The Travel Agent Friend or Foe?

You’ve finally decided that it’s time for a vacation. So, what’s the first thing you need to do? Well, according to most other books about accessible travel, you need to “Find a good travel agent.” To be honest, that’s pretty useless advice. After all, nobody wants to find a bad travel agent. Sarcasm aside, you need to understand several things before you go in search of that perfect travel agent. First, you need to determine if you even need a travel agent. To do this, you need to understand how travel agents work and what they can and can’t do for their clients. In the long run, this will also help you work more effectively with your agent. You also need to know how to find a travel agent that best suits your needs. To do this, you need to learn a little bit about the industry, so that you will know how to recognize a good travel agent. Additionally, you need to be able to recognize a bad travel agent, along with some of the pitfalls and scams that seem to proliferate in this industry. As with everything else, it’s definitely a case of buyer beware.

Travel Agent 101

Travel agents work in a variety of ways, but in the simplest form they book travel for clients and receive commissions from suppliers (cruise lines, hotels, airlines, tour companies). The products they offer depend on their business relationships and commission arrangements with the suppliers. So in theory, two different travel agents could work with a number of different suppliers and, as a result, offer their clients different travel options. I say in theory because it doesn’t always work that way. In practice, many mainstream travel agents only work with suppliers that pay the highest commissions. Unfortunately, only a limited number of suppliers provide accessible services and, since most of them don’t pay large commissions, they are somewhat unknown to mainstream agents. Those agents who specialize in accessible travel are ultimately those who are familiar with these specialty providers. The big problem is finding these specialist agents. More on that later. The truth is that many small accessible tour operators would like to be able to pay commissions, but they just can’t afford it. So, these small guys are effectively left out of the booking loop. Travel agents and tour operators both need to make money. Travel agents can’t afford to work for free, so they have to work with suppliers that can pay commissions. Small tour operators need to make a living, so most can’t afford to pay out commissions. Sometimes it’s a vicious circle. But it’s not just the small tour operators that don’t pay commissions to travel agents. Years ago, most airlines paid out hefty commissions, but over the years those commissions have also dwindled. Now, it’s hard for many travel agents to even pay for their reservation software with the meager commissions offered by most airlines. The result is that some agents no longer work with air-only clients, while others now charge a minimal processing fee for domestic air tickets. Generally speaking, travel agents still receive a decent commission on international airline tickets, so most are still willing to offer this service. As a result of dwindling commissions, many travel agents found different ways to address the travel market. The professional organizations encouraged travel agents to find profitable niche markets, such as accessible travel. Many travel agents became accessible travel specialists overnight. I say this sarcastically because, officially, there is no such thing as a certified accessible travel specialist. Of course, you can print whatever you want on your own business cards and in your own promotional literature, so I have seen this claim in a number of advertisements. On the other hand, there are a number of genuine accessible travel specialists out there, and most of these experienced agents have served this niche market long before it was ever fashionable. But, with so many Johnny-come-latelys popping up, sometimes it is hard to find the real accessible travel experts. Then there are the destination specialists and itinerary planners. These are highly trained experts, and I encourage you to actively seek them out. Destination specialists focus on a particular destination, and they are experts about everything related to that destination. Many of these destination specialists are also knowledgeable about access. Some destination specialists also do itinerary planning. Itinerary planners charge their clients for their services. Sometimes they also get commissions from suppliers, but these travel agents don’t exclusively work only with suppliers that pay out commissions. These travel professionals are worth their weight in gold, but be on the lookout for impostors. Nobody can be a destination specialist for all areas of the world, so be wary of any travel agent who makes that claim. In truth, I know a lot of good travel agents; in fact, some of my best friends are travel agents. Unfortunately, I’ve also heard horror stories about the bad travel agents, so I know they are out there. Good travel agents work hard for their money and offer their clients valuable first-hand knowledge about products, services, and destinations. The bad ones? They can ruin your trip and make you swear off travel forever

Do You Need One?

