2008 Comeback Stories: Travel agents provide the human touch

This post is part of our series on people, places and things finding new life in 2008.

Travel agent may seem like an occupation of the past, like elevator operators and milkmen, but they're not only hanging on, some of them are thriving.

In fact, the February/March issue of ShopSmart magazine, published by Consumer Reports, has a story on travel agents, saying that they're often better than online travel services, especially in three areas:

When you can't find exactly what you want. Think about it. Sometimes, you can spend hours clicking on every little link, and whatever you have in mind, just can't be found. Travel agents have more resources than you, the good ones, anyway, and so you can either keep clicking or contact someone who is in the travel trenches every day of the year.

When everything has to be perfect. Whether you work for a company that will be sending its CEO off to Burma, or you're paying for your very particular Aunt Sylvia to fly in, a travel agent can come in handy. Or maybe this is your first honeymoon, and you're planning a very elaborate European cross-country trip. Travel agents don't just book a few flights and rooms -- they can map out an entire itinerary.

When you need flexibility. Traveling, especially air travel, never goes perfectly. If you fear you'll need to change planes or plans at the last minute, a travel agent may be able to talk to an airline directly and keep you away from those headache hassles.

Travel agents are also savvy on the latest travel trends. For instance, medical tourism, where people fly off to a foreign land to have cheaper surgery and see the sights, is a $40 billion industry. Social tourism--where people fly off to a land where they can help an impoverished community and visit the area--is growing as well. And just think -- when space tourism gets bigger, you're going to have a choice between a thinking, caring individual and a capable if unfeeling internet site that doesn't really care if you wind up on Saturn while your luggage bursts into flames on Mercury. Really now, who are you going to trust?

Geoff Williams is a business journalist, primarily for Entrepreneur magazine, and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale, 2007).

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