Choose the Best Travel Agency
In part one of this
three part series, we discuss how to evaluate a travel
agency and see if it is likely to meet your needs.
1 of a 3 part series - click for Parts
A good travel agency can
provide you with a broader and more complete range of services
than can be found on the internet. And the ability to
conveniently talk with a real person can make all the difference
when you have a problem, or need some special advice or
Here are some issues to
consider when choosing an agency.
More issues are presented in
parts two and three of this series.
What Makes a Travel Agency Real
In general, anyone can start
a business and call themselves a travel agency in the United
At least eleven states
require registration, but this is usually no more complicated
than filling out a form and paying an annual fee. It doesn't
guarantee professionalism or good service, and usually it
doesn't guarantee the safety of payments you make to the agency
The airlines require travel
agencies to meet certain minimum standards before they will
allow them the privilege of issuing airline tickets, but these
standards are easily met and the ability to earn tickets is no
longer essential to many agencies (due to no longer earning
commissions from such transactions), so not all 'real' agencies
bother getting this accreditation these days.
Although travel agencies are
generally keen to avoid any complicated qualification procedures
that would control the establishment of travel agencies, the
lack of any formal quality controls has meant that there is an
enormous variation in the quality of service provided by travel
A good travel agency will be
an invaluable help to you in planning your travel. Don't let the
dismaying abundance of not so good agencies dissuade you - use
the information in this article to help you find the good agency
that you need and deserve.
Agency Affiliations and
If an agency is able to
issue airline tickets itself - if it has blank airline tickets
in its office that it can print for your travels - then that
means it has been accredited by ARC - the Airlines Reporting
Corporation - the clearinghouse for US airlines. The agency
might also have been accredited by IATA - the International Air
Transport Association - to allow it to issue tickets on behalf
of most foreign airlines, too. However, because issuing airline
tickets is no longer profitable, many agencies have withdrawn
from ARC/IATA accreditation, cutting down on their overheads and
reporting costs considerably.
Most other suppliers of
travel products - hotels, cruise lines, rental car companies,
tour operators - don't have any requirements at all for who they
will recognize as a travel agency. For example, CLIA - the
Cruise Line International Association - will basically allow
anyone with a business license and who pays a joining fee then
sell cruises for their member cruise lines. An agency's
membership in CLIA is accordingly meaningless one way or the
At least eleven states
require travel agencies to be licensed. If you are dealing with
an unlicensed out of state agency, your protection might be
diminished. Ask if your state requires licensing, and, if it
does, ask if your agency has this registration.
There are two main agency
trade associations. The larger one is ASTA - the American
Society of Travel Agents. Although this is the better known
group, it is not without its critics (including me -
see this page) and there is
no reason to believe that an agency's membership of this group
in any way translates to better client service for you.
The other group is ARTA -
the Association of Retail Travel Agents. In my opinion, an ARTA
member has made more of a commitment to keep itself abreast of
the industry and to be more professional in all its dealings,
with suppliers and with customers.
In addition, agencies
sometimes belong to franchise groups or consortia. If you see a Uniglobe agency, for example, then that is probably an
independently owned and operated agency that participates in the
Uniglobe franchise. Other agencies, while not belonging to a
franchise group, may belong to one of several agency
cooperatives or consortia. These groups negotiate better rates
for their members with key suppliers (the standard 10%
commission can occasionally increase to as much as 20%), and
sometimes have a bit of extra leverage if they (ie you!) need a
special favor or extra help with one of their preferred
In some cases, an agency
that is a branch of a mega-agency, or that belongs to a
franchise group, or that is a member of a consortium will be
able to get better deals for you than an agency with no
affiliations at all. Ask agencies who they are affiliated with,
and perhaps even research the group they belong to and confirm
that it is a helpful group that will translate into better deals
In addition to possibly
better rates and negotiating leverage, agencies that belong to
these groups tend to have some quality control and formal
training programs in place, and perhaps there is also some type
of dispute resolution process that can enable you to appeal to
the corporate office if you can't get a problem resolved by a
What Type of Travel Help Do You
Travel is usually split into
two broad categories - 'corporate' or business type travel, and
'leisure' or personal, vacation type travel.
