Should I Book Direct or with an Advisor?

(Excerpt from Michael Graham’s book, the River Cruise Bible, May 2021)

The answer is as obvious to someone who has experienced a good travel agent as someone who has not.   Many people love the planning aspect of travel, and of course the Anticipatory Happiness while waiting for that travel event to occur.  A good travel advisor loves working with someone that has a very good idea of what they would like to do.  And even if you have been on 10 river cruises that you booked yourself, you should still consider connecting with a good travel advisor.

To be sure, dear reader, as a travel investment advisor myself, I am certainly biased!  Yet it is from a good place and I hope to provide the following for every client accepted:  to be there for them, to give good advice, to provide added value, to provide professional planning, and to advocate and care about their experience.  

My agency focuses on two things: groups and high end travel.  High end travel, or luxury, is a way of saying that someone prioritizes an experience over simply price alone.  Group travel offers security, opportunities to make new friends, shared experiences, and is more fun!  

While we don’t focus on price, we do want to maintain a lifetime relationship with our clients.  So we try to have the best price possible, and more importantly, the best value for the desired experience.   We never give a price quote; we include the price as part of a consultation process    And not only at time of making the booking but AFTER the booking as well – we are constantly seeing if we can improve price, value, or experience.  And, if after your initial reservation, we discover that a new promotion or prices may be applicable, we make sure that happens.  We don’t ask if you want the savings, we just inform you that additional savings has been added to your reservation.   This is something any great travel agency will be doing for their clients.

Booking direct is really fine if you need domestic flights to Las Vegas, a hotel on the strip and you’ll use Uber for your ride to and from the airport.  A road trip around Arizona?  We can help with that, but really you can do it yourself with Google.  The lower the dollar investment in a trip the less benefit you will realize from an advisor, and the safer you are to DIY. 

That being said, you have to be careful about going down the rabbit hole, as those OTA’s (online travel agencies) are not always what they seem.  We call this cautionary tale the story of Orbot!  

However, the other side of the coin is just as  true – the higher the investment in the trip the more benefit you will realize from using an advisor.

Photo by Alice Childress, the author’s grandmother, used with permission: after WWII, the author’s grandfather came back to visit Europe several times as a civilian.  He wanted to do it all on his own – and on the cheap.  That’s okay – he went – which is important! 
Still…I can’t tell you how happy it made my grandmother to take this picture.

This photo illustrates two points:

  1. Travel is no different than anything else:  you get what you pay for.
  2. Just because you can do-it-yourself, that doesn’t mean you should. 

 I will give you some personal examples with regard to the internet:

  • I have a small Robinhood online trading account so I can “gamble” on the stock market – but my professional advisor Darryl at Raymond James is looking out for our nest egg
  • For help with our website Terms & Conditions I use Legalzoom.com, but when I need actual representation, I reach out to an expert attorney, Bill at Hopkins Law Firm
  • If I find a rash on my foot I will look it up on WebMD to see what it could be, but if it starts to spread, you better believe I am going to go see Dr. Ivo, my trained medical physician.
  • Checking out what’s available on Zillow is a great start to look for a house, but I will be calling veteran realtor Kelly Graham to make sure I have a professional handling such a large investment.

The internet is great for finding information!  But sometimes it can be information overload or even mis-information. So, the same holds true of travel – if you have a simple hotel & car booking then book it yourself online (but I recommend you avoid OTA’s and go straight to the hotel or car website).  Authentic experiences do not need to be expensive to be immersive.  But for your $10,000 (and up) river cruise, consider it an investment and consult a professional!

The main point here is that higher end travel is not a commodity.  It is an investment.  So when does travel become an investment?  When the proposed travel has any of the following:

  • High cost
  • Group Travel
  • Complex itinerary
  • Experiential & Authentic
  • One of a kind – you cannot redo this one
  • Fulfillment of an important goal
  • Trip of a lifetime
  • Value is more important to you than price alone

Investment in travel is an investment in yourself.  Creating memories and having shared experiences you will remember for a lifetime are absolutely priceless. So start looking for a travel investment advisor.  They don’t sell a product, they are the product.  They want you to understand that they truly have your best interest at heart, and they want you to come back to them trip after trip!

A travel investment advisor is not transactional; every trip they consult with you on is a feedback loop that creates a better understanding of your travel needs, more opportunities for them to advocate for you, and deliver more value.  A great travel agency will invest in long term relationships.  They are hired on the strength of those relationships, referrals, and reputation. 

And you should start with the internet for research, because your advisor will want to know what you have investigated and what your research reveals.   And he or she needs to learn about your travel preferences, goals, and history that only you can bring to the table.

Cocktail Hour Trivia:  One of our favorite sayings is “the internet is for looking and your TA is for booking!”

Our agency charges a professional fee, which could be a consideration for you as you decide to book yourself or which travel agency to work with.  There are travel agents that work for commission only, and we have a few recommendations if that is the route you want to go.  

Consider the fact that some lawyers are $150 per hour and others are $850 per hour.  When everything is on the line, do you really want the cheapest lawyer?  Do you really want the cheapest thoracic surgeon?  Do you want the cheapest vacation?  Are you going to DIY on a $50,000 safari for your family?

A good travel agency looks for value personalized to a particular client.  They look for value, the right fit, and the best experience for each individual client.  Notice that I did not say the least expensive.

