1. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Before searching for an agent, decide what type of trip you're interested in and approximately what you want to spend. The more specific your destination and activity wish list, the less time you'll waste on pipe dreams that are beyond your budget.
2. SEEK YOUR SOULMATE AGENT
Good agents are patient, ask lots of questions, maintain rigorous quality standards, are forthright about a destination's drawbacks, and have a genuine interest in clients' feedback. (It's a good sign if an agent posts pictures from clients' trips on the bulletin board; it's a bad sign if all the pictures were taken at the same resort.) Good agents will entertain your dreams with an open mind and present a range of options. Seek out someone who feels like a kindred spirit; their opinion will jive most closely with your likes and dislikes.
3. SHOP AROUND FOR SERVICE NOT PRICE
Don't know where to start? Look for an agency that is a member in good standing with Cruise Line International Association (CLIA), and more. Although agencies (more than 25,000 in the U.S., 26,000 worldwide) pay a membership fees and its members per se, complaints are investigated and memberships revoked when warranted. Visit the CLIA websites.
4. DON'T FREAK OUT ABOUT CONSULTATION FEES
Some travel agencies, stung by potential clients who "window shop" for agents and itineraries then book the tickets themselves, have started charging a fee for their services and expertise. This fee varies according to the intricacies of the trip and may be waived when the trip is booked or included in the final quote. If you trust and like the agent, consider it a small price to pay for a perfectly planned trip.
5. EXPECT EXPERIENCE
What's one of the most important agent credentials? First-hand experience with a property. An agent who has visited a specific hotel knows which room has the best view and can recommend what to order for dessert at the restaurant. Best of all, he/she may have an inside line and be able to make special
requests on your behalf.
On a more formal note, agents who have CTC (Certified Travel Counselor) or ACC (Accredited Cruise Consultant) as part of their title have completed an 18-month course and have been in business for at least five years. Agents can also earn DS (Destination Specialist) credentials for Africa, the Caribbean, China, Hawaii, Latin America, North America, the Pacific Rim, Western Europe, and special interest travel.
6. KNOW YOUR BUDGET
Be up front and honest about your air/hotel budget and stick to it. Don't crack if the agent tries to steer you toward a more expensive trip or bigger resort (sometimes suggested because it's easier to book, plus you get what you pay for). Know thyself: What are your priorities? For example, if being in the center of a city's action is more important to you than a super luxe room, tell the agent. Knowing what you can and can't live without will help them build a custom-fit itinerary within your budget.
7. STAY LOOSE
You'll have greater access to discount fares and other promotions if your time frame is flexible, even by just a few days on either end. Travel agents can compare deals from all airlines and car rental companies to find the lowest prices available.
8. BRING AMMUNITION
Tell your agent about all airline, hotel, car rental, travel award, and travel club programs you participate in. Many travel companies have formed synergistic alliances and share points -- frequent flyer points can be redeemed for hotel nights or rental cars, for example.
9. BE UP FRONT
Any medical, diet (diabetes), or exercise needs? Tell your agent. Are you a same-sex couple? An agent needs to know this to avoid booking a hotel that doesn't accept homosexual couples (yes, couples have actually been turned away on arrival). Also mention whether you prefer nonsmoking or smoking accommodations.
10. ASK LOTS OF QUESTIONS
No question is stupid, so don't be shy! Ask your agent about the nitty-gritty details of your trip, including airport connections, bus and taxi services, tipping, foreign currency conversion, and safety concerns such as government-issued travel advisories and warnings. Most important, get a phone number that you can use for after-hours emergencies (at the airport early Sunday morning after your wedding, for instance) and on your trip (preferably toll-free or collect if calling from outside the country)