Confessions of a Former Travel Agent

I started working for a well-known international travel agency in 2003. The reality, I discovered, was very different from the dream. There was a constant stream of people in and out of the small, three-man shop we had. We'd seldom get to eat our lunch before 3pm.

Written by Kerryn du Plessis, a travel writer for HomeAway

From the time I was a little girl, I had great aspirations of working in the travel industry. I used to spend hours studying an atlas, learning everything I could. When I was 12 years old I could tell you the capital city, currency, flag and official language of every country in the world. I dreamed of travelling the globe, exploring new places and learning about other cultures. I couldn't think of anything better than planning a travel itinerary, so it was really no surprise to anybody when I became a travel agent.

I started working for a well-known international travel agency in 2003. The reality, I discovered, was very different from the dream. There was a constant stream of people in and out of the small, three-man shop we had. We'd seldom get to eat our lunch before 3pm. The phones wouldn't stop ringing. When the doors closed at the end of each day, I would sit at my desk and respond to the dozens of people who had left messages. When I went home at night I would end up dreaming about clients not getting their visas on time, or flights being cancelled. My brain just couldn't switch off - I breathed, ate and slept bookings. I was primarily in it for the travel, but I quickly discovered that I'd picked the wrong career. Yes, you do get some discounts, but you'd be far better off by getting a great paying job in another industry and travelling like everybody else. Planning somebody else's travel itinerary is far less exciting than planning your own.

When you're dealing with a travel agent here are some do's and dont's to keep in mind:

A well-connected travel agent can save you money © Shutterstock

Do be clear about your requirements

Travel agents may be talented, but they're not mind-readers. If you want a flight on a Wednesday and a room with a sea view and a Ford Focus car rental, then say so. If you have very specific requirements in mind, it saves a lot of time if you communicate those requirements clearly with your travel agent. When you first sit down with a travel agent tell them what dates you want to travel, where you want to go, how flexible you are, what your budget is, and if you have any special requirements. Travel agents often prefer to be called consultants, because that's exactly what they do, they consult. Their expertise and connections are of great value so don't be afraid to make use of that expertise and you'll find you'll not only save time but also money.

Do make sure you've read the fine print

Every sale a travel agent makes comes with fine print, whether it's an airline ticket or car rental agreement. It's important that you understand exactly what the agreement entails. What most people are unaware of is that while airlines may only have three cabin classes (economy, business and first); they sell different types of tickets within those classes. Each ticket comes with different restrictions. Normally, the cheaper the fare, the more restrictions there are. For example, Y-class tickets are full-fare economy tickets that are refundable and allow date changes; however they are also the most expensive economy fare. N-class fares may be a lot cheaper but they don't allow the free changes or refunds that more expensive fares do. So before you start blaming your travel agent when you can't make a date change or refund your ticket, make sure you've read the fine print.

Do be patient

Finding a good deal can take some time. If you want the best deal on airline tickets you may have to be flexible with your dates. It may take your travel agent some time to search different dates and times for the cheapest fares. If you're lucky your travel agent may even be able to organise some upgrades and VIP treatment for free.

Don't expect the travel agents to know everything

Travel agents deal with thousands of customers throughout the year, so don't get upset when your travel agent doesn't recall your frequent flyer number because you booked a ticket with her a year ago. They're not going to know whether the weather is going to be better in the first week of September or the second week of September, and the chances are they have no idea what the cubic capacity of the luggage area of your car rental is.

Don't blame the travel agent for things beyond their control

It's amazing the things that a travel agent gets blamed for. Unfortunately, your travel agent doesn't choose what food gets served on the plane, or who you'll be seated next to. They can't prevent long delays and they can't help it if the airline loses your luggage. They aren't aware that the stairwell on the third floor of the hotel smells funny, and they have no control over how courteous hotel employees are, so please don't take your frustration out on the travel agent.

When you think of travel agents, if you imagine them getting all kinds of perks and free travel you can think again! As a former travel agent I can tell you it's not nearly as glamorous as you'd think it is. The reality is that travel agents work really hard, for low pay and not very many perks, and as with any service-based industry, you often have to deal with folk who are not so pleasant. So the next time you use a travel agent, please remember to be extra nice.

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