Why I STILL use a travel agent


by John Backus
New Atlantic Ventures Blog

Call me a dinousaur. I use a travel agent to book all of my flights, my hotels, and my car rentals. Not a travel agency. A real person. I have her email, her mobile number, and her work number. And she takes her job seriously. Let’s just call her Janice for now.

As I write this I am flying back from Phoenix to Washington Dulles airport via Seattle. Why, you might ask?

Well, my United flight encountered what we frequent flyers call a “creeping delay.” 15 minutes after scheduled departure time, the gate agent announced to a full flight, “We have a small maintenance issue and will update you in 15 minutes.”

Instantly I emailed my travel agent and asked her to back me up on my connection out of Chicago. “Can’t do it,” she said. “That is the last flight out. But I can book you on the 6 a.m. or 8:41 a.m. and get you a hotel. Which would you prefer?”

“The 8:41 a.m.,” I answered, knowing I was well ahead of my fellow, mostly oblivious passengers.

I knew it was going to be real bad, though, when the pilot announced, 15 minutes after our scheduled departure time, “The engine is missing a 1-foot piece of fire seal. We are on the phone with maintenance in San Francisco, which is talking to the manufacturer in Europe about a possible fix. We will have an update in another 15 minutes.”

Now, I know enough about airplanes to know that this is not good. At all.

I emailed my travel agent again. “This plane isn’t leaving Phoenix. What are my options?”

In under a minute I was backed up on a 6 a.m. flight the next day back to Dulles via Denver. I also had a connection PHX-SEA-IAD, leaving in an hour, on both USAir and United. I had options. I wasn’t going to be left at the mercy of the airline. It was only Spring Break six weeks ago when a snowstorm in Denver resulted in me and my family of five missing our connection. United graciously and automatically rebooked us — on a flight 30 hours later. My travel agent got us on a flight two hours later. Technology failed. People ruled.

Fifteen minutes later the gate agent returned, and told us to ‘de-plane’ (I love that word) and said they were hoping to have a spare aircraft to fly to Chicago in 4 hours. If it all worked out it would arrive in Chicago around 1 a.m.

I tell all of my portfolio company CEOs that ‘Hope is not a Strategy,’ so I sure wasn’t going to wait around. I was the third person off the plane, lined up at the desk for the gate agent, and told him, “I have a few backups in my reservation record. Please book me on the PHX-SEA-IAD backup.”

He looked over my record, puzzled, smiled and said, “Who did this?”

“My travel agent,” I replied.

“Wow. She is good,” he continued.

I had to board a bus to change terminals, have my ticket issued at the USAir ticket counter, and clear security, again. I made the flight with 15 minutes to spare.

As I left the gate, there was a line of 100-plus people waiting to be taken care of by 3 gate agents. I figure it was going to be 2 hours for the last person in line to be accommodated. Most were on the phone and none were happy. They were going to be spending the night in Phoenix, or MAYBE arriving in Chicago sometime in the wee hours of the morning.

Airline delays happen. And when they do, technology won’t solve your problem. But, a human being can.

I happily pay a small booking fee to my agent for each flight she books. I call it peace-of-mind insurance.

Having a travel agent when things go wrong? Priceless!

  • Chasmosaur

    I don’t discount the value of a good travel agent. I had a great one when I still lived in the DC area.

    When I moved to a smaller town in the Upper Midwest, though, it coincided with her retirement. So I looked at local travel agents and they have not been the same. Mostly, they are too busy trying to sell me on cruises or beach vacations than listen to my more pedestrian travel needs.

    I consider it short-sighted. Sure, I’m not buying their “big ticket” items – in which I have not expressed interested because they are not something I’m interested in – but a steady diet of regular travel would probably have brought them in steady business over the past decade I lived here.

    It’s starting to look as if we’ll move to a big city again soon. And I will probably look for a good travel agent – hopefully I can find one.

  • janice

    Try your DC agent again most of us can work with clients who aren’t in our area. (I’m the agent John is talking about. and I work in California, he’s in DC. ) There are good, and alas, lousy agents everywhere.

  • Chasmosaur

    Note – I moved and it coincided with her retirement. Otherwise, I totally would.

  • TravelGirl22

    Ask your old agent for a referral. Your old one may know another agent that she trusts to take care of you as good as she did.

  • bodega3

    Sadly, many agents are specializing, not learning the GDS, so if they didn’t want to deal with you, you really don’t want to work with them anyway! IMHO, if you work with a full service agent, which I hope you can find, you will be well cared for!

  • reasonedthought

    There is no reason that you have to be in the same city as your travel agent, not in this day and age of electronic tickets and emails.

    It sounds to me like the agents you’ve been talking to are agents who specialize in leisure travel and not corporate travel. It makes a big difference as to what their focus is and how they approach things. I would suggest looking for small to medium sized agencies that special is corporate travel and then find an agent or two that you like to work with. I’m sure that the community here can recommend a number of great agents.

  • Jared Buker

    I am an old-fashioned travel agent (although I’m only 38). I give all of my clients the best service I can, whether it’s booking a room at a Super 8 Motel, booking a flight to Albuquerque, or booking a round-the-world cruise.

  • pjramsay

    With 300,000 miles per year traveled, a good travel agent isn’t enough – they have to be great. Luckily, I have found more great agents than bad.

  • DCTA

    Mr. Backus, as a Travel Agent, I thank you for your post!

  • TonyA_says

    Sorry folks but I just read this great post.
    I have to disagree. Janice is not just a travel agent.
    She is a guardian angel.
    I am not sure what the meaning of a ‘travel agent’ is today.
    If you call Expedia and get a live person – are you talking to a travel agent? You think even if you pay them the $25 fee they will do what Janice does? I don’t think so.
    What is missing nowadays are the Janice’s of the industry.
    It is not just money. It is devotion.
    Congrats Janice. You have my vote for the best travel agent I have ever heard of. Tony.

  • Chris James Mark

    Great post and great to see. With so much automation in today’s world — we’re starting to understand and appreciate what TRUE customer service is. It is someone that understands YOUR needs, YOUR wants and YOUR issues. Someone that is accountable for the business they provide!

  • Darlene Figueroa

    John, great article – glad the particular trip you wrote about panned out. Travel agents, of which I’m one, do the best we can for our clients. Most clients appreciate the work, skills and long hours! Love my *chosen* profession!