Although agencies will be
pleased to help you with all types of travel, most agencies tend
to be generally stronger either in corporate type travel
services or in leisure type travel services. Ask a travel agency
'are you primarily corporate or are you primarily leisure'?
If your needs are mainly for
business travel, obviously a corporate focused agency is your
better choice. In such a case, sometimes it even makes sense to
buy your personal travel from a different agency that
specializes in leisure travel. The chances are that your
corporate agency won't even mind because they just plain aren't
set up to service leisure travel needs as efficiently as
business travel needs.
In addition to generic
'corporate' or 'leisure' type travel agencies, it is
increasingly common to see very specialized travel agencies.
For example, it is possible
that an agency might specialize only in selling cruises. Another
type of specialization might be an agency that sells only one
destination (perhaps the South Pacific).
Other agencies concentrate
on a particular type of travel - maybe singles travel or gay
travel or perhaps golf or ski trips.
Still more agencies
specialize in areas such as disabled travel or family travel, or
school group travel, or probably just about any other
distinction you could think of.
If you have special rather
than generic needs, see if you can find a specialist travel
agency that is experienced in helping people like you.
Agency Size - Big or Small?
Travel agencies range from
very small two or three employee, 'mom and pop' type stores to
enormously large offices that belong to national chains of
hundreds of outlets and thousands of employees.
Bigger is not always better.
Although, in theory, large agency groups should be able to
negotiate better rates with suppliers, and should have more
infrastructure and support and added-value services, this is not
invariably the case.
Furthermore, it is quite
common that the best agents will leave their employment at a
mega-agency and choose instead to manage or own their own,
smaller agency, and perhaps to create a more friendly
environment both for their clients and also to get and keep good
Small agencies may belong to
buying consortiums that can give them effectively similar
purchasing power and negotiating clout to that enjoyed by the
If you're a small sized
client, then the similarity in size between you and a small
agency might make for a compatible match. If you're managing the
travel needs for 1,000 people, then you might find a larger size
agency is more suitable for your more complicated needs.
The acid test of any service
oriented business is what other people think of the company and
Ask the agency for a list of
clients that you can contact and then do exactly that - call
some of these current clients. Ask them 'hard' not easy
questions - for example, ask them 'what was the biggest problem
you ever had with the agency, and how did the agency respond'.
Try and get beyond the polite praise and find out not only how
good the agency can be on a good day, but also how bad the
agency can be on a bad day, and what the agency does to correct
Now for a small trick. After
you've encouraged the agency to tell you about their special
preferred relationships with key suppliers (see part two for
more on this) ask the agency for the contact names of Sales
Managers at some of these suppliers, so you can get supplier
references as well as client references.
I've been both a travel
agent client and a travel agent supplier; there is a hugely
different perspective that travel wholesalers get. Often the
real uglinesses in an agency are completely exposed to
suppliers, while somewhat hidden from clients. Of course a
supplier will be very careful about saying bad things about an
important travel agency customer, but they can at least confirm
the agency's claims to being an important customer and can
confirm that the supplier company does sometimes do extra
special favors for this agency and its clients.
When I owned my travel
wholesale company, we would occasionally have agency clients
call us to ask for a reference. I always thought it was very
clever of both the agency and their client to do this, and
suggest you consider this strategy too.
You should ask friends and
colleagues for agency recommendations, but this is only one
small part of your research. Your friends and colleagues might
have very different travel needs to you.
Some people choose to call
the Better Business Bureau. I sometimes do this too, but I place
very little importance on a BBB report, and suggest you view it
as merely one small part of the overall picture. I've known very
bad companies with good BBB reports, and also good companies
with less than perfect BBB reports. And the real secret to
getting a good BBB rating seems to be to simply pay them money
to become a member of their service.
Some people say you should
ask how long the agency has been in business, and suggest that
an agency that has been in business a long time is somehow safer
or better than a recently started agency. If this is comforting
to you, by all means ask the question, but I'm unaware of any
formal research that supports the idea that older companies are
in any way better than newer companies. Old travel agencies seem
to go out of business just as often as new travel agencies, and
sometimes newer established agencies have newer policies and
procedures that are more in line with today's changing times.
