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Finding The (Illusive) Great Travel Agent

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Over the years,in  every article I  ever wrote about choosing a cruise, or booking a cruise, I’ve recommended talking to, and booking with a travel agent; preferably one who specializes in cruises.

In my view, the alternative – booking directly with a cruise line – is the least desirable option available.

So, many times I’ve been asked the million dollar question ; how do I find that “great travel agent”? The answer is, there is no easy answer.

There is one thing about the business of travel agents that makes me crazy. That is, there is no governing body, other than the law of the land, which has any type of authority of  oversight of travel agents, or for that matter cruise lines.

There is an industry group that the vast majority of cruise travel agents and agencies are members of, called CLIA (Cruise Line Industry Association), which does offer some training and accreditation.

Though this organization is essentially a promotional, marketing and lobbying group for the cruise industry, finding a travel agent who has been granted the CLIA accreditation means they have met at least some minimal training standards. In many cases sales representatives for the cruise lines, may have never even been on a ship. And furthermore, if they have, it’s highly unlikely they have been on a ship other than those of the line they are selling for.

The business of travel agents has changed quite significantly over the past decade or so, and like many industries in that time frame much of the change has to do with advances in technology. The technological advances have changed the business model of most travel agencies.

Independent owner operated travel agencies do still exist, but are rare. Most have, at the very least joined a consortia. Consortia were originally formed to associate numerous independent agencies in order to improve their “buying power”; their ability to negotiate better pricing, and “preferred supplier” status with cruise lines, tour operators, etc.

The most significant change to the travel agent industry in recent years, due to, or because of technology,  is the rise in the number of home based travel agents. They may simply be hosted by a travel agency, or they may be part of a consortium, or the fastest growing segment; they become franchisees. Being a travel agent  through any of these relationships does not, in and of itself, make the individuals good or bad travel agents.

One can purchase a franchise for anywhere from $500 to $3000, and once accepted those franchisees may refer to themselves as independent operators. Some of those franchisees may still open brick and mortar stores from which to operate, but the majority are home-based agents. This offers no negative commentary on that situation. It’s just something I believe the consumer should be aware of.

Technology allows these travel agents to be just as effective as those in large store front travel agencies, while at the same time saving operating costs.

For a time only large Internet based agencies dominated sales via the internet.  Today the very vast majority of all types of travel agents have a “web presence”.  All of the consortia, and all of the franchise operations have developed web sites, to allow their associates to sell and market their services. To varying degrees, they have also all developed software and support systems to improve the abilities of their associates to further develop their business.

Before all these advances, there was a time when the large Internet based travel agencies were beginning to dominate the  smaller independent operators, so the cruise lines were lobbied to create “flat pricing policies”; forcing all travel agencies to sell cruises for the same price as what the cruise lines themselves were pricing the cruise at. This was their attempt to level the playing field for everyone selling their cruises.

Though, in theory these policies are still in place, when pricing out cruises today, you’ll find those flat pricing policies are not necessarily fact,, or enforced. In other words, as a consumer you still need to price shop, and not just assume you are getting the best price you can everywhere.

There are factors affecting that. Some travel agents are still find ways to rebate from their commissions, to offer their customers a better price. Though against “the rules” it is being done, perhaps more imaginatively than direct price discounting. There are also things the cruise lines themselves do which offers such things as preferred supplier status, overrides, etc. which  can have an effect on the travel agents bottom lines.

Some of these “industry secrets” do bother me somewhat. I believe the travel agents are certainly entitled to make a living, and be paid for their work. I do however encourage more transparency from them.

When choosing a travel agent my suggestion is to always interview them, and not just get a price quote. You are hiring someone to work for you! Even if you have no experience of ever hiring anyone to work you, with regard to choosing a travel agent, you are your own HR department.

You are hiring someone to work for you, take care of your interests,  and will be in a position to handle your money. Take the challenge seriously when making that decision. Ask questions, not just about the cruise and price they can offer.

Unfortunately, you may end up “kissing a few frogs” before you find your travel prince or princess. And, unfortunately neither the cruise lines, the consortia, or the franchisors will take any serious action to assist  towards correcting the actions of those “frogs” you encounter.

But, when you find your travel agent prince or princess, you’ll know it! When you do, be open and loyal, and nurture that relationship. Don’t leave them because you found somewhere else to save $50. It could cost you much more in the long run if you chose another “frog”.

– A View From The Kuki Side of Cruising –

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