Like buggy drivers and LaserDisc player repairpeople, the travel agent profession sounds like it should be obsolete. After all, Expedia has been around so long it can legally order alcohol. Between Kayak and Google and TripAdvisor, is there still a place for human travel bookers? Absolutely, says Sheri Smith of Seattle's Elizabeth Holmes Travel (no, not that one).
Smith has been at Elizabeth Holmes for almost 20 years, but in the business for more than a decade longer. The key to her success—to any travel agent's success in the age of point-and-click booking engines—is niche knowledge and upgraded services; the longtime Seattle agency specializes in European trips. The key: not picking a hotel or tour guide sight unseen, even in rural Italy or downtown Cairo.
"We've vetted them," she says of the in-country partners she uses. "We know that they're going to be financially sound, we have confidence of them taking care of our clients." But she notes that travel agents offer more than a quality standard in the pandemic age. Smith remembers a client traveling in the Middle East over Christmas 2021; on their final stop in Jordan, one child tested positive for Covid. Independent travelers would have been "put into the government Covid hotel, which is not ideal." Smith helped the local tour operator vouch for the family, allowing them to ride out their quarantine in their four-and-a-half star luxury hotel.
But even though getting Covid abroad remains relatively rare—Smith can think of only two clients from the whole agency who experienced it—the pandemic has wreaked havoc across the industry. Cancellation policies differ by airline, and even flyers on the exact same flight have varying ability to rebook depending on exactly how their ticket was issued. Smith can rattle off which codeshare partner will give the most flexibility in the case of, say, ballooning Covid surges. She even knows which of the two daily flights from Seattle to London is more likely to be cancelled by the airline.
Smith admits that she gets some surprised responses when she shares her profession: "We're here, there's still quite a few of us!" The American Society of Travel Advisors estimates almost 3,000 people in Washington alone work in the field, with agents processing 155 million trips nationwide in 2015. (The organization renamed from their original 1931 moniker, American Steamship and Tourist Agents Association, sometime after steamships ceased to represent the height of luxury.) Today agents are less likely to be paid a commission by an airline; mostly they include a service or planning fee with their work.
Still, the existence of agents doesn't mean that even Smith recommends them for every weekend jaunt. "Anyone can point and click for Vegas," she says. "I would almost always tell you to point and click for Vegas." International travel, she says, still comes with the kind of unknowns that her profession is uniquely positioned to handle. "Anybody can hang a shingle on the internet, and you can give anybody thousands of dollars. Do you know who you're giving it to?"