Chaos-weary travellers are looking to an old friend for help: the travel agent

Agents offer not just expertise in navigating lingering restrictions, but also have access to the inventory of multiple airlines and hotels – handy when a trip is disrupted.LM Otero/The Associated Press

Barry Pilbeam had never used a travel agent before. But he decided to turn to one for a trip from Calgary to southeast Asia with his wife to make sure he was prepared for any restrictions and tricky visa situations.

Their first big trip in years, they didn’t want a repeat of the last time they booked a hotel in Amsterdam that turned out to be awful.

“I figured I’m not going to do that ever again and I’m going to deal with a professional and know that I’ll get what I’m looking for,” said Mr. Pilbeam, 64.

“I got to use their expertise in what to do and where to go.”

Now he plans to always use an agent, unless he’s familiar with the location or has friends who live at his destination.

Travel agents are hearing from new customers looking for a sense of security after COVID-19 created an unstable vacation industry. Agents offer not just expertise in navigating lingering restrictions, but also have access to the inventory of multiple airlines and hotels – handy when a trip is disrupted by a major storm such as the travel chaos at Vancouver International Airport, where a snowstorm has led to mass cancellations.

“People who previously didn’t book with a travel agent are feeling that it gives them a bit more comfort that they have someone to rely on,” said Lesley Keyter, founder and chief executive of Calgary-based agency The Travel Lady.

“A lot of people have lost faith in the airlines helping them out.”

As hotels and airlines struggle to reach prepandemic levels of business, Ms. Keyter said her own agency’s sales are up 28 per cent from 2019. The clients she deals with are starting to trend younger, too, with more people under 50 looking to use her services. That sentiment was echoed by Virtuoso, a global travel agency network that reported a 50-per-cent increase in demand in the past year, with millennials and Gen Xers leading the charge.

Ms. Keyter said travellers don’t want to worry about restrictions and are turning to agents for peace of mind.

“COVID definitely sparked the rejuvenation of travel agents,” Ms. Keyter said. “Millennials don’t have the time to plan but they want to travel, so they want to trust someone to do it for them and make a transformative and unique itinerary for them.”

Travel agencies say consumers generally have nothing to lose in terms of how much they pay for flights and travel packages, since many agents work on commission from the companies they book with. There are some agencies that charge a fee for their services.

When something goes wrong, agents have access to back-end networks that allow them to instantly rebook your flight with alternative airlines or find vacant hotel rooms.

“A travel agent has access to live inventory, and you may not be able to see all the other options out there,” said Marc Casto, president of the Leisure Americas section of Flight Centre. He added that agents can work with you to exchange tickets around different airlines, whereas if you booked directly with an airline you might only be able to work with that specific company.

That ability to view live inventory also works with hotel rooms, which can help in scenarios where you get stranded while on vacation.

Mr. Casto pointed to major delays and cancellations that airlines and airports faced as they tried to ramp up their operations after slashing work forces during the pandemic. “There’s a higher likelihood for chaos to occur that can be difficult to manage, and we expect that to be the case for many years,” he said.

The Canadian government reported that one in 20 flights were cancelled in July, and those cancellations resulted in hordes of people racing to rebook. Mr. Casto said agencies like his own can give people an edge in that fight.

Ms. Keyter said she’s noticing that people’s travel habits are changing, too. After years of being cooped up, her clients are opting for longer and more expensive trips to try and make up for the time they lost.

With such a large expense, Ms. Keyter said using a travel agent to help choose the right vacation is akin to using a financial adviser to guide in how to allocate money.

“It’s very much like, are you going to sit down at your computer and play with stock markets, or are you going to an adviser?” Ms. Keyter said.

There are some cases where independent travellers are safe to forgo agents, Ms. Keyter said, such as for destinations that have stable, robust tourism infrastructures and where you can speak the language to get yourself out of tricky situations. She also said that agents don’t deal with short-term rentals such as Airbnb, so you’re on your own if that’s what you want.

However, even independent travellers are coming to her for advice these days. Recently, one couple asked for help planning a road trip through Ireland because they didn’t have the time or desire to research it themselves.

“It all depends on your comfort level, how experienced you are as a traveller, and how much work you want to do,” said Ms. Keyter.

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