First, a disclosure: the only time I ever planned a trip through a tour operator was because I was forced to. We were off to Bhutan, which requires foreigners to go through a travel agent to obtain a visa. In order to qualify for a visa, you must have a pre-paid booking for a tour. Basically, there’s no getting around a travel professional.
It was a mixed experience. The owner of the tour company patiently answered questions from my husband and me, and provided sound advice. Once there, the driver expertly negotiated the winding mountain roads. Our youthful guide, however, became mildly alarmed whenever we deviated from our “program,” and shadowed us everywhere. “We’d like to have a romantic dinner,” my husband once said as a subtle hint. “What time would you like me to join you?” our guide replied.
Clumsily intrusive guides aside, I came away from that holiday convinced that you can plan almost any trip yourself, especially with all the travel resources now found online. There are, of course, caveats: you need time, patience and computer savviness. Being able to distinguish fake reviews, websites that promise too much and deals that sound too good is also useful—as is being generally well traveled. And when things don’t go according to plan, an ability to improvise or just cope is essential.
There have been occasions, however, when I did wish a travel professional was on hand. Like the time I came down with epic food poisoning at a remote lodge in Madagascar with no ready access to a doctor, a pharmacy or even transportation. Or the time the booking agent at Orbitz told me that I would be charged an extra US$422 for changing a flight that originally cost US$354. Or all those times when that hotel room that looked so lovely on the website turned out to be smaller and dingier than it had appeared online.
In other words, travel agents and tour operators still have their uses. For starters, there’s the matter of convenience. Internet research is a slog, with plenty of dead-ends. “Taking wrong turns is fine and fun for backpackers or travelers with time on their hands,” argues Hamish Keith, the chief operating officer for the Exotissimo Travel Group, a well-established tour operator in Southeast Asia. “But for busy professionals or families travel time is far to important to risk experimenting with or getting wrong.”
Going against conventional wisdom, travel agents often turn up better airfare deals than booking websites. A good travel agent can help you navigate the fine print—increasingly important as airlines introduce more fare restrictions—and readily tell you which airline has the cheapest ticket. Travel agents are also plugged into fare changes and any specials an airline might be offering, and they can snag discounts on hotels and tours for large groups.
Tour operators also possess firsthand knowledge about a destination. A reliable tour operator will have people on the ground, as well as staff who travel regularly to the destinations they tout. Ultimately, it’s their job to protect you from the hazards of deceptively good-looking websites. “What is portrayed in websites is not always the reality, so by speaking first hand about destinations we can offer our clients peace of mind,” Keith notes.
Reliable tour operators can also step in when sticky situations arise. Simon Cameron, the managing director of Singapore-based Lightfoot Travel, recalls clients who were set to go to a skiing holiday to Niseko when the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan last March. “Understandably, they were unwilling to travel to Japan,” he says. With just 24 hours notice, Lightfoot secured a refund and booked them on a flight to Switzerland, where a chalet was waiting. “So they could leave on their skiing holiday right on schedule,” Cameron says. Salvaging a holiday? That’s worth having a middleman.