Do you need a travel agent? In truth, it depends on many factors, including your travel needs and your own personality type. This book gives you the tools to cut out the middleman and in a sense, be your own travel agent. But do you really want to do that? Some people do and some people don’t. Many people work with travel agents because they want somebody else to take care of all the details. If you don’t want to deal with the hundreds of minor details that can pop up before, during, and after your trip, then by all means delegate the task to a competent travel agent. But planning and knowledge are two different things; so remember, just because you delegate trip planning to a travel agent, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also educate yourself about the logistics of accessible travel and the accessibility of your destination. Regardless of who makes your travel arrangements, you still need to know your rights and understand the process. Why? Because the real proof of a genuine accessible travel specialist lies with her knowledge about the rules, regulations, and realities of accessible travel; and the only way to judge her expertise is to become an expert yourself. As I pointed out earlier, many travel agents don’t want to bother with domestic air-only tickets because it’s simply not profitable, so if you are just looking for the lowest fare to Cincinnati, then it’s usually best to bypass the travel agent. Let’s face it, sometimes the logistics of accessible travel are time intensive, and most agents can’t afford to spend this time with clients pro bono. Like everybody else, they need to be paid for their time, and if the airlines won’t pay them, they simply can’t afford to work for free. Nobody can. On the other hand, travel agents can be quite helpful with international travel, package tours, cruise travel, or group tours. These are pretty competitive markets, so make sure your agent is well versed in the finer aspects of accessible travel. For example, don’t just use any cruise travel agent—use one that can tell you about the accessibility of the ports. Additionally, don’t feel you are married to one agent forever because different agents have different specialties. One agent may be a great cruise agent but know very little about land tours in the United Kingdom. Again, nobody can be an expert at everything, so choose an expert who works best for your particular trip. Giving equal time to travel agents, some travel agents to go above and beyond the call of duty for regular clients. As one travel agent confides, “I’ve done some ridiculously time-consuming things for long-term clients, just as favors because they’ve used me for years.” Truthfully, the best reason to work with any travel agent is to take advantage of his destination and access knowledge. A good travel agent is a very valuable resource.

The Search

The search for a travel agent begins much the same way as the search for any other professional. The best strategy is to gather a list of potential candidates and then interview them over the phone. Where do you find the candidates? Personal referrals are great, so ask your friends and family if they know of any good travel agents. Be sure to specify that your definition of a good travel agent is one who is well educated about accessible travel. Scan through national disability magazines, search the Internet, ask people in your support group, and look for advertisements in the yellow pages. Learn to read between the lines of advertisements though. I recently spied an advertisement in a national disability magazine that didn’t even list a phone number, company name, or address. The only contact information for this advertisement that touted accessible tours of Ireland was an e-mail address. After a little investigation, I learned that this individual was illequipped to organize accessible tours, because he wasn’t even aware of the accessible transportation situation in Ireland. The big tip-off should have been the lack of contact information. Skip over any advertisement that just doesn’t have a professional look. Soon your list of candidates will grow, and you’ll be ready to begin the interview process. Before you pick up the phone, remember that it’s important to ask all the candidates the same questions. Try to talk to at least five candidates. Even if you absolutely love the first candidate, continue to call everybody on your list. You never know, you may just find somebody you love even more. Feel free to eliminate anybody you just don’t like, even if they seem to have the appropriate professional qualifications. Go with your gut feeling. This is a personal service, and you need to feel comfortable with your travel agent. You don’t have to become best friends, but you can’t really work effectively with somebody if you have a personality conflict. Be sure to inquire about what kind of training the agent has, as well as how long they have worked with accessible travel. Nobody is born with this knowledge, so remember we all have to learn it at some time in life. Don’t rule out real life experience either, as some agents are very experienced in accessible travel because they have a disability and they love to travel. This type of experience is valuable, but by itself it is not enough. The agent also has been familiar with the travel industry. Ask about their professional qualifications. If they have a lot of initials after their name, ask what they mean, and how they got them. It’s also a good idea to throw in a test question, just to make sure they have the requisite knowledge about accessible travel. Now, I’m not saying you should cross-examine and badger each candidate, but ask at least one question that tests their accessible travel expertise. If you have a specific destination in mind, ask about their expertise on that destination. Additionally, ask them how many clients they book to that destination annually and when they last visited that destination. Most important, ask them if they have experience dealing with clients with your specific disability. Ask for references, and call up those references and inquire about their travel experiences. Now, to be honest you may run into some travel agents who won’t give you references. Some travel agents are gun-shy about giving out references. Says one long-time travel agent, “I used to give out references (with my clients’ permission), until I had a bad experience. A few years ago a lady requested references and then she badgered the heck out my client. She kept calling her up and just wanted to chit-chat and be her best friend. My client didn’t want anything to do with her, and she had a hard time getting rid of her. I don’t give out references anymore. I just can’t risk another experience like that one.” So, don’t automatically disqualify a potential candidate just because she won’t provide you with references, because sometimes there is a very good reason behind this decision. And let’s face it, no travel agent is going to use the client who had the disaster trip as a reference. In the end, you’ll just have to rely on your own judgment in this matter; however, if the travel agent doesn’t have the time to answer your questions, then move on. Answering a few personal questions is easy, compared to the intricacies of researching and arranging accessible travel.

