Updated December 4, 2023
You're in the middle of planning an amazing vacation when you realize...
I might need some help with this.
Between flights, hotels, activities, and trying to figure out where to go and when with such high demand these days, it's easy to get overwhelmed. So you do a quick Google search to start looking for some help, and now you're more confused than ever!
Clearly there are people out there who can help with this, but who am I looking for? This one calls himself a travel agent. That one says she's a travel consultant. This one is a travel advisor, and that one is a travel designer.
This one advertises lots of low prices and doesn't charge me anything to plan my trip. That one has a beautiful website, no mention of "travel deals" and charges substantial fees. And this one specializes in Disney, which isn't at all what I'm looking for.
Do you feel a bit like Goldilocks, just trying to find the right fit?
Don't fear, here's how to decode all that lingo to find the right person.
What is a travel agent?
Traditionally travel agents have been simply that. They're a selling agent for a specific type of travel or a specific travel company (or companies).
Think of it as being similar to an insurance agent. An insurance agent sells lots of different policies, but only those provided by one overall insurance company. You wouldn't buy a State Farm policy from a Nationwide agent.
Traditional travel agents work the same way. They sell lots of types of vacations, but only those provided by certain suppliers (the industry word for anyone actually providing the final product to you, like an airline, cruise line, or resort).
So if you're looking for a family cruise and their preferred supplier is Carnival, you'll end up on a Carnival cruise.
Ultimately they're the sales representative of the supplier. They match you with what they think is the best option for you out of what their suppliers offer.
Think of them as an order taker who finds the closest thing to what you've requested and sells it to you.
They make their money from commissions, paid to them by the hotels, cruise lines and airlines they sell. The more they sell, the higher their commission percentage can go.
What is a travel advisor?
These days you don't need an order taker. You can go online, find a good deal, and book a flight, hotel, tour, or cruise yourself.
That's why ASTA, the American Society of Travel Advisors, changed their name from Agents to Advisors in 2018. They understood that the nature of the travel agent job has changed.
You aren't looking for someone to sell you something. If that's all you need, you can go online and book something yourself.
Just because you're able to book a trip yourself, you may find that you don't want to do it on your own. There are so many options out there, and you probably don't understand the differences between all the resort brands, cruise lines, and hotels available.
That's where a travel advisor comes in. A good advisor has a deep understanding of specific destinations like Europe or Mexico, or of specific types of travel such as cruises or family travel.
They get to know you, what you like, what you don't like (which sometimes is more important than what you do like!), where you've traveled and want to travel in the future, and then design a vacation from start to finish.
A good travel advisor also understands the differences between suppliers, and what types of clients tend to prefer different suppliers.
Say you're wanting to take a trip to London. You can go online and book flights, a hotel and a few tours and have a fine time.
But what if something on your bucket list is seeing the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace? You do some research, find the time you should be there, and join the massive crowd of people. It's fun, but maybe not as amazing as you thought it would be.
If you work with a well connected luxury travel advisor you could have a very different experience. What if, instead of joining the crowd of people at the fences, you get to go behind the scenes to meet the Queen's guard as they prepare for inspection?
Then, instead of lining up with the tourists at the gate, you view the ceremony from inside the parade grounds followed by a private tour of The Guards Museum with one of their curators.
The day is everything you ever dreamed it would be and more.
That's the value of a travel advisor. They can help you access things you never knew were possible and make travel as easy and enjoyable as it really should be.
What is a travel consultant?
To be honest, a travel advisor and travel consultant are really the same thing. Same with a Vacation Specialist, Dream Maker, Trip Genie, