I should quickly disclaim any sexism in the above headline. The simple reality is that - for whatever reason - probably two thirds or more of all travel agents are women.
If you use a good travel agent, you are not limiting your travel purchase options in any respect. You and your agent can still book and buy anything from the internet as well as directly from suppliers or tour operators or travel wholesalers or any other source of travel. Your agent can help you to select the best travel choices for you and to make fully informed choices.
Indeed, this is probably the key element of what makes a good travel agent. Too many agencies and agents promote themselves as offering the cheapest travel options. But, for most of us, and most of the time, we don't want simply the cheapest. We don't buy the cheapest car, the cheapest clothes, or the cheapest food. We want the most suitable and the best value - options that are seldom also the cheapest! An agent that has a blinkered approach to always offering only the cheapest is rarely the agent you want to work with. Find the agent that will be most sensitive to your needs and best match them to the travel products available.
There are three main factors that go to make up the ideal travel agent for you :
1. Ability to Understand You and Your Needs
A good travel agent will ask a lot of questions. For example, if you ask an agent something as seemingly simple as "I want to travel from Los Angeles to Hartford on Monday and return on Friday," they should proceed to ask you a bunch of questions such as :
"Do you want nonstop flights or are you prepared to accept one (or two or more) stopovers if it will save you money?"
"Which Los Angeles area airport is most convenient for you to travel from, and which other ones would you also consider using?"
"Would you be prepared to fly to an airport close to Hartford and then drive a distance so as to save money?"
"At what time of day do you want to leave and arrive?"
"Is there a special event that you must be present in Hartford to attend, and if so, when is that event?" (maybe she will then recommend you change your travel plans and travel earlier, or choose a flight that is more reliable for ontime arrivals)
"Are you able to travel a day earlier or later if it will save you money?"
"Are you able to accept a restricted fare or might you need to buy a more expensive fare so as to be able to more easily make changes later?"
"What is your preferred airline, what other airlines will you also consider, and are there any airlines you refuse to travel on?"
"Are you going to attend any type of convention or other meeting that might have special fares available?"
"What are your frequent flier numbers, and, if there is a choice, which airline programs do you prefer to use to get credit first?"
"Do you have any seating preferences?"
"Do you have any dietary needs?"
"How will you pay for the fare and when?"
"Are there any other factors that she needs to know in order to best arrange your travels?"
"Do you also need a rental car? (lots more questions will follow if you say yes) and accommodation? (again, lots more questions) or a limo transfer? or are there any other associated travel needs you might have?"
That is 15 different topics of discussion they will talk through with you, just to book a simple roundtrip domestic air ticket. Of course, as you become a regular customer, they won't need to ask you all these questions every time, because they will already know many of the answers.
If you're thinking about choosing a new agent to help with your domestic air travel, see how they respond if you ask for help with an airfare. Maybe they won't ask all 15 questions, but plainly, the more they try to understand your needs, the better they are.
If you're thinking about trusting your 'trip of a lifetime' vacation to a travel agent, then a good agent will want to know even more about you and the other people you are traveling with, so as to ensure that the style of travel and experiences and everything in your vacation are in line with what you'll appreciate and enjoy.
A good travel agent will always be focused on you, not just on the travel they are selling to you. They will describe everything in terms of your expectations. They will be interviewing you and perhaps asking more questions of you than you ask to them about their travel products. A bad agent will simply be 'selling at you' without pausing to think about who you are and what your needs and interests are.
If the travel agent doesn't know more than you about the travel products you're wanting to buy, then their ability to add value is sharply reduced.
Some travel agents insist they can be an expert on everything, everywhere in the world. This is, alas, a completely unrealistic claim. Maybe, many years ago, when other sources of public knowledge were less accessible, it was sufficient for a travel agent to simply rely on the information sources in her office when 'helping' clients with all their travels, but the wealth of general information that we as travelers can now access means that the level of knowledge and expertise that a travel agent must offer in order to add value to travel planning has greatly increased. Travel agents are increasingly becoming more narrowly specialized.
Two types of travel agent knowledge
In some cases, you don't need a travel agent with destination knowledge, just product knowledge. For example, if you're traveling to Maui for the tenth time in five years, your main need is for an agent that is familiar with hotels and who can access good package deals for your stay. The agent might never have visited Maui, but that doesn't matter - you already know all you need to know about Maui, and probably already know the hotel you want to stay at. All you need is a travel package comprising things that you already know all about yourself.
