How to find your special outside-the-box travel agent

Two decorative long-tail fishing boats float in the water in Phang Nga Bay, Thailand.

The role of a travel agent has changed in recent years. Here’s what to know — and how to find one who matches your needs.

If you’re planning for an upcoming vacation, you could be looking for something outside the box. Of course, planning a vacation like this can be challenging — and it leaves many would-be travelers looking for someone who can help them find just the right experience. This is where an outside-the-box travel agent can help.

The good news? That’s how most travel agents work today. Now that it’s easier than ever for anyone to book flights and hotels, travel agents and travel advisors have become more focused on creating unique experiences that align exactly to a client’s needs and interests.

“We have evolved into a more holistic travel advisor, really looking at the full person and the purpose of the trip more than just the logistics,” says Erika Richter, vice president of communications for the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA). “We want to help individuals achieve those travel goals.”

Read on to learn how to find the right travel advisor for you — with tips and insight from Richter.

If you have a destination in mind

Many travel agents and travel advisors have become specialists in certain kinds of vacations or destinations. So if you have a particular vacation experience in mind — you want to, say, cross the Northwest Passage or experience an African safari — there is likely a travel advisor who has the knowledge you need and a network of relationships in the region you want to visit.

The good news is that it’s possible to research these specialists online. The bad news is that it can be tough to know where to start, or how to know if you’ve found a good fit. Here are three recommendations from Richter:

  1. Consider a luxury travel advisor. Sites like Virtuoso and Signature Travel Network can help direct you to travel advisors who specialize in specific destinations. They likely know whom to talk to and can make planning your dream trip easy.
  2. Consider ASTA’s trip quote tool. The tool is based on an online form that you fill out with your wishes for your trip. You’ll then be contacted by ASTA-affiliated advisors who have experience with your particular type of trip. A benefit of this approach, according to Richter: “If anything were to go wrong, if the travel advisor is a part of our association, we can step in on the customer’s behalf and facilitate positive resolutions.”
  3. Interview your potential travel advisor. Some questions to ask:
    • How often do they plan trips to this destination?
    • Do they have examples of unusual trips they’ve planned?
    • What kinds of contacts do they have there?
    • What off-the-beaten path experiences could they arrange for you?

If you just want to go … somewhere

If you don’t have a particular destination in mind, Richter recommends meeting a travel agent face-to-face. “Sometimes it’s helpful to go into a retail travel agency,” she says, so you can discuss options in real time. This also gives your would-be travel advisors the chance to ask questions that can help them make recommendations. (Two of Richter’s favorite retail travel locations: Departure Lounge in Austin, Texas, and Tafari in New York City and Denver.)

If you don’t know where you want to go, but you know that your window for a vacation is in June and July and you have a rough idea of the experience you’d like to have, a travel agent can start making recommendations to help you find the right destination or activity.

The travel advisor advantage: Relationships

The benefits of working with travel advisors go beyond their ability to create exclusive experiences for clients. They have relationships that can help make your travel dreams a reality, thanks to their networks of people and suppliers like hotels, restaurants, and management companies.

“They can give you one thing that you can’t get on your own, and that’s access,” Richter says. “When you’ve got a personal relationship with somebody who can give you a private tour of the Vatican, for example — that’s the benefit a travel advisor can bring. And those relationships mean they can make things happen for their clients.”