With the biggest winter storm of the year bearing down on the East Coast, travel agents already are doing the behind-the-scenes work that will keep their clients safe and get them where they need to go—with no standing on line or holding the phone (or paying $325 extra to switch airports from Islip to LaGuardia, as they tried to do to me doing the last storm in New York!).
For most, the work began on Sunday. That's when Stephen Scott, luxury travel and destination specialist at travelhub365, heard from a client whose flight out of STL for today was canceled. “Before he could text me to advise me that he needed help I had already protected him onto the next flight and was sending him a new confirmation,” Scott said. “Service like this shows the value in small businesses using a travel partner!”
At The Travel Lady, Stella Hyndman was on the phone with Southwest at 3:50 a.m. Monday morning—and that's Daylight Savings Time, too—rebooking her clients.
So too was Penny Gellatly, owner of Escape by Travel, who on Sunday night had already rebooked her clients, even though they had declined travel insurance. “My clients are in Puerto Rico now and are due to return on the 14th, but Delta asked us to change the flights due to the storm. So within seven minutes, they have been enrouted. It's all good. Who doesn't love a happy client when a snow storm is coming through?”
At the eponymous Jessica Dempsey - Rodan + Fields, Jessica Dempsey has been on the phone rebooking some families today; she changed their flights and their hotel dates and moved their excursions—all without any penalties or change in length of stay. “There is so much behind-the-scenes work the public has no idea about," she said. Bu,t “I have happy, happy clients!!”
Jamie Mussolini, at Beachfronts Travel in Connecticut, “has lots of clients traveling this week. It is a popular travel week for private school break in Connecticut, and I also have a destination wedding this week as well with approximately 60 guests to Mexico,” she said. “When situations like this arise it is always best to stay calm and informed; sometimes weather predictions too early aren't always accurate. When you start seeing the airlines offer waivers for change fees, that is your cue to investigate your clients’ travel plans and prepare to take proactive steps to potentially change before or after the storm hits. Where possible it is always better to be ahead of it rather than waiting until the travel date to find out the flight is cancelled.”
Indeed, whenever bad weather is on the way, travel agents are on the move long before their clients are even awake, many said.
Terry Jones, a senior corporate travel consultant at BCD Travel, for example, had a couple going on a luxury cruise given to them for their 50th wedding anniversary, scheduled to depart tomorrow. With the storm approaching she managed to rebook them through an airport three hours away, and found them a room at a four-star hotel for the night. "The son and daughter-in-law stayed at the hotel for what turned into a spontaneous romantic get-a-way for a few days--and they all absolutely appreciated the extra effort made and the special care given so their once-in-a-lifetime trip wouldn't be ruined."
From Patti LaBelle to Chaka Khan
With a client roster that includes Patti LaBelle and Chaka Khan, travel agent Amy Goldman, who handled high-end entertainment clients for Andavo Travel until she retired in December, immediately starts rebooking flights, cars, hotels for any VIPs she has on the road, “before I can even contact them,” she says. “Most often, my instincts are correct, and all are happy.” And then there was the time a VIP was stuck in Orlando with no flights anywhere—and stayed “with me on the phone all night! Sometimes it takes a bit of handholding. They never forgot it.”
Sandy Ezzell last year had a client flying from Buffalo to Orlando to cheer her sister on in the Disney Marathon. With a snowstorm headed their way, Ezzell rebooked her for the previous day. “I was able to not only find her a room at a sold-out resort, but also got her our group rate. She got out of Buffalo just in time! The day she was originally flying all of the flights were canceled and they were under mandatory orders to not get out on the roads.”
Last winter, when a major snowstorm in the Northeast impacted flights for several days, Jill LaBarre kept an eye on her client on Norwegian Escape, who was due to fly back after the cruise. “I couldn't reach the client by phone, email or Facebook messaging during the cruise because he unplugged, so I arranged a two-night stay at a hotel in Miami that would meet his needs, and set up a car rental and a few suggestions for activities in the area. I emailed it all to him so he would have it available when he arrived into Port of Miami,” she said. “I called him before he disembarked and explained his extended vacation. Newark airport reopened on Sunday and we were able to get him on a flight for Monday. Instead of stressing the problems created by a storm, the couple enjoyed a post cruise stay in Miami.”
Rebecca Northcut Cummings had clients going to a funeral in Pennsylvania who made it to Atlanta before getting snowed in; they were told it would be two to three days before any flights went out. “They were very distressed and couldn't even get a room. I made a ton of calls and came up with Amtrak,” Cummings said. “I called a limo to go to the airport to pick them up and take them to the train, where I was able to procure a sleeper car, as they had been up for many hours. They made the funeral, rested and freshly showered. Just had to think out of the box. High-end clients super satisfied.”
And on a happier note, Jaime Murphy, director of Magical Trips Inc., once gave up her own Christmas Eve to save a client's destination wedding.
"Being a travel advisor based in Newfoundland I have dealt with my fair share of weather delays and cancelations, but the story that really comes to mind is my destination wedding group in December 2013," she said. The bride and groom were scheduled to leave on December 25 in order to be there the required three business days in advance of their civil ceremony on January 3, and "though I was enjoying Christmas Eve with my family I had been watching the weather just in case my clients needed assistance." When she heard that anyone travelling on December 25 or 26 should make other arrangements as a big storm was approaching, she immediately called the airline to request the clients leave early, but was told no changes within 21 days – no exceptions. But after “sweet talking” the representative and waiting on hold for a while he finally agreed to allow me to pay a change fee and rebook them. At the time it cost me $157.50 but I had one happy bride when I called and told her I pulled some strings and to get ready and go to the airport immediately as she was overnighting in Toronto on Christmas Eve to ensure she got at destination in time! They were extremely thankful and had a beautiful wedding with all their guests. A lot of unexpected work over the holiday season but I would do it all over again if required."
So the moral of the story seems to be, sure, you can book your airline ticket online. But when there's trouble brewing, there's nothing like a live, human travel agent watching the skies and picking up the phone and calling in a favor or two to get you where you need to go.
With additional reporting by Jessica Montevago.