applying travel rewards], the client feels like they’ve saved thousands of dollars, and quite a bit of that gets reinvested back into the trip, which makes it a better experience than it would’ve been,” Rees says.
How to Find a Travel Advisor
Aside from asking friends and family for travel advisor recommendations, you can also easily find an ASTA-verified advisor through the organization’s affiliate website, TravelSense.org. You can use the site’s search tool to connect with an advisor who specializes in trip types, such as beach vacations or river cruises, or is an expert in your chosen destination. Using an ASTA-affiliated member means you’re working with someone who has been vetted and follows the organization’s code of ethics, which can be important should you need a dispute or complaint resolved.
And if you’re worried about the cost, consider that most travel advisors offer free consultations, according to Richter. J5Travel is one such agency that does not charge a consultation fee. According to Rees, the in-depth consultation usually lasts 20 to 30 minutes and is a way for the advisor to get a better understanding of the client’s objective for a trip and things they want to do and see. “They don’t take you out of the planning equation,” Richter says. “If you have an itinerary in mind or things that you’re interested in doing, it truly can be a collaborative process.”
The consultation is also a time for the traveler to see if the advisor is a suitable fit, according to Rees. “We are luxury. If someone is looking for a budget trip and they’re going to price check everything on Expedia, then that’s not our client and it wouldn’t be fair to them to say they were our client,” Rees says.
Along with your preliminary vacation plans, you’ll also talk about the fees associated with hiring the travel advisor, which can vary widely depending on the complexity of the trip. For instance, J5Travel’s fees can range from $99 to $349 per trip. But both Richter and Rees iterate that whatever fee you pay will likely come back to you in the form of perks that you wouldn’t be able to secure yourself. “Travel advisors have relationships that would take you a lifetime to build,” Richter says.
Plus, you’ll have the peace of mind that comes from knowing you’ve got a dedicated expert to help you every step of the way. “Travel is really a way that we’re going to heal,” Richter says. “We’re going to be able to reconnect with the world and each other, and there’s so much riding on it, so don’t risk it.”