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How do you pick a good travel agent?

That’s not as old-fashioned a question as it may sound. In fact, I’m asked it several times a month.

Though travel agents aren’t as ubiquitous as they once were, approximately one in 10 vacationers does use them, according to a recent study by PhocusWright. Some people simply don’t have the time to book their own trips. Others are intimidated by complex or group journeys. Still others simply want a helping hand both in the planning and if something goes wrong. All are legitimate reasons to reach out and get help.

But just as butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers do their jobs with varying levels of proficiency, not all travel agents are equally talented—or equally straightforward. Before you work with just any agent, try to ascertain if they’re influenced by their professional affiliations with travel providers. Some travel agents only work with certain companies; so, for example, one agency may work with a few river cruise lines, but not all of them, meaning you might not get a full picture of what's available. Others may be influenced by the amount of commission they get from certain travel providers.

To make sure you get the right agent, here are some strategies:

1) Ask friends. You’ve seen their vacation photos on Facebook. If they look particularly enticing, see if your buddy used an agent and get that person’s info. But only do this with friends who have similar tastes and budget restraints as yours, or the agent you get might assume you want a different kind of vacation than you actually do.

2) Give potential agents a tough interview. As I discussed earlier, some agents and agencies will have affiliations with travel companies that shape what trips they offer clients. So find out if your agent works with all travel companies, or just a select few—and if those few don’t suit you, move on. Also ask what the commission structure is like for the companies your potential agent is recommending and if the commission is higher than what they’d get from other comparable companies. To do this, do a quick online search for the hotel or tour company being recommended, and see if other companies come up with it (often competitors do).  Finally, ask your agent if she adds a surcharge to the cost of a vacation. Many now do, since they no longer earn commissions from airlines. Usually the surcharge is not a dealbreaker, but the amount can vary greatly from agency to agency.  

                                                                 
A good travel agent might get you to a music fest in Austria (photo: Roderick Eimes/Flickr)

3) See if the agent is a member of ASTA. The American Society of Travel Agents is the premier industry organization for agents, and has a code of conduct that all members must follow—a code that offers significant consumer protections. ASTA also keeps a registry of members, so it can be a good source of leads if you’re not sure which agent or agency to choose.

4) Try WendyPerrin.com. Long-time travel journalist Wendy Perrin recently founded her own site, which has a unique component: lists of vetted agents who have deep expertise in certain parts of the world. If you’re interested in, say, visiting Australia, you can find a Down Under “fixer” (to use Perrin’s term) to book your flights, hotels, or private home stays, arrange for a private guide, and even make your dinner reservations. Perrin has found specialty agents for almost all corners of the globe, from African safari experts to authorities on the Hawaiian Islands to maestros of Spanish travel. The one downside to Perrin’s site—and it’s a significant one: cost. Perrin’s agents, with a few exceptions, specialize in luxury travel. If you’re looking for a budget vacation, well, you’ll likely do better booking for yourself or working with an agent outside her network.

My final piece of advice? Follow your gut. Make sure that the agent you’re working with gets you: your tastes, your budgetary limitations, your idea of what makes a getaway great. Without that understanding you may end up paying for a vacation that misses rather than hits—and that’s not a true vacation, right?