Some Red Flags

Once you’ve completed the interview process, how do you evaluate the answers and pick the best travel agent? The personality factor will serve to screen out some candidates. In fact, you will probably run across a few agents whom you just don’t like. They are easy to scratch off the list. But what about the rest? Your final decision should be based on the candidates’ destination and access knowledge, but a few responses should throw up a red flag. Be wary when somebody tells you they are a “certified” accessible travel expert. There’s nothing wrong with somebody saying they have experience in this specialty, but as I pointed out earlier, there is no official certification training program or credentialing process. Ask them how many hours of training they received, who gave it, and what it covered. Ask them how long they have been in the industry and how long they have been working with accessible travel. Some people call themselves experts after an afternoon training seminar. Watch out for candidates who tout their membership in a professional organization as their primary qualification as an accessible travel specialist. Ask about the organization’s membership requirements. A large number of professional organizations exist for travel agents and, while some have rigid membership criteria, others merely require members to write out an annual check. A red flag should go up if a candidate guarantees you something that is simply not within his power. For example, if someone guarantees you bulkhead seats, “no matter what,” this only serves to illustrate their own ignorance about the Air Carrier Access Act. Additionally, be wary of any agent who guarantees you a problem-free trip. Travel is unpredictable, and nobody knows when problems will arise. Stay away from anybody who uses that dreaded h-word. It’s all right to use this word to describe horses and golfers, but not to describe people with disabilities. It shows a general lack of knowledge and sensitivity about the market—and that lack of knowledge usually doesn’t stop at terminology. Most likely this person is also lacking in essential knowledge about the logistics of accessible travel. Some agencies advertise that they are “owned and operated by a person with a disability.” Although there’s nothing really wrong with stating that fact, be wary if that in itself is the agent’s only qualification. Of course, you should also ask what their disability is, if they make it a point to include this fact in their advertisements. Look for somebody who is experienced and knowledgeable about your specific disability. For example, just because a person is blind, doesn’t mean they have good working knowledge about wheelchair travel. Watch out for agents who use broad generalizations, such as “everything is accessible.” This indicates a general lack of knowledge on the subject. Finally, be wary of travel agents who don’t travel. If they don’t travel, ask them why (sometimes there is a good reason), and then ask them what they do to keep up with the industry. The ideal agent should have also traveled to your destination recently, although this isn’t always possible. Additionally, be wary of travel agents who always travel. Some people get into the travel business just so that they can write off their own travel expenses. Although there’s nothing wrong with that per se, your travel agent should be available to answer your questions and deal with problems as they arise, and that’s just not possible if they are always on the road.

Buyer Beware!