But if you're traveling for the first time to Australia, you need an agent who can tell you where to visit, and what to see and do. If you are planning a trip to a major and reasonably popular destination (such as Australia) it is reasonable to expect that the travel agent you are choosing to help you has already visited the country herself and has some personal knowledge of the destination.
An increasing number of destinations now offer travel agent training programs. These vary from ridiculously simplistic, where an agent 'self-trains' and then answers a multi-choice quiz, in return for which they get a fancy certificate to hang on the wall and the right to claim dubious expertise about a destination, to serious ongoing training programs. An agent with one of these qualifications is not necessarily a true expert, but they're more likely to know more than an agent without the qualification, and are also more likely to have a good network of contacts with travel suppliers to help them (often at better than normal rates) with planning your itinerary.
If you are going to a particular country, you should call that country's US tourist office and ask them to recommend a good travel agent to you.
If you're going cruising, the agent should have been on at least a similar ship operated by the same cruise line, and also have some familiarity with the region of the world you'll be cruising (eg Alaska, Mediterranean, Caribbean).
3. General Competencies
The US is one of few countries that does not require any formal training or registration procedures for travel agents, which allows for a huge range of levels of knowledge and professionalism within the travel trade. Be sure your agent is one of the better ones, not one of the worst!
Some agents work only part-time. Others work fulltime. In general, a fulltime agent is going to be more experienced and more up to date with developments, for the simple reason they are working 40+ hours a week at their job. They will also be more conveniently available to you (and to suppliers that they are working with on your behalf).
Some agents work as an 'inside agent' - ie, they are an employee of the travel agency, and work (full time) inside that agency, and have full access to all the agency's support services. Other agents work as an 'outside agent'. These people are more like independent contractors and often have to supply all their own resources, in return for which they share the commissions and fees they earn with a partner travel agency.
Outside agents can be good, especially if they narrowly specialize in only one type of travel. But you have to seriously question the professional commitment of an agent who is both part-time and also an outside not inside agent.
Sometimes you may find that such people are not 'real' travel agents at all. Instead they may have just paid a fee to a dubious travel agency group that offers ordinary people instant travel agent credentials in return for a fee. These fees can be as much as just below $500, due to legal obligations kicking in when charging more than $500, but for a while there was a Google ad being displayed on this page that was offering such credentials for only $125! Some people are duped into buying such things with the lure of amazing travel agent discounts (which are sadly more illusory than real these days). Don't spend your money with such agents, and don't be tempted to buy such credentials yourself.
If you are dealing with an outside agent, find out who their partner travel agency is - it should be a reputable local agency, and find out what their personal background and training as a travel agent is.
Indeed, in all cases, it is fair to ask the travel agent how many years they have been in the business, and what types of travel related qualifications they have. Maybe also ask what they did before becoming a travel agent - perhaps you might find some commonality with them.
Some agents are very proud of a CTC qualification. I don't agree with the description that some people claim for this - that is is equivalent to an MBA - but I do agree that agents with a CTC have a demonstrated commitment to personal advancement and learning within the travel field.
Other travel qualifications that some agents might claim are a certificate from a travel school, or perhaps a CTA (a lesser version of the CTC) or a DS (destination specialist) status. There are also MCC agents (Master Cruise Counselors - agents that have visited many cruise ships).
4. Other Issues
Of course, many of the comments about how to choose a travel agency also apply to how to choose a travel agent. In particular, recommendations from friends can be very helpful.
Here's an interesting suggestion : If you are meeting with an agent in person, see if you can watch how they use their computer screen. If they are looking for flights for you, do they just look at one screen full of information, or do they flip through two or three screens of flight information? Assuming you have indicated some flexibility in your travel arrangements, and that there is more than one screen of flight options (!), a good travel agent will look through multiple screens of flight options. A bad agent will only look through the first screen of flights (perhaps as few as four or so different flight choices).
Subjectively, do you like the agent? If the agent is someone that you feel comfortable with, that will help you to relax and interact with them a great deal more.
Is the agent easy to contact, and does she always spend as much time as you need when you call her? Does she return calls promptly, and always have sensible answers to your questions?
Creating a Win-Win Relationship
If you want a travel agent to work hard and well for you, you need to incentivize them accordingly. You need to explain to them that you are indeed seriously committed to dealing with them and their agency, and that their time and effort spent researching travel products for you will indeed be rewarded by your subsequent purchase of travel through them.
These days travel agents can spot a 'shopper' a mile away - a person that picks their brains for free advice, but who then does not reward the free advice with their business.
Expect to pay a good travel agent for their time, advice, and assistance. You didn't think the best agent in town would work for nothing, did you?!