What I learned from hiring a travel agent

My family at the starting point of our complicated Summer 2019 itinerary, Zurich, Switzerland, which we planned with the help of Tamara McDonald, a travel manager at Vacationkids.com.

My family at the starting point of our complicated Summer 2019 itinerary, Zurich, Switzerland, which we planned with the help of Tamara McDonald, a travel manager at Vacationkids.com.

 
 

As a family-travel writer…

…friends are often asking for advice about where to travel with their kids.

“We want a beach vacation that’s safe and inexpensive. What do you suggest?” they’ll ask. Or, “We have five days in September to go somewhere with our children. Where should we go?”

And my standard answer is often a question: “Have you ever considered consulting a travel agent who specializes in family travel?”

The thing is, though, I’d never used one myself. Like many travelers, my husband and I often take on the tasks ourselves, planning flights and lodging as if there’s some badge of honor we’re earning in toiling away ourselves on organizing a family vacation. Hiring a travel agent simply didn’t make much sense for us. (Editor’s Note: I count safari planners in a separate category from travel agents. So if you’re traveling to Africa, I recommend contacting safari-planning specialist Intrepid Expeditions by Simon Gluckman, who planned our 2004 and 2017 safaris. However, travel agents work with safari planners at no extra cost to clients.)

That is, until we started planning a complicated summer itinerary in Europe that included specific arrival times in numerous cities throughout three countries, Switzerland, France and Italy.

Overwhelmed by the number of puzzle pieces our trip entailed, we consulted Tamara McDonald, travel manager at Vacationkids.com, owned by my friend and fellow Family Travel Association member Sally Black. And I’m so glad I finally took my own advice because after finally hiring one myself, I can now attest that a good certified family-travel agent:

Can save (not cost) you money. I often hear from others, “But why should I pay a travel agent when I can plan myself?” For starters, travel agents earn their living from sales commissions paid by hotels, cruise lines and tour companies. Some do charge a service fee as well, particularly for airlines that don’t pay agent commissions, or on a case-by-case basis for extra-complicated planning. (Be sure to ask an agent upfront about their fee policy.) In the case of Vacationkids.com, however, they only charge a $150 service fee to those who do not book with their agency to recoup time and effort expended.

Keep in mind, too, agents can often help save you money with hotel discounts, cruise perks and flight deals that are not published online. And in our case, Tamara guided us toward the best deal on train tickets, saving us not only tons of money but also time wasted in searching for discounts ourselves.

Can spare marital headaches. I don’t know about you. But my husband poking around on the Internet for several hours to research lodging and activities options, in addition to planning roughly 10 different train routes, makes for a grouchy one. And his stress often becomes mine. So while it took some convincing to pry the reins from his stubborn fingers, he admitted he didn’t miss planning this time around. Indeed, my picky husband even gave Tamara an overall A grade. And I didn’t miss his grousing during the planning stages. Everyone wins.

Learns about clients’ travel style. I’ll admit I was worried to cede control to someone I’ve never met. But I trust Sally and her judgment, and I knew that Tamara and I would work well together if Sally said so. Of course, she was right.

In our phone conversations, I told Tamara we weren’t interested in fancy hotels, but comfort was important. Even more critical? Access to activities and sightseeing. And in every case, she chose moderate but nice hotels that accommodated families—if the rooms didn’t connect, there were rollaway or foldaway beds awaiting each arrival—that were centrally located and/or near train stations. Aside from the one hotel in Paris that seemed lukewarm on the idea of fixing our A/C or providing us with a merciful fan during one of the most intense heat waves in Europe’s recent history (not Tamara’s fault), she couldn’t have selected better hotels for our family.

Knows what you don’t. Think about it: Agents are booking lodging, tours and transportations in cities throughout the world much faster than you can travel to them yourself (and have likely traveled to many places themselves). So they know which tours in certain cities are ideal for kids, which hotel chains offer family-friendly room layouts and what activities will suit your kids’ needs. And for clients traveling abroad, an agent can help navigate often-complicated immigration rules, passport and visa requirements for a certain country, and more. Since agents also have a network of contacts worldwide, if they can’t give you the answer, they know someone who can.

Takes feedback. After we returned, Tamara went out of her way to hear my feedback, both bad (the Paris hotel and a confusing, rushed tour in Geneva) and good (everything else). I still marvel at how well she delivered on types of hotels and tours. And I was even able to offer some additional tours she can recommend to clients in the future. In short, I don’t know why I didn’t take my own advice sooner. Next time, complicated or not, I won’t think twice about calling her to help plan our next family vacation.

If you’re interested in hiring a family-travel agent, check out Vacationkids.com.*

*I will receive a partial commission for any travel services booked through this link. However, I am committed to recommending only vetted services I have used firsthand.