Travel Blog

Should you use a travel agent? And how to find one for you.

I have considered for some time now whether I should "blog" about travel, since I have worked in the field for almost 20 years now. Recently I decided to give it a shot and then I needed to decide what my first blog should be about. After quite a bit of thought I settled on this topic, since it goes to the heart of what I do.
In this internet age many people have turned to online sources for their travel information or planning, but is this always the best course of action? The answer is not as simple as it seems. So, when can you do without an agent, and if you can do without one, is it wise to do so? Likewise when should you use an agent?
First, let's consider who SHOULD NOT use an agent. If you are a type A personality who has a hard time delegating anything and you always need to be "hands on" and in control, then you might find working with an agent a frustrating experience, as the use of an agent by necessity requires you place your trust in someone else. Be honest with yourself about this, since it can lead to a very frustrating experience for both you and the agent. Likewise, if you find enjoyment in planning all the details of your travels you might find working with an agent a bit confining.
Also, are there situations where you can dispense with the services of an agent. Yes, there certainly are, and each person needs to decide for themselves what amount of work and planning they are willing to put into their vacation planning. With the advent of websites for everything, especially airfare, agencies have moved away from simply issuing airline tickets, as they have to charge to do so in order to cover their expenses. Most agents, if they are honest with you, will tell you that for a simple airline ticket you can easily do it yourself. So, what defines a "simple" airline ticket? Basically, in my opinion, domestic flights (within the USA) that no not require complex routing qualify. Basic car rentals can also easily be done, as can basic hotel reservations where you know the hotel you want to stay in. There are other situations as well, and some people enjoy doing quite a lot more independent planning.
So, who should use an agent, and when? The are innumerable times when an agent's expertise is invaluable. One area people often overlook is international airfares. Agents like myself have access to airfare consolidators, who buy tickets in bulk and then offer them for sale thru agencies, sometimes at significant savings. I have personally seen international airfares on some routes at hundreds of dollars below "published" prices found on websites. There are some consolidators that will sell directly to consumers, but the trick is to know which ones are reputable and which ones are potentially not. Also, if you run into a problem with an airline ticket sold thru an agency then you have an advocate to work for you. Complicated air routings are also a good area to consult with an agent, as they oftentimes know individual airlines and airports better then you do, based on personal experience.
Hotel bookings are also an area to consult with a good agent, as agents have access to hotel consolidators as well, sometimes at significant savings. In the worst case scenario you will pay the same as you would if you "did it yourself", and you gain the agent's knowledge of the location, hotel quality, etc.
A common misconception people have is that if they book directly with a cruise line, hotel, tour operator, etc. they will get a better price. This is almost always not true, and in many cases agencies hold group space or build tour packages themselves. Both of these scenarios can lead to significant savings. Agents are also familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of specific cruise lines, tour companies, etc, as well as the demographic they target. This can help you avoid booking a trip that is simply not a good fit for you or your family.
You should look at agencies as a source of information and expertise that is not easily obtained without years of experience. Many agents, myself included, have traveled extensively and can help you plan out the right trip for you, at the right price. They can also save you a lot time and effort, and generally do not charge a fee for their services. Agents also have relationships with travel suppliers, and in the event that something does go wrong, they can often be effective advocates for you. They also have a personal relationship with you, something a website does not often have.
So, taking all this into account, you decide to use a travel agent. Now the big question is how to find the right one? I'll attempt to answer that question in my next blog..............

Picking the right agent

OK, so you have decided that you want to work with a travel agent to plan your trip. How do you identify a "good" agent? More importantly, how do you choose the "good agent" that is right for you?
I guess we should start with what constitutes a "good" agent. This is obviously a very subjective decision, as different people will look for different qualities in an agent. Some people will try and reduce it to an analytical exercise, looking at education, certifications, etc. Some will follow their "gut", based on how they perceive the agent. Others will look at agents who specialize, such as cruise only agencies, group organizers, luxury travel, etc. in the belief that specialization results in superior product knowledge. There is some validity to all of these methods, but potential downfalls as well.
So, as someone who has worked in the travel industry for close to twenty years, what would I look for in an agent? First and foremost I would look for an agent who is a good listener and takes into account my interests, budget, etc. This means nothing however if the agent is not experienced. Note I say experienced, not certified, trained, etc. I am not discounting training and certifications, but in my opinion there is simply no substitution for first hand experience. Don't be afraid to ask the agent if they have traveled to the destination or sailed on that cruise line. Seminars and training are valuable, but they don't always provide an unvarnished view of a company, since the company holding the seminar will obviously put their best foot forward, in a somewhat "sanitized" way. The agent who has traveled to a destination on their own, or sailed on the ship or cruise line you are contemplating, or has taken the tour they are suggesting is the one to work with, provided you and they get along.
The other very important thing to look for is accreditation of the agency, either by IATAN ( International Airlines Travel Agent Network ) or for cruise only agencies CLIA ( Cruise Lines Industry Association). Accreditation is the stamp of approval for bonafide agencies, as it requires proof of financial stability and experience in the travel industry. If the agent you speak with cannot provide assurances of their accreditation I would not deal with them.
Also, you would think that in a field that requires good interpersonal skills that agents would all be good at this, but you would be quite wrong. I have met agents who lectured clients about what they should do, or steered clients to tour operators or cruise lines that they preferred, despite the clients interests. You should make sure that the agent has your interests at heart, not theirs. The best way to do this is to pick their brains, get comfortable with them, and then decide if you and this agent fit. This all comes back to the agent who is a good listener. As an agent and owner, I identify my agency as "full service", which means I can plan pretty much any trip you want, with pretty much any tour company, cruise line, airline, etc, . Many agencies can do this, some better than others. Take the time to find out what services the agency provides, as well as what tour companies, cruise lines, etc the agency works with and can book. If the agency is limited in which companies they work with, consider that a red flag, as they may not have the ability to book the type of trip you want.
While there is no foolproof way to guarantee finding the ideal agent, if you follow the above suggestions you will certainly have a much better chance of finding the right agent for you.

