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. In some countries use of ATM's is not recommended due to fraud. A good agent can suggest where not to use your debit card.
  5. That brings me to my last method. That is to get smaller amounts of cash from a reputable exchange bureau. I use Currency Exchange International 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 is $15.00. I have found their rates to be better than AAA, local banks or exchange bureaus, and they deliver to your door.

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 Currency Exchange International 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 Currency Express International.
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 River Cruise Right for you?

Over the past several years river cruising in Europe has gained greatly in popularity. River cruises now sail on the Danube and Rhine Rivers, as well as on the Seine near Paris and the Douro River in Portugal, among others. By far the most popular routes are on the Danube and Rhine.
So, what's behind the boom in popularity, and is a river cruise right for you? On the positive side, the ships are very comfortable and the ship is your hotel, which moves, so you only pack and unpack once. They also offer some beautiful scenery and a perspective that you won't get from a land based tour. River cruise ships are also much smaller than ocean going ships, usually around 150-200 passengers. The ships provide good to excellent food, most with wine and beer at dinner and limited entertainment, as there is only one lounge on board generally with a small bar. The emphasis on a river cruise is the destinations, not the ship. That's not to say the ships aren't nice, but you can't compare the experience on an ocean going ship to that of a river cruise ship. River cruises generally dock right near the center of many towns and cities along the river, offering walking access to the towns they visit. There are also shore excursions offered to sights a distance from the river. So, given this information, you are considering a river cruise. What should you take into account?
  1. Price per day is generally a little higher than on an ocean going ship due to their smaller size.
  2. Cabin types are generally limited to:
    • outside cabins with one window high up on the wall, as the cabin is at or just below water level.
    • "French Balcony" type cabins where the outer wall of your cabin is a sliding door, opening your cabin to the outside, versus a balcony to step out onto.
    • some ships have a few standard balcony type cabins in the highest price categories
  3. Which company should I book with? Here a good agent can provide invaluable advice, as there are a range of companies offering river cruises, from quite luxurious accommodations and high end food and service to more basic, but still good quality ships offering a comfortable, solid experience at a lower price. Bear in m ind that they all sail the same rivers and show you the same sights along the way. Everyone seems to know Viking River Cruises, as they advertise heavily, provide a very good product and have the largest fleet of river cruise ships, but there are easily a dozen river cruise lines in Europe.
  4. River cruises generally include a basic walking / orientation tour of the towns they visit along the way, at no extra cost. Optional tours to out of town locations or specific points of interest are also available, for an additional cost
  • If you prefer spending the evening in the towns you visit, or want a couple of days to more deeply explore a destination, then a river cruise might not be a good fit, unless the area you want to explore is the embarkation / disembarkation point, where you can extend your stay ashore pre or post cruise.
  • One thing no river cruise company can control is river levels, and surprisingly, some of the rivers sailed can be quite shallow in places during the drier times of year, resulting in some portions of the "river" cruise ending up being done on land by bus. Conversely, at high water times the same issue can occur, as the ships ability to navigate at very high water levels can be affected by currents, bridge clearance, etc.
  • Entertainment on board will be limited. generally a show in the evening, sometimes with local performers brought on board, sometimes a solo musician, etc. If non-stop entertainment and shows is your thing, then again, a river cruise might not be a good fit.
  • In summary, a river cruise can be an enriching, entertaining and enjoyable vacation to some amazing places, at a generally relaxed pace in comfortable surroundings. Clientele on river cruises is heavily weighted towards the US market, so language generally won't be an issue, and the crew will come from various parts of the world, much like on an ocean going ship.
    If you are looking to take a river cruise, working with a knowledgeable agent who has taken river cruises is generally a good idea. While the ships look very much the same from the outside, regardless of which line you choose, price and quality can vary considerably. An agent with a working knowledge of this part of the travel industry can help to make sure you are matched with the right line for your tastes,interests, and budget.

    European Christmas Markets - Land based tour or river cruise

    I get inquiries on a regular basis regarding European Christmas Market trips. People love these for the festive atmosphere, availability of some unique gifts, crafts and collectibles, as well as good food and wine. Christmas markets generally run from late November right up thru Christmas. Some cities, such as Vienna, have multiple market locations, whereas most cities and smaller towns have a single, central location for their market.
    If you are considering going to Europe to visit the Christmas markets you have two broad choices, River Cruise or Land Based Tour. Both have pros and cons
    What should you take into account?
    1. River cruises - the positives here are that you pack and unpack once and your hotel moves. There are as well a number of cities with excellent Christmas markets located along the Rhine and Danube, including Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Regensburg on the Danube, or on the Rhine you can visit Nuremberg, Frankfurt, Mainz, Cologne, and Koblenz, among others. Some, but not all river cruises overnight in some of the towns they visit, allowing you to experience an evening at various markets. Most all of your meals will be included on a river cruise of the Christmas markets.
    2. Land based tour - the major negatives here are the strengths of a river cruise, meaning that unlike a river cruise you need to pack / unpack every couple of days as you move from city to city, and except for breakfast daily, most meals aren't included. There are however considerable positives to a land based trip. Many of the cities visited are beautiful spots not easily reached by a river cruise, such as Munich, Salzburg, Strasburg Innsbruck. etc. These towns all have impressive Christmas markets, some with beautiful surroundings. In many cases you spend a couple of nights in the destination, allowing for a more in depth visit to the town and the markets. While many meals will be :on your own" that provides an opportunity to sample local fare, both in the markets and around town.
    3. Regardless of which option most appeals to you, the Christmas markets of Europe are a special experience. Hopefully I can help you to plan out the trip that works best for you.

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