You need to be extra cautious about a few things when searching for a travel agent. I hate to blatantly call them scams, however, they deserve more attention than the red-flag items. By far the worst one is the “you too can be a travel agent” scam. And yes, I do classify this one as a scam. Also known as a card mill, this scam is incredibly damaging to consumers and professionals alike. Many people unknowingly fall prey to it even if they aren’t in the market for a job. In fact, the biggest market for card mill operators is people who like to travel, not just people who need a job. This scam works in a variety of ways, and indeed some are quite slick. Typically, the con man tries to convince you that it’s in your best interest to become a travel agent, because you can save money on your own travel. He’ll also tell you about how you can book travel for your friends and family and make big bucks with little or no effort. And then he’ll rave about the free and discounted travel you can receive as an official card-carrying travel agent. What’s he selling? Not much, usually just a card saying you are a travel agent and maybe a manual of some sort. Both items are pretty worthless. Card mills can present themselves in a variety of ways, including self-employment opportunities. This is perhaps the most straightforward approach, as at least you know what they are selling. Other approaches aren’t so straightforward and can include advertisements that read “travel for free” or “save big money on travel.” Additionally, card mill operators take full advantage of the underemployment in the disabled community because they actively solicit people with disabilities. They entice their marks with promises of a turn-key home-based business that makes big bucks. Be careful when someone gives you a great offer. The truth is, real travel agents work very hard for their money and most have had some kind of hands-on training. It’s not easy work, and many travel agents take years to turn a profit and establish their business. As for the travel agent discounts and fam trips— well, travel suppliers are familiar with card mills too, so card mill travel agents are routinely screened out of most offerings. Be wary of anybody who tries to sell you a home-based travel business, because they could, in fact, be a card mill operator. Unfortunately, many people fall for this scam and, as a result, there are a number of card mill travel agents out there. Worse yet, some of these untrained travel agents specialize in accessible travel. All the more reason to carefully screen your travel agent candidates! Another thing to be on the lookout for our travel agents or tour operators who operate as nonprofit agencies. This practice isn’t something that I actually classify as a scam, but it can be pretty misleading. True, some legitimate nonprofit organizations do offer accessible trips and tours; however, some businesses operate as nonprofits in name only. It’s merely an accounting method for some. They still make money and take a salary. There’s really nothing wrong with that, unless they imply otherwise. If your tour operator or travel agent claims nonprofit status, ask about the services they provide for the community. If the best they can come up with is, “We negotiate good deals on travel,” then you may be dealing with a nonprofit in name only. Remember, operating a nonprofit organization doesn’t necessarily guarantee altruistic motives. To some, it’s just a marketing tool. Ask a lot of questions whenever a travel agency or tour operator touts their nonprofit status. And finally, be wary if something just doesn’t sound right.