When do you need foreign currency?

I get asked a lot about when to get foreign currency, how much and where to obtain it. The short answer is there is no short answer. One of the advantages of being from the USA is that in many parts of the world the US dollar is accepted for everything from tips to minor purchases and in some cases, major purchases. In at least two countries, Panama and Ecuador, the legal currency of the country is the US dollar.
So, when do you need foreign currency? First, pretty much anywhere in the Euro zone, which is most of Europe, with a few notable exceptions, such as the UK and Scandinavia. When traveling to these areas you will need local currency, as dollars if they are accepted, will be accepted at a very poor conversion rate.
South America is another area where local currency is very helpful. While US dollars are accepted in many areas, there are still enough where you don't want to take the chance.
On the other hand, the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico are pretty a "dollar is king" region of the world and you will have little need for local currency when traveling in that part of the world.
Asia is a mixed bag, with the less developed regions, such as Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, etc. widely accepting US dollars. The more developed countries, such as China and Japan, much prefer their own currency but the more touristed areas will generally accept US dollars, especially China. When traveling to Canada you can get by along the border and in touristed areas with US dollars, but be a good neighbor and get some Loonies ($1) coins and Toonies ($2 coins) as well as paper Canadian currency.
Africa is another really mixed bag when it comes to currency. I have found US dollars to be readily accepted in virtually all tourist areas I have visited, but it is easy to get away from the "touristed areas" real quickly, and some local currency never hurts.
A good general rule of thumb is that the more remote the area is, the more likely you will need local currency, or access to local currency. You may ask, what is "access to local currency". In a nutshell that means a debit card that works worldwide, and that you have notified your bank you will be using worldwide.
So, you've decided you should get some foreign currency. Now, where to get it. There are several options.
  1. First, you can get some from your local bank, provided they offer the service. Larger commercial banks are the best bet for this, but almost all of them will charge you a fee, and the rate may or may not be good. To see what the current bank to bank rate is ( which you will never get), go to which will convert pretty much any currency in the world. This can be a good guide to see if you are even close to a decent rate with your local bank.
  2. Another option is AAA, which can get you most, but not all foreign currencies. They don't charge members a fee, and their rates are OK. The drawback is you have to order the currency in person, then go back to pick it up, so it necessitates two trips to the AAA office.
  3. A third option is an exchange bureau at the airport, either in the USA or upon arrival in your destination country. This is the most convenient, but by far the most expensive way to get foreign currency, as their rates are generally not good.
  4. Probably the most cost effective way to get cash, once you are in your destination country, is to use your ATM/debit card. NOT A CREDIT CARD. A debit card allows you to withdraw money as you need it from your savings or checking account. Some cards don't charge ATM fees and some don't even charge a foreign transaction fee. Virtually every ATM I have used in a foreign country offered "English" as a language option, and the cash is disbursed in the local currency. Check with your bank to see what they offer. Don't withdraw cash overseas using a credit card, as they charge interest from day one, as well as transaction fees, etc. The drawback to this option is that you have no local currency until you get to each country, and if you can't find an ATM quickly it can be a pain.
  5. That brings me to my last method. That is to get smaller amounts of cash from a reputable exchange bureau. I use International Currency Express, based in Beverly Hills, CA. They offer excellent rates, can get you pretty much any currency in the world, and their shipping fees are reasonable. I like them enough that there is a link to them on the "our services" page of my website. Click on "Foreign money on demand" and you'll be taken there. The nice thing about them is you can order as much or as little currency as you think you will need, either for your entire trip, or to tide you over until you can hit an ATM. You can order multiple currencies in the same order, and their shipping fee for insured delivery is $15.00. I have found their rates to be better than AAA, local banks or exchange bureaus, and you don't have to go to them.

OK, so how do I handle my foreign currency needs? If I'm going to a place with good access to ATMs I get a small amount of foreign currency from International Currency Exchange and then use my ATM as I go. This works really well when your itinerary is taking you to several different countries with different currencies. If I'm going to a country where I think access to ATM's might be a pipe dream, then I get what I think I will need for the trip ahead of time thru International Currency Express.
Lastly, when making any significant purchase overseas, use your credit card when possible. You will generally get a better exchange rate than if you use dollars, and many cards don't charge a foreign transaction fee.
Safe travels, and i hope you have found this helpful.  

