With restrictions, testing requirements and border closures changing every day, there’s more for travelers to keep track of than ever before. To help them understand regulations and travel safely, some travelers are opting to use travel agents. Skip caught up with travel agent Sarah Kline, the president of the agency Time for Travel Ltd, to hear about why more people are turning to agents, what travel agents can do for their clients, and how travel has changed during the pandemic.
Travel agents were far more commonly utilized before the Internet, and when online bookings became more popular in the early 2000s many travelers opted to manage their own bookings. But for travelers who want expert advice, agents were becoming increasingly popular even before the pandemic: a 2018 survey found that 33% of millennials planned on hiring a travel agent within the next two years. When COVID-19 disrupted international travel, people began turning to agents to offer them advice and peace of mind. The Signature Travel Network, one of the largest travel agency networks in the country, has seen a 20% increase in new customers since last year, most of which report that this is their first time using an agent.
Read on for a Q and A with Kline and learn about the growth in agent-booked travel. If you’re preparing for future travel, Skip can help you renew your passport with our door-to-door passport (skip the post office) service so you can focus on planning your adventure.
Q &A with Travel Agent Sarah Kline
Skip: For people who have never used a travel agent, what are some things that you could do for them that they might not be able to book for themselves?
Kline: There’s a false perception that travel agents cost you money, that we charge fees for our services. The majority of professional agents are a free service, because we work off of commission from cruise lines, resorts and packages. Typically, in the long run, we save people money, because we have access to wholesale fares, promotion codes, and things like that.
Now more than ever before, our role has shifted to the advisor...people are coming to us and saying ‘I want to travel but I am just not sure about rules, restrictions, what I have to do.’ So they turn to us.
Skip: Have you seen an increase in clients who hadn’t used an agent prior to the pandemic?
Kline: Definitely. Just the other day, I had a gentleman reach out who said he usually does his own bookings because he knows where he wants to go and enjoys the research, but he said ‘I feel like I am in over my head. I would like to enlist a professional’. I am hearing that more and more. People are dying to get out there and see and do things...they’ve been home for nearly a year. But they want to have someone put it together for them.
Skip: Can you help people figure out where they might want to go, if they just know they would like to get away but aren’t sure where it would be safe?
Kline: Absolutely, this has really changed our job role. Rather than just getting people booked, we are checking the news, keeping up on the standards, making sure that we know what kind of tests are being administered. There’s still a pretty short list of where you can go, so people who ask me about where they can get away, I rattle off where they can go and be safe.
Skip: If people need to cancel their trip because of COVID, would they have a better chance of getting a refund with an agent?
Kline: Yes. When people book with me I always offer them travel insurance, and this year we are offering two different types: a travel credit for a lower premium, or cash back. Younger travelers often choose the credit, while my older travelers are willing to pay a bit more for cash back. The insurance I offer is canceled for any reason, so it does cover COVID and any other reason. If you have the insurance there’s no question, you’ll get your money back.
We also do a lot of negotiating on behalf of our clients, even if they didn’t have insurance, if things have been cancelled. Just today I had someone who had put down a deposit for a Norwegian Airlines flight for Europe last spring, and the airline wasn’t budging. But I kept on them and finally, today, they granted him a full refund.
Skip: How have you been able to judge whether hotels and tour operators have been taking proper precautions and assure clients that they will be safe?
Kline: This time has really brought to light who is a good partner and who isn’t based on how much they are doing for safety protocols and the information that they are giving to travelers. There is a list coming together in the industry of who to support and those who didn’t do a good job. Personally, I spent 18 days of the last two months internationally, checking the safety of airlines and hotels ranging from 3-star to leading luxury hotels...and I have to say, most other countries are doing much better with COVID than we are in the United States.
After traveling myself I can now say to my clients, “Let’s use this airline because they’re blocking middle seats, or let’s use this hotel because I know they’re offering health insurance in destination.’ Many hotels have great programs in place to take care of you or get you home safely.
Skip: Do you think there have been positive shifts in the way we travel due to the pandemic?
Kline: There are so many silver linings. When I was gone for 18 days over the last two months, I had some of the best travel experiences I have ever had. I flew Delta on one trip, and I felt like I was on a business class flight. And at the resorts, they were so helpful and sweet. I think if the employees could hang you, they would. There was so much gratitude and people were happy to have their jobs back.
This time has really made us take things seriously and value the freedom to be able to go and experience new things. People have focused on the negativity of people who won’t wear a mask or are causing trouble. But there are millions more positive experiences.
Travel Agents Can Help You Plan a COVID-Safe Trip
Travel agents can help their clients get better deals and negotiate for refunds and discounts, but they are also taking on a new role during the pandemic: coronavirus risk advisors. Agents can help you understand the protocols and restrictions for your destination and help you find safe hotels, tours and activities. In the ever-changing world of pandemic travel, travel agents are important allies for their clients. Follow along with us here on the Skip Blog for more info and interviews with world-renowned experts on travel, business, government and more.