Travel Agent Etiquette

Choosing a travel agent is only half the battle. Now that you understand how the travel industry works, you can use this knowledge to work more effectively with your travel agent. some tips may help you along your road. First and foremost, don’t waste a travel agent’s time. For example, don’t call up a travel agent and just ask for a list of accessible hotels. Remember what travel agents do. They are not a public information resource. They book trips and use their expertise for their clients. Says one travel agent, “Last week one caller took up about 3 hours of our time. She wanted detailed information on accessible ships, accessible ports, and ports where her service dog could come ashore. She asked for multiple rates on different ships and cabins. Then her traveling companion decided she felt more comfortable booking locally, so she took all the information she gleaned from us and booked with another travel agent. I now understand why so many specialists require nonrefundable goodwill deposits.” Of course, if your travel agent is making travel arrangements for you, then it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for a choice of hotels in a particular city; but don’t just call up any agent, ask for the information, and make the arrangements yourself. If you want to make your own travel arrangements, find another information source. Be well prepared when you first contact your travel agent. Have some idea of where you want to go, when you want to go, and how long you want to stay. Have a general idea about your travel budget. It’s all right to go to your travel agent with a few choices and ask for an opinion, but don’t just walk in and expect them to find the right trip for you. Do some advance research and make a list of destinations that interest you, and then inquire about their suitability when you talk with your travel agent. Be honest with your travel agent (and yourself) about your disability. It won’t benefit anybody if you hide important information; in fact, anything short of full disclosure can be disastrous. Consider the plight of Judy, who ended up stranded at Denver International Airport, because of a failure to disclose. Judy, a 52-year-old woman with multiple sclerosis (MS), was no longer able to travel independently due to progressive cognitive difficulties. Unfortunately, when Judy’s daughter made the travel arrangements, she neglected to mention her mom’s cognitive difficulties to the travel agent. She only said that her mom needed some wheelchair assistance. After Judy landed in Denver, she got confused and didn’t know where she was. She missed her connecting flight to Bismark. Of course, she assured everybody she was all right and that she was just waiting for her daughter. Finally, security stepped in and came to Judy’s aid. Unfortunately, by this time, Judy’s pants were soaked with urine, and her daughter was worried sick in Bismark. The whole situation could have been easily avoided with a little honesty. Now, I’m not saying that you need to give out a complete medical history, but don’t hide important facts. For example, if you can’t transfer independently, then you need to be honest with your travel agent about this fact. It won’t prevent you from going on a trip, but it will help your travel agent plan a trip that is appropriate for you. Most likely, your travel agent will have a questionnaire for you to complete. Try to answer all the questions as completely as possible; however, if a particular question makes you uncomfortable, talk it over with your travel agent and ask why they need to know that information. Remember, “I don’t know,” is sometimes an acceptable answer; in fact it’s better than a wrong answer or a guess. Nobody knows all the answers, but a good travel agent has the resources to find them. Allow your travel agent time to research your question, and be glad you have a travel agent who is willing to do the research. However, if your travel agent continually answers “I don’t know” to your questions and is unwilling to do the research, then perhaps you need to look elsewhere. Don’t call your travel agent for daily updates about your travel arrangements. Remember, you are not their only client. Admittedly, you will have questions, so write them down and consolidate them into one phone call. I’m not saying you should never call your travel agent. For example, if your agent promised to call you back on a certain date, and that time has passed, then by all means, pick up the phone. On the other hand, calling for daily updates only tends to frustrate travel agents, because time is a very important commodity to them. Give them a fair chance to do their job. If you don’t trust your travel agent to make the appropriate arrangements, then perhaps it’s time to find somebody who you do trust. Don’t blame your travel agent because your dream destination is not accessible. Instead, work with your agent to find a suitable alternative. The truth is, some countries are just not very accessible, and it will take more than your travel agent to change that fact. You should expect an honest evaluation about access from your travel agent, but don’t blame your agent if it’s not exactly what you want to hear. In other words, don’t shoot the messenger! If your travel agent is working on a package tour or cruise for you, remember to inquire about the access of all facets of your trip. This includes transportation, transfers, accommodations, and day trips. For cruises, it’s very important to ask about the accessibility of shore excursions. Outside the United States, few accessible shore excursions are available, so work with your travel agent to arrange your own accessible shore excursions. Finally, remember it’s standard practice for travel agents to ask for a deposit. If they are making independent travel arrangements for you, the deposit will be deducted from your final bill. If you cancel, they will most likely retain the deposit to cover fax and phone costs. If you’re a booking a package tour or cruise, the deposit requirements are set by the supplier. Make sure you have a good understanding of the deposit agreement. Don’t be afraid to ask your travel agent for clarification before you write out that check.

The Way It Should Be

Ideally, all travel agents should have a working knowledge of accessible travel. But, what if your long-time travel agent doesn’t have this knowledge? This question comes up often from people who are recently injured or newly disabled and who want to work with the same travel agent they have been using for the past 20 years. What do you do in this case? If your travel agent seems willing to learn, and you feel comfortable dealing with her, then I say give it a try. But, don’t expect perfection overnight. Your agent will be learning something new, and it may take a while to learn all the ins and outs of accessible travel. It is, as you know, an extremely complex subject. The advantage of working with your present agent is that you have developed a relationship over the years. But remember, it will be incumbent upon you to update your agent about your new access needs. In truth, everybody has their own definition of the perfect society. My Utopia comes equipped with all the standard features (universal health care, courteous cab drivers, and an unlimited supply of chocolate), but it also has a few added options. In my Utopia, all travel agents (not just the specialists) have a good working knowledge of accessible travel and disability issues. Furthermore, every travel agent is able to book accessible tours, rooms, and transportation for anybody who happens to walk or roll into their office. That’s just the way it should be! But, as you may well know, that’s not exactly the way things work today. Perhaps someday soon, all travel agents will have a working knowledge of accessible travel. Until then, take care when selecting your travel agent—your research, time, and effort will pay off in the long run.