Is a Cruise Right for you?

One of the most common questions I get asked is "Will I like a cruise?" The short answer is "probably", as right around 90% of all people who go on cruises say they would go again. So, who is the other 10%? First, let's examine what the strong points of cruising are;
  1. You pack and unpack once - your hotel moves
  2. You will eat well and have good entertainment nightly
  3. Modern cruise ships are beautiful, with gyms, spas, numerous lounges, martini bars and good children's programs
  4. They are an excellent value for the money
  5. Cruises now go to all seven continents
  6. Dressy nights are pretty much a thing of the past
So, whats not to like? For many people, they see no downside, but there are some things to consider;
  1. Will I feel confined or too structured?
  2. What's not included?
  3. Will I be able see everything I want to in the places we visit?
  4. Will I get motion sickness?
  5. Won't my cabin be tiny?
When a potential client calls me and asked about a cruise, it's important for them and I to discuss all these issues. For most people, the relaxed pace, good food, entertainment and different locales visited sell them on a cruise, but some people are simply not geared to cruises, and there are some parts of the world that a cruise is not the best option for. So, working on the premise that perhaps you might be one of "those people", let's look at a few absolute contraindications for taking a cruise;
  1. If your idea of the perfect vacation is a week long pack trip into the mountains, you might not want to consider a cruise, as you feel confined
  2. If you dislike any sort of structure to your vacation, tread carefully, as the ship sails a set itinerary and is quite inflexible regarding the itinerary
  3. If your idea of a good day is digging deep into the culture of your destination, a cruise will likely leave you disappointed
  4. If you know you get seasick, and no meds or treatments help, then no, don't take a cruise. All ships move, even the biggest.
It goes without saying that cruise ships are pretty much limited to oceans, with the exception of River Cruises, which I will discuss in a future blog. As such, you are by necessity limited in what you can see in a day off the ship. Generally, in the Caribbean this isn't a problem, as the islands are small and can be covered in a day. To a certain degree Europe is similar, in that many of the major cultural sites are either in port cities, or within reach of a port city. While not perfect, you can see the highlights of Paris or Rome from a cruise ship. Many sights in South America are accessible by ship, and if Antarctica is on your list then a ship is one of the only ways to see that continent, unless you need to go to the absolute South Pole.
So, in my opinion what destinations present more challenges for a cruise?
  1. Africa - while there are port cities and cultural sites within a day's drive of the shore, so much of what Africa has to offer is in the interior, such as big game and amazing natural places, that a multi-day land tour is by far the best way to experience this continent.
  2. Australia - while the cruise industry might dispute this, I feel the size of the continent makes a muklti day land based tour the best way to explore this continent. Many port cities are worth a visit, and the great Barrier reef is amazing, so for many people a cruise combined with a land component ticks all the boxes.
  3. North America - This is a tough one, as there are some amazing port cities to be seen, but as anyone who has driven the USA will tell you, there is so much to be seen in the interior of the country, particularly the National Parks, that a land tour is a must. Alaska and hawaii are notable exceptions to this rule though, as the Inside Passage of Alaska lends itself to a cruise vacation, and Hawaii is a great cruise destination.
  4. Asia - while cruises to parts of Asia have become quite popular, the sheer size of the continent makes it impossible for you see more than the outer edges of this fascinating continent.
If it sounds like i am making the case against cruising, that is not the case. I have been on over 50 cruises, and have enjoyed them all. They allow you to relax as much as you want, or to be as busy as you want, and few trips can match a cruise vacation for ease of visiting numerous different places on one trip. Best of all, you will do it very comfortably. The key here is matching your interests to the trip and cruise line, unless you meet one of the "absolute contraindications" listed above, in which case I would not recommend a cruise to you.
The cruise industry is constantly evolving, and it's important to understand those changes. Most recently the cruise industry has been adapting to deal with competition from "all-inclusive" resorts located in the Caribbean. One way cruise lines are dealing with this is to include beverage packages in their pricing, which makes them much more of an "all-inclusive" product. Some lines are pushing the "family vacation" strategy. Almost all the cruise lines are building new ships to stay current. cabin size has increased from the days of 100 square foot cabins. Most now average at least 150 square feet or more, and feel quite adequate, with balconies in many cabins as well. Another trend in the industry is the push for "on-board revenue" from shops on board, photos, drinks ( unless you have a beverage package), shore excursions, etc. This is necessitated by the fact that cruise prices have been stagnant for well over a decade now, so the cruise lines have to make up that revenue somewhere. it may sound strange, but I don't mind this, as it allows those who don't spend a lot on board to be subsidized by those who do! A little willpower and restraint can keep the on-board expenses to a minimum. It also should be noted that this need to generate revenue from guests is not unique to the cruise industry, as anyone who has been to an all inclusive resort will tell you, or anyone who has been on a tour that stops at an overpriced gift shop for a "bathroom break" can attest.
In closing, a cruise can be a very cost effective and somewhat luxurious way to see many parts of the world, but it is not for everyone, or every place.

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