Travel Agents Make a Return Trip

The traditional brick-and-mortar agencies are back in business with more tech-savvy, niche services

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At their height in the mid-1990s, travel agencies boasted more than 34,000  locations in the U.S. Today, thanks to the economic uncertainty of the past decade and the boom in online travel sites, that number has been sliced in half. But don’t shed a tear for your neighborhood vacation expert just yet: brick-and-mortar agencies are making a comeback, reports the New York Times.

The rebound is thanks to an uptick in corporate and leisure travel, but it’s also due to growing frustration with the sheer amount of travel-related information on the web.  As discount travel portals and free-for-all recommendation sites have multiplied, more and more people are turning to experts to help make sense of it all. “I needed recommendations and someone to steer me in the right direction,” Jessica Griffin, who opted to work with an agent despite making her own reservations for years, told the Times. “I wanted somebody from a reputable agency who could say yes, you’ll enjoy this stay.”

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Griffin is not alone. Studies show it takes the average person more than two hours to search and book travel online, and in one survey by the IBM Institute for Business Value, 20 percent said it took them more than five hours. “It’s come to a point that [people have] too much information to be confident that they have the ability to book the lowest fare,” Steve Peterson, I.B.M.’s  global travel and transportation leader, told the Times. “Consumers are hungry for that one-and-done shopping experience.”

Though industry forecasts remain modest, the combination of economic improvements and Web TMI has led to the second consecutive year of growth for travel agencies. According to travel research firm PhoCusWright, nearly one in three leisure agencies is hiring, and bookings via agencies account for one-third of the nation’s $284-billion travel market.

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The recent success has been fueled by a new breed of travel agent: representatives who are in tune with consumer demands for speedy service, personal attention and custom-tailored itineraries. Today, agents are constantly connected with their clients through e-mail, Twitter and text message, blog their own personal travel anecdotes and post photos online. But at the same time, they offer the human interaction that online review and booking sites can’t, and can help create niche, experiential itineraries and secure deals that travelers would have difficulty putting together independently, such as after-hour tours, flight upgrades or rooms in sold-out hotels.

In many instances the price is right, too, as the New York Time’s Seth Kugel discovered in an experiment earlier this year:

“[Agents won] nearly every time, on both price (the objective part of the test) and service (what you might call the essay question). In other words, the agents suggested alternate routes, gave advice on visas and just generally acted, well, more human than their computer counterparts.”

Though agents can certainly make your life easier, the experts say there are a few things you can do on your own: buying travel insurance, signing up for airline and hotel loyalty programs and planning trips far in advance will save you money and headaches.

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