Wall Street Journal Readers Debate the Value of Travel Agents

by Richard D'Ambrosio
Wall Street Journal Readers Debate the Value of Travel Agents

Photo: Dennizn/Shutterstock.com

A year that was defined in part by heightened media coverage of the value expert travel agents can provide to consumers, ended with a Wall Street Journal article shining a spotlight on high-end agencies.

While the story added to the chorus of media praise for agents, the online reader comments are an instructive primer on consumer opinions, and how travel agents are not for everyone.

Appearing in the Journal’s Dec. 30, 2017, print edition, author Nina Sovich started the article, “The New Age of Bespoke Travel,” with the story of Laura Fenamore, who interviewed “three travel experts” before booking a trip to walk part of the Camino de Santiago in Spain.

“'One had never been to Spain. One she found too hesitant and bereft of ideas,' Sovich wrote. In the end, she hired Nicole Lee, founder of The Curated Travel in New York and a former private equity associate. Ms. Lee was well-traveled, had an eye for detail and knew the best hidden tapas bars in Barcelona. She developed a multipage itinerary that occupied many of Ms. Fenamore’s waking hours.”

In the days leading up to the trip, Lee “was in constant contact via text” with Fenamore, Sovich said, uploading  her itinerary to a travel app, and made herself available 24 hours a day during the trip. “I felt so held,” the article quoted Fenamore.

A summary of the story online asked: “Overwhelmed by planning a trip on the internet? 21st-century travel agents have recast themselves as full-service experts — promising both obsessively detailed itineraries and insider access for as little as $15 a day.”

The rest of the article described the evolution of travel agents, and the growing niche of luxury agents offering fee-based services, membership travel services and other permutations. And several travelers in the comments section praised travel agents and tour operators who provided meaningful local experiences.

Experienced agents are a godsend
Derick Ball called “an experienced travel agent” a “godsend for a complicated trip, one that requires many intra-country flights, transfers, multiple excursions or is in a country that does not tolerate deviations from strict travel behavior (or if something goes amiss). Africa comes to mind. Or Egypt.”

Most recent surveys show that even travel agent clients, like Wall Street Journal commenter Paul Smith wrote, will do a tremendous amount of their own research. Smith wrote that if websites and guidebooks make you an educated traveler, “a ‘normal’ agent specializing in the region can insure that you get excellent airport pickups, guides, and hotels. The rest is up to you to know enough about the locale to use your spare time well. I always prefer renting an apartment or hotel for at least ten days in a key city and then not being rushed as I enjoy the area and learn.”

Commenter Emily Christian described a trip to Sri Lanka earlier in 2017, with a $100-a-day guide sourced through toursbylocals.com. “We had an amazing guide, Ruhan, who picked us up at the airport and drove us everywhere in a nice air-conditioned minivan. He helped us choose hotels, steered us away from dodgy food, helped us skip lines, and was a wealth of knowledge about the country and its sights.

“I usually do all the planning myself, and likely will in many instances, but this was so nice and low stress I will likely use Tours By Locals again in the more out of the way places.

David Ligon replied to Christian about how he had used Tours By Locals for walking tours in Italy.  “It was very useful to us, and by doing a few tours the first few days you get recommendations (as you noted) on how to spend your time wisely with remaining days … or tips on where to buy simple staples. Was worth the $.    

“I didn't want to spend the money at first … but then after spending hours researching decided … what the heck. How many times have I gone somewhere only to say ‘If I go back again I would do it XXXX way now that I know.’" 

Commenter Michael Baldridge praised NicheItaly for organizing a 10-day wine and food trip to the Amalfi  Coast. “We got the best tables at some of the finest restaurants, went right to the front of the line (in front of hundreds of cruise ship passengers waiting) for the chair lift to the top of Capri, instant access to Pompeii (again, walked right in while the line for tickets was around the block).    

“We went to wine tastings at non-public vineyards, and even did a trip to a small family-owned artesian pottery where we watched them make the most fantastic plates and got to try our hand at it. One of the surprises of the trip was an invitation to our Coach Driver's home where his wife cooked an amazing lunch using organic vegetables from her garden. I can still taste those meatballs. Another was a visit to a restaurant/farm in Positano where we picked our vegetables (while drinking their homemade wine), then spent the afternoon in the kitchen making our own pasta, which was served to us for lunch.”

Still other commenters identified niches not mentioned in the story. Richard Gaylord asked if there are “similar travel agencies specializing in setting up travel for the disabled? I’ve given up trying to work with agencies that have no idea at all as to the needs of the disabled (e.g. who understand that cobblestoned streets are impossible for power wheelchair users).”

Travel agents aren’t right for everyone
While agents have established a stronger value proposition these last few years, as the article points out, there is still a large population of travelers who are predisposed to now using them, and agents are best served understanding their opinions as they are likely to brush up against them in the marketplace.

For example, people who claimed to have extensive travel experience touted their own abilities. Thomas Ruttledge called himself “somebody who has traveled all over the world solo (some 80 countries),” who has “evolved to no planning, other than the flight and a place to stay (at least the first and last night). The idea of these highly orchestrated travel experiences, to me, goes exactly against the reason of why everybody should travel: to NOT have schedules, itineraries, appointments, and expectations.

“Will you ‘waste’ some time or sometimes have a bad meal? Probably. But, you're on vacation and all will be a memory for you. And even the bad meals you'll reflect on with a smile years later.”

In fact, based on comments from several readers, travel agents may want to think about the balance they can create between scheduled and unscheduled time for clients who have a strong desire for spontaneous experiences.

Robert Ray believes “a lot of the things you will remember from a trip are spontaneous, not something pre-arranged.”

Similarly, Peter Broido wrote that booking yourself may cause “mistakes” that could “work to your advantage and sometimes they don't but this experience helps to make you flexible and causes you to use your brain to figure out what more you need to do. The road less taken may offer a more enriching experience.”

But self-proclaimed “worldly traveler for decades” Janis Belcher still believes “a great travel agent's knowledge is definitely worth the cost. He or she knows details one could not imagine or know to inquire about from any travel site/s, unless they were told in advance.”

In some cases, commenters demeaned travel agent clients and their clients. M Whiting wrote that most of the agents mentioned in the story “cater to folks with more $ than ¢” [sic]; and Frank Webb wrote that expensive membership fees mean a traveler has “More money than brains!” Likewise, Gary Russell  wrote, “The only thing that came to mind when I read this was; what a waste of $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$.” [sic]

And one commenter, Todd Corenson, questioned travel agent motivations and abilities to provide VIP experiences. “Perhaps ‘special’ access = hefty bribes? [sic] Not mentioned in the article, but a distinct possibility.”

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