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14 Times It Actually Pays off to Use a Travel Agent

If you like upgrades, lower rates, and peace of mind, think twice before booking your next trip without a little expert help.

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Don’t leave your vacation up to chance

Pretty much everyone books their own travel these days, right? Nope! In fact, according to Travel Market Report, more people are booking trips with the help of a travel advisor, accounting for 13 percent of vacations in 2019, up from 8 percent in 2018. Just don’t call them travel agents: Today’s breed of planners prefers to be called travel advisors. The American Society of Travel Advisors even changed its name from the American Society of Travel Agents in 2018.

So, why are advisors steadily rising in popularity? In today’s hyperconnected era, when anybody with an Internet connection and a credit card can book a trip with the click of a button, advisors provide not only a human touch but also real-world expertise and more bang for your buck. I should know: After years in the industry as a writer, I recently became a family travel advisor myself. Here’s what I’ve learned about when it can pay off to use a travel advisor.

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You want upgrades

When booking through one of the thousands of advisors affiliated with trusted networks like Virtuoso, American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts, and Signature Travel Network, you’ll be eligible for available room or suite upgrades. Some hotels will even offer guaranteed upgrades when you book, which means you can leave for your trip knowing that you paid for a room but a suite awaits. Here are some other secrets to scoring a free hotel room upgrade.

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You like free stuff

If you’re self-booking your four- or five-star hotel directly from their website or from a third-party site, you’re potentially losing out on hundreds of dollars of free amenities. One of the biggest parts of my job is educating people who think advisors are solely for bucket-list trips and don’t realize what they’re missing out on. Because of their hard-earned relationships and preferred vendor contacts, many advisors can help you get a breakfast gratis, complimentary Wi-Fi for the duration of your stay, free parking, and sometimes fun little bonuses like a welcome cocktail, a bottle of champagne, or a fruit platter waiting in your room at check-in. These 13 amazing hotel perks will make you want to book a room ASAP.

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You want cash perks

When booking through third-party online sites, you might find occasional deals, but they’ll rarely include the copious extras you’ll get through, say, the Virtuoso network, where each hotel pledges $100 spa, golf, or dining credits to guests booked through their advisors. Some even throw in private tours or limo transfers to sweeten the deal—again, at no additional cost. If you’re looking to relax on your vacay, check out 11 of the most luxurious spas in the world.

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You want to pay less for your hotel stay

Many times, travel advisors have access to lower rates at great hotels than what you’ll find yourself online. “Our advisors have access to the same (and often better) pricing than you can find online,” says Victoria Zindell, owner of Luxury Ventures Travel. Plus, let’s not forget about those free perks mentioned above. “We can [also] secure special perks like complimentary room upgrades, daily breakfast, and other benefits you can’t get on your own,” adds Zindell. “The amenities our clients receive on a hotel stay alone are valued at up to $450-plus per stay.” Even if the rate is the same, or slightly elevated, you’ll likely save money in the end because of that. And, crucially, travel advisors know when to skimp and when to splurge.

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You’re planning a once-in-a-lifetime trip

Whether it’s a multi-generational family reunion, a 50th birthday party, or far-flung eco-tourism, different advisors often have various specialties. If you’re booking a bucket list trip where you have big expectations—say, a honeymoon, a weeklong trip to Walt Disney World with the grandparents, or a cruise around Alaska—an advisor can help steer you in the right direction, make sure the destination and itinerary fit your needs, and help you spend and save appropriately. “If you dream it, we can do it. We take the time to understand your travel style, remember your important milestones, and encourage bucket-list aspirations to design extraordinary trips that exceed your expectations,” says Zindell. Need some travel inspiration? Here are 18 one-of-a-kind adventures to add to your bucket list.

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You have a complicated itinerary

Are you touring multiple foreign countries, or are you going with small children who get tired or tantrum easily? (“Are we there yet?” is 10 times more annoying when halfway across the world, trust me.) Your travel advisor can help put together an itinerary that uniquely makes sense for you and isn’t one-size-fits-all—unlike many “Best of” lists or slightly more generic suggestions you may find online. This can also be incredibly helpful if you have a disability. “My clients’ trips have so many moving pieces, families with members arriving from multiple locations, bespoke tours, and unique experiences that I’ve found for them, they appreciate having someone with a 10,000-foot view who can coordinate everything and just send them the itinerary,” says Diane Sherer, owner of the travel agency Beyond. “I say, ‘Be at such-and-such place at such-and-such time—I’ll handle the rest.'”

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You want the latest and greatest

It’s the job of a travel advisor to be up on the latest destination trends, hotel openings, restaurant recommendations, and tour knowledge. We travel to the places we sell, which means we’re not just researching in Internet forums or asking friends of friends; we have actual firsthand knowledge. “Our clients benefit from our extensive firsthand travel experience and being at the forefront of the latest trends and newest openings before they have happened,” explains Zindell. “Our team has traveled the globe, discovering everything from the world’s most sought-after cities to the gems you’ve haven’t even heard of.”

