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Who needs a travel agent anymore?

Fewer of us do, apparently. Just eight years ago, there were 124,030 travel agents in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 2006, that number had fallen by about 30 percent, to 87,600 agents.

The government's outlook for the business is downright depressing. It projects "little or no growth" for travel professionals during the next eight years, as market share gains made by online giants like Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity are held in check by a small bump in demand for specialized travel advice.

In fact, many readers of this column believe that's optimistic. They think travel agents are completely obsolete.

"They are an outdated remnant of past practices that add virtually no value to any transaction today," says Bill Clements, who works for an airline in Ypsilanti, Mich. He also took me to task for recommending agents in my columns, accusing me of being "the biggest lackey for them that I have ever experienced."

I hear from readers like Clements constantly. Every week, I seem to be on the receiving end of an angry anti-agent missive that starts with, "How could you?"

So let me talk about how I could.

Why do I still like agents? A competent travel adviser can be your greatest asset when you're planning a trip. The key word here is "competent." And let me also define what I mean by agent: I'm not necessarily talking about an offshore call center worker reading from a script or a hobbyist who paid a few hundred bucks for bogus agency credentials.

I mean a bona fide, certified travel professional.

It's not a popular position to take. I know. There's no shortage of horrific travel agent stories making the rounds these days. I have a stack of grievances that follow the same basic narrative. It goes something like this:

I booked a trip through online agency X. Something went wrong -- my flight was rescheduled or there was a problem with the hotel reservation. When I phoned the company, I was transferred to half a dozen departments and ended up speaking with someone in Bangalore who I could barely understand. Five hours later, I'm no closer to fixing the problem. Help!

Let me take a moment to say I mean no disrespect to online travel agencies. Most of the airline seats, cruises and hotel rooms booked through these large sites are problem-free. It's the way they address the inevitable problems that leaves something to be desired in the view of many readers.

Jeffrey Alter, an attorney from New Orleans, bought an airline ticket through an online agency recently. But when he received his final bill, he noticed a $50 transaction fee had been added to his credit card statement. No one had mentioned the fee to him when he booked the ticket. I asked him to check the terms and conditions on the website, and sure enough, there was a note about a $30 transaction fee.

So why did they bill him $20 more, and why didn't they tell him up front? I suggested Alter contact the agency. He did. Its response? "Do you believe we provide airline tickets for zero renumeration (sic)? We wouldn't be in business long if we did that."

Now that's what I call customer service.

The other side of this equation is do-it-yourselfers -- people who have paid hundreds or thousands of dollars to become "instant" travel agents. These amateurs give other agents a bad name largely because they're untrained. They've just paid someone for a card that says they're real travel agents, but they often don't know the difference between a stopover and a layover. Instant agents are more victims than anything else, though. They've been scammed into thinking they could become real agents by writing a check.

But even after weeding out the phonies and dot-comers, you're still left with a group of agents that can be less than perfect.

Bob Barstow, a long-time reader of my columns, has had his run-ins with well-trained, legitimate travel agents that left him disappointed. He says he's never experienced the "go-the-extra-mile" attitude for which these trained professionals are supposedly known. "You imply that the business is full of agents dedicated to the travelers' well-being, and will go out of their way for their customer," he told me. "I have yet to meet this agent." There's more about Barstow's unfortunate travel agent experiences -- and the interesting answers from agents -- on my blog.

To Barstow, Alter and yes, even to Clements, let me say: you need to find a good agent. Here are a few tips:

1. Look for the right certification.

If the agent is a member of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) (www.asta.org), that's a promising sign. ASTA is the world's largest association of travel professionals, with a code of ethics that tends to keep the riff raff out. If your travel adviser is certified by The Travel Institute (www.thetravelinstitute.com), which offers courses on various destinations and travel specialties, that's a bonus. Another membership worth looking for is the Association of Retail Travel Agents (www.artaonline.com/mc/page.do). Affiliation with a large organization like AAA or a company such as Carlson Wagonlit can be evidence that your agent is on the up-and-up. Your agent should also comply with any state seller of travel laws and carry error and omission insurance.

2. If at all possible, stay local.

There's no substitute for the personal touch. My best experiences with agents have been one-on-one. The ability to meet -- to look the agent in the eye, to shake his or her hand -- is something online agencies can't match. (Note: not all agents work in an office, but home-based agents can and do make personal visits.) The only exception to this rule is if you're looking for an agent with a sought-after specialty. But even then, a trusted voice on the phone is preferable to the often unintelligible, script-reading customer service associate you're connected to when dealing with a large agency.

3. Interview the agent.

Don't pick the first agent you find. Talk to the travel pro. Find out how long he or she has been in business. Ask about fees (yes, they charge booking fees, but they're worth it if you get into a pinch). I would recommend conducting the interview in person. Pay close attention not only to the way your prospective agent responds, but also at what's going on in the office around you. Are the other agents taking the time to talk with customers, or do they only seem interested in pressuring their clients to make a booking decision? Does the agent you're interviewing seem distracted or focused on trying to help you? If you don't like what you see, move on.

4. Find out how they react under pressure.

The only way to know for certain if your travel agent is a keeper is to see what happens when you run into trouble. And you will have that opportunity, eventually. When your flight is delayed or your hotel is overbooked or your travel insurance claim isn't being honored, what will your agent do? See, agents are compensated for the booking -- either with a fee you pay or a commission they take directly from the company. If they leave you hanging or do nothing more than send you the company's 800-number, they're not your agent. Chances are, they're just in it for the commission.

Good travel agents have an edge over almost any other seller of travel. They know what you want. They speak your language. And they're there for you when you run into trouble.

In other words, travel agents aren't obsolete. Only the bad ones are.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

(c) 2008 Christopher Elliott Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.