“Do they speak English in Britain?” “Will you watch my pet while I’m away from home?”
“Does the crew actually sleep onboard the cruise ship?”
These were among the oddest—and funniest—requests and questions that travel agents reported receiving in the past year, according to the Top 20 Strangest Requests, a poll ASTA conducted of its members in honor of the recent National Travel and Tourism Week earlier this month.
The list of loopy queries ranged from the geographically challenged -- "are there toll roads on the way to Hawaii?” – to demands that the agent take care of their pet while the client is away.
The poll was all part of an effort—an entertaining effort—to remind the public why they need to use a travel agent, according to ASTA.
“Some travelers need a little more hand-holding than others,” said Zane Kerby, ASTA president and CEO.
That may be an understatement, judging from a sampling of agents Travel Market Report contacted for this story.
“Very often clients’ expectations don’t match reality,” said Rick Ardis, of Ardis Travel, East Rutherford, N.J.
“People don’t have a clue what things cost, or they don’t know how far things are from each other.”
Ardis said that once, when he was booking a vacation to Hawaii for a family friend, “I was asked if I wouldn’t mind arranging a short side trip -- to the Great Wall of China.”
In fact, several of the queries on ASTA’s list reveal a lack of familiarity with distances; in one case, a client said he thought it would be easy to go from Scotland to Denmark because “they’re only an inch apart on the map.”
Yet another client asked “how can I get to Europe without going by air or sea?”
In some ways, however, these far-out demands might be seen as a backhanded—albeit far out—tribute to agents’ professionalism and skill.
Agents have been asked to pull off all sorts of miracles.
In one of the more bizarre requests in ASTA’s roundup, a client heading off for a cruise asked his agent to arrange for whales to “jump in the background” when he proposed to his girlfriend.
As JoAnne Verboom of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Travel by Gagnon, said, “There are times when I just kind of shake my head. But that’s the type of relationship that many travel agents develop with clients.
“We pull so many rabbits out of the hat.”
Verboom recalled, for instance, that one time a client called in a panic; he had left his briefcase containing thousands of dollars in cash on a chartered bus he had taken from a meeting at a manufacturing plant to a casino, where he was hosting his sales team for an evening of gambling.
Although Verboom was hundreds of miles away, he wanted her to find it. Verboom had booked his flights but hadn’t gotten involved in the ground transportation.
However, she promptly got in touch with someone at the bus manufacturer and tracked down the bus company and the driver, who located the errant valise.
Some clients also seem to believe that agents have such pull with suppliers that they can sort out all manner of awkward situations.
Rick Ardis remembers a client who threatened to cancel an entire cruise vacation simply because she couldn’t book two adjacent first-class seats for the couple on the air portion of the itinerary.
“I kept on saying ‘I don’t run the airline,’” Ardis said. “She couldn’t believe that I wasn’t able to switch everyone else around.’
Hotel room assignments can be another source of angst.
Susan Berman, president of Berman Travel in Atlantic City, N.J., said that when she handles wedding bookings “”I’ll get asked, ‘please don’t put me near so-and-so, I don’t get along with them.’”
And sometimes it can get dangerously personal.
According to ASTA, at least one agent has gotten the following request: “Can you book two rooms in different parts of the resort—one for me and my wife, and the other for my girlfriend?”
Then there was the young woman who asked one agent to save her from the end of the world.
The woman walked into Berkeley’s Northside Travel in Berkeley, Calif., stared at a large wall map of the world and, after what appeared to be some deep thought, asked Terry Regan to show her where on the map she would be safe from nuclear fallout.
Regan, president of the agency, resisted the chance to make a quick sale. “I told her ‘nowhere’ and she left disappointed,” he said.