Also crucial: Reviews don’t always tell the full picture. Your advisor can help with smaller details—such as figuring out if you’ve booked a hotel room with a horrible view, on a bad floor, or that hasn’t yet been renovated—while also macro-planning to make sure your trip is perfect. Before you head out, also make sure you know these 13 ways air travel will change in 2020.

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You want VIP access

Hoping to tour behind the scenes at the Vatican, go onstage at Radio City Music Hall, or eat inside a local’s home halfway around the world? Or maybe you’re traveling for a 50th birthday, honeymoon, or family reunion and want to make it even more special? Travel advisors can use their network to hook it up. “My clients know it’s always best to have me book their luxury hotels and travel because you can’t VIP yourself,” says Stacy Small, founder of Elite Travel International (the agency I’m affiliated with). “They get used to being greeted by general managers worldwide and having their preferences and needs anticipated and handled hassle-free.” These are some of the world’s most luxurious hotels and resorts.

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You’d like help if things go wrong

We’ve all been there. Vacation disasters happen to everyone at some point, and when they do, we desperately wish someone could just swoop in and fix things. That’s what travel advisors do, of course. If you need help rebooking a canceled flight, getting out of a dangerous destination, figuring out how to circumnavigate strikes or protests, or simply need expert help—and fast—the advisor who arranged your trip is going to be on call for you.

“No one wants things to go wrong when they travel, least of all me, but that’s really when professional travel advisors prove their worth,” says Sherer. “I’ll drop everything to try and turn things around for a client. It’s when the years I’ve spent building relationships with hoteliers can really pay off. There’s nothing more satisfying for me.” And it doesn’t matter whose fault it is—your advisors will spring into action as your problem solvers and your biggest advocates.

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You want to get creative with flights

Hoping to extend your vacation by turning a seven-hour stop into a three-day layover for free, as I recently arranged with a flight through Moscow? Though many do charge fees for the service, your travel advisor has back-end access to flights through something called a Global Distribution System (GDS) and can often work itinerary miracles. They can even use your frequent-flier miles for upgrades and are plugged into special airline deals or promotions that aren’t always heavily publicized.

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Your time is precious

Who has time to spend hours scrolling the Internet trying to figure out whether that hotel is really worth the money? Travel advisors will help with that and everything else—letting you know what’s worth checking out and what you should skip, then get you the best deal for it all. “Planning and booking your own trip would take hours and hours. Even then, it’s like drinking from a fire hose with all the information out there,” says Zindell. “Our travel advisors provide the kind of top-notch service that helps you conserve your most precious resource: time.” Here are another 14 things smart travelers always do before a flight.

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Travel is an important part of your life

Just as many people have relationships with financial advisors to help with long-term planning, it is becoming more common to have a travel advisor who knows your personal travel style, always has you in the back of their mind, and understands exactly what you’re looking to get from your vacations. “Life is all about experience, and the one thing that we buy and is guaranteed to make us richer is travel,” says Zindell. “We have assistance in every other part of our lives, so why wouldn’t we seek knowledge and expertise when planning our travel? Your most precious asset is your leisure time, and this will be thoughtfully managed by a trusted advisor who will eliminate calamities during your time traveling.” For a new kind of experience, here’s why this traveler takes a solo trip every single year.

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You’re taking a cruise

Networks like AmEx and Virtuoso provide various savings, upgrades, and perks for their clients, such as behind-the-scenes tours, shore excursions, and shipboard credits. If you’re looking to bundle your cruise and flight, particularly with a package hotel stay before or after, advisors can also come in handy and often have access to better pricing. Don’t miss these 28 secrets cruise lines won’t tell you.

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So, when shouldn’t you use a travel advisor?

Booking a stay at a budget chain, hotel, or hostel? You likely won’t need help. Plus, most two- and three-star hotels don’t have relationships with the trusted advisor consortia. If the price of a hotel room is your sole consideration—no upgrades, perks, free parking, or breakfast required—you may be able to find a better deal on your own. Finally, while travel agents could pass along flight deals to their clients in the past, those days are gone and you might find the exact same price online yourself, minus flight booking fees. If your flight doesn’t involve business class, special considerations, or a complicated itinerary, you may want to book it yourself using these tricks to get the best airfare possible.

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But if you want peace of mind, travel advisors are the way to go

Travel can be expensive, and your vacation days are precious. Working with a trusted expert in your destination—especially somewhere far-flung or off the beaten path—helps you feel confident that you’re not wasting time and money, as well as ensures that you look back on your experience with satisfaction. “I love getting a text from a client with a picture of an amenity they found in their room or the suite they just got upgraded to,” Sherer says. “It makes my day.” For a truly amazing trip, you might want to check out one of these 12 most peaceful places on Earth.

Nadine Jolie Courtney
Nadine Jolie Courtney is a Virtuoso travel advisor and regular contributor to Reader's Digest, covering travel, culture, and health. A former magazine editor based in Santa Monica, she also covers lifestyle and parenting, with regular outlets including The Healthy, Oprah Mag, Town & Country, Business Insider, and many other publications. Courtney is the author of four books, including ALL-AMERICAN MUSLIM GIRL, a Kirkus Best Book of 2019. Follow her on Instagram @nadinejoliecourtney