Basic Agency Service Issues
What hours is the agency
open? Five, six or seven days a week?
Does the agency have an
(800) number so you can call them from other cities while
traveling? Some agencies even have toll free numbers in other
countries, making it easy for you to contact them
internationally as well.
Does every agent have their
own extension and voicemail box, so you can conveniently contact
them and leave messages at any hour of the day or night.
Do all staff members have
their own email addresses, and do they have a dedicated
broadband internet connection feeding in to the agency so that
emails you send are likely to be received within a minute or two
of you sending them?
Do agents use 'free' email
addresses (eg from Yahoo or Hotmail) or 'amateur' email
addresses (eg AOL or Earthlink) or do they have 'real' email
addresses pointing to their own unique domain name? If they only
have free or amateur email addresses, you may find occasional
problems sending them email due to their email box being full.
After Hours and Emergency
What happens if you have a
problem or emergency outside of normal business hours - perhaps
if you are in the middle of your travels? There are at least
three possible answers to this question. The least satisfactory
is 'you'll have to wait until we're next open'.
An acceptable answer is 'we
subscribe to an after hours emergency service that can help you
on our behalf if you have a problem outside of our normal work
hours'. The potential problem with this solution is that perhaps
not all your travel arrangements are loaded into the common
shared computer database that your agency and this after hours
service uses. Typically the after hours service can share
airline booking records, but if other arrangements were made,
not through the airline booking computer, then they may not know
anything about your arrangements and may not be able to help.
The best answer is 'our
staff take turns at carrying a pager (or cell phone) and if you
call outside of our normal hours, our duty emergency support
person will be able to answer your call and do
anything/everything for you'.
Does the agency use one of
the airline's computer reservations systems? It is very
that any travel agent have access to one of these systems.
Some agencies might even
have more than one computer system. This is no longer as
valuable as it once was, and probably would not make any
difference to the service you would experience.
A related and more important
issue is whether the agency has any additional automation aids
such as a ‘wait list breaker’ or a ‘farefinder’ or a ‘quality
control’ or ‘seat finder’ program. These are programs that
interact with the CRS to exploit some known weaknesses and
opportunities within how the airlines allocate their fares and
seats – for example, some airlines cancel unticketed
reservations at midnight, meaning that, all of a sudden, a bunch
more cheap fares might be returned back into the ‘available for
sale’ category at midnight – a time when few agencies are open,
of course. But if the agency has one of these programs running,
it will automatically search for better fares just after
midnight for you.
What type of information
does the agency keep on file about you? The more information it
asks for, the better the job it can do in the future. It might
be pesky answering all the questions on a form to start with,
but you'll be pleased you did in the future. A travel agency
that has extensive information about you cares more about
matching travel products to exactly your needs.
Does every agent have their
own phone and their own computer at their own desk, or are some
agents having to share these essential resources?
Corporate Travel Management
If you're choosing an agency
to provide travel for a medium or larger company, then there
will be other questions you need to consider as well.
Is the agency able to
provide you with corporate travel reports and analysis. Can it
show you who has been traveling where and on what types of
fares? Is it able to manage and enforce corporate travel
policies? Can it help you if you're directly negotiating
contract fares with airlines and contract rates with hotels? Can
any such rates then be conveniently booked through their booking
Very large companies will
also be looking for 'inplant' locations where an agency places
some of its staff inside the company's office, and maybe also
has a 'satellite ticket printer' so tickets can be printed
directly in the company too (less important now that most
tickets are electronic).
And very large companies
will also negotiate how the travel agency earns its fees,
perhaps on a very different basis to how agencies normally
Read more in Parts 2 & 3
two has another nine factors to consider when choosing a
travel agency, including essential advice on agency fees - and
also, agency discounts.
three provides information on how - once you've chosen a
travel agency - to choose your travel agent.
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3 October 2003, last update
30 May 2021
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.