These travel agents go above and beyond the call.
Christopher Elliott, Special for USA TODAYPublished 6:04 p.m. ET June 11, 2017 | Updated 10:32 a.m. ET June 12, 2017
Travel agents should really stop calling themselves travel agents. Travel advisors is a better word. Or perhaps even travel advocates.With the frenetic summer travel season upon us soon, you'll see why.
A survey conducted by the National Association of Career Travel Agents suggests the term "travel agent" is close to obsolete. Roughly half of the respondents want to be called "travel consultant." About a quarter said they liked "travel professional," and only 13% went with "travel agent."
The best travel agents do more than book airline tickets or rental cars. They find lost IDs for their clients, ensure your favorite chair is in your hotel room, and even lobby for laws that benefit you. When was the last time your travel site did that for you?
Consider what Kerry Mooneyham, a travel agent with Midwest Travel Solutions in Parkville, Mo., did when one of her clients left his ID in the back seat of his car at the airport before boarding a flight to New Orleans to take a cruise. Mooneyham, who happened to be booked on the same sailing, jumped into action.
"I met him at the airport in New Orleans and drove to the port to find out what our options were," she recalls. "We arranged for Southwest to fly the documents to New Orleans that day, and I located a service that would courier the documents from the airport to the port."
Wow, talk about above-and-beyond service. "Agent" doesn't begin to describe Mooneyham's job. She's running a taxi company, a passport service and a concierge desk, too. Needless to say, her client made the cruise — and she'd won a customer for life.
Melissa Gutting, who works for a Travel Leaders franchise in River Falls, Wis., recalls a group trip to Azul Fives Hotel in the Riviera Maya that came with a special request. Grandma, the matriarch of the family, had "many apprehensions" about vacationing in Mexico.
"About two weeks prior to departure, Grandma wanted to make sure that she had a chair, like a reclining La-Z-Boy-style chair, in her room, so she could sleep sitting up," she says. "If she couldn't, she was going to cancel."
Gutting worked the phones to find a recliner. Finally, she reached a manager at the resort who wanted to help. She searched the resort for the right chair and made sure that it was brought to the room, saving the entire family's vacation.
Agents do that? Absolutely. Gutting should've been a Hollywood personal assistant.
Other agents are fighting for you even when you're not traveling. Consider the actions of Jay Ellenby, a veteran travel agent from Bel Air, Md., who also is an executive for the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA). He fought a new state hotel tax, which he argued would have hurt not only hotels, but also agents and customers.
"I spent many a day down in Annapolis testifying on three or four different occasions and meeting individually with representatives," he recalls.
That particular tax passed, but other efforts to raise prices for travelers haven't. For example, Ellenby and other agents have fought alongside other advocates to keep an industry effort to make airline tickets look cheaper than they are from gaining traction in Congress.
That is perhaps the biggest sign that agents aren't agents anymore, but advocates. It's no wonder Ellenby's trade group has shifted its focus to the consumer. ASTA has effectively unleashed an army of advocates on state legislatures and Congress — to your benefit.
When you call someone a travel agent, the best ones chuckle, because they are so much more than that. They're part PA, part courier, and all advocate.
"I didn't start a business to be a traditional travel agent," says Brianna Glenn, who prefers the term "personal luxury travel consultant." "It's far more than just booking travel components. It's about listening to someone and understanding what they are after and helping them create that."
If you want the perfect summer vacation, maybe that's a good start.
How to find more than an agent
• Ask for references and contact them. The best agents and advocates will gladly offer a list of references and invite you to contact them. Ask about the advocacy these agents do. You might be surprised by the answers.
• Look for trusted names. The big names in travel, such as American Express, Travel Leaders and Virtuoso, have high standards and enormous clout in the industry. You're likely to find a great agent by going with a trusted name.
• Check out Travelsense.org. ASTA's consumer website lets you search for an agent by specialty.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and editor at large for National Geographic Traveler. Contact him at email@example.com or visit elliott.org.