This simple concept of the right fit or proper match is the key to what an advisor delivers to you.  The first thing to look for is experience, in this case on the rivers.  Take myself for example: I have visited 74 countries, all 7 continents, and hundreds of cities.  In addition to many other methods of travel, I have sailed on over 30 cruises, and on virtually every brand.  If you add in the experience of the 6 other advisors in my office, the breadth of knowledge is wide and deep.

Any experienced advisor with knowledge of  these  destinations and brands has distilled the differences and nuances between them, and after getting to know you, can help you make a carefully considered match.  

Compare that to booking directly with a river cruise company.  The reservation agent on the other end of that call is a salesperson (of course) representing and working for that line.  They want you to go on that brand and will not stray from that course.  That is how they get paid – they get the commission instead of  the travel advisor.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some great reservation agents that are very knowledgeable and helpful!  Travel advisors deal with them every single day.  

However it is you that ultimately pays the commission, so would you rather it be to someone selling you a particular brand or someone that will find the best brand that is the right fit for you?

And booking online with the river cruise company, if even possible, is never a good idea because you don’t have any guidance at all.  The cruise line pockets the commission though, so they really like it!   Here are few additional benefits:

  • Guidance with shore excursions & tours
  • Special offers only available to consortia, host, or agencies
  • Group space only available to the same
  • May have special amenities such as a free pre or post night, or ship board credit

Here are two final reasons to use an agency, The Story of Orbot and The Way We Work.  While I am using our agency as an example, we want you to find your own local agency.  We hope that these examples give you an idea of what to look for.

The Way We Work

At my travel agency MGA Travel, we are Travel Investment Advisors, not traditional travel agents.  A big difference is that we advocate and work for our clients, with the goal of making you a travel hero. We are committed to providing our clients with expert advice, added value, professional planning, caring, and advocacy.

The first step is to set an appointment for either an in person or by phone travel consultation for you and/or your group. The purpose of this travel consultation is to get to know you and your travel style. We ask questions and review our planning process with you, and make sure we understand your travel dreams. 

During this initial consultation, we will clearly outline the professional fees that apply to building your amazing vacation.  Do you value our expertise and believe that we can help you? Our clients value the investment of travel and often share how we have helped them.

Your advisor will answer any questions that you may have and make sure you are confident to move forward.  Ready for the vacation you’ve been dreaming about?  Great!  Your advisor will collect the stated professional fees and ask you to sign our service agreement .   What benefits are you already thinking of that we can do for you?

After some research, we will present your custom itinerary for you to review! We will revise as needed (up to 5 amendments) until we achieve the trip you have been hoping for!   With your agreement, we will secure your travel arrangements by placing supplier deposit(s) as needed with your payment authorization.

The next step in the process is when we begin making reservations and recommendations specific to your trip. Simply let us know if we can take care of any details such as a restaurant recommendation, reservation, spa appointment, or another special celebration. All you need to do is pack your bags! 

Final payment is usually due anywhere from 6 months to 75 days prior to your departure date, depending upon supplier(s). We will notify you in advance of the date and make those payments with your authorization at that time.  Closer to departure we will present you with all of your final documents, including any special reservations and/or arrangements that have been made on your behalf. 

Upon your return we will follow up with you to get your feedback and see how we can improve for any future travel needs you may have, including supplier selection. This feedback allows us to provide you with finely tuned recommendations and personalized advice.   How does that sound to you?

Alternatively, we have a retainer program for frequent travelers.  Also, please note that for new bookings into one of our pre-planned Bon Voyage Catalog  trips, professional fees have already been included in the pricing, so no additional fees required.

The Story of Orbot

Have you met Orbot?  He is the robot that wants to sell you a river cruise and then move to the next sale. Orbot has crunched travel down to a commodity, but he doesn’t know a good river cruise from a bad river cruise.

Orbot © 2021 by Michael Graham (author) and MGA Travel

Whether Orbot lurks online or punches the clock in a call center, there is no interest in you personally.  He doesn’t know what you value or what kind of travel experience you desire.  Orbot doesn’t really care about a river cruise vacation gone wrong, because to him you are just another number, just another travel sale to be captured.   

The MGA Travel Team

MGA Travel is a team of actual humans that care about you and your travel experience.  Once we get to know you, we are able to make recommendations and evaluations based on understanding what travel means to you personally. 

We are here to make sure you have a memorable vacation – memorable for the right reasons!  We want to develop a lifelong relationship with you and maximize the value and enjoyment of each of your travel experiences. 

Unlike Orbot, who lures you in with seemingly good offers and relies on razor thin margins from supplier commissions, our fee based structure reassures clients that we represent them before, during, and after travel.

At MGA Travel we believe that travel is an investment and we help you invest wisely.  Our Travel Investment Advisors care about you and we want to help you become a travel hero.   It’s easy to be a Travel Hero:

  1. Set an appointment to share your travel dreams with one of our professional advisors. During this initial consultation, we will clearly outline which professional fees will apply before moving to the next step.
  2. Together we transform your ideas into a cherished journey designed for you by investing in trusted travel partners perfectly matched with your priorities.
  3. Relax and start looking forward to collecting memories on a no-regrets vacation filled with authentic experiences.  How does that sound to you?

Bon Voyage, Travel Hero!

After your return, your friends will love hearing stories of the life changing moments you encountered.  Smile as you realize that your amazing adventure was worth every single penny, and that you have spent your time wisely as well.  Back home, bonds created during your shared experience have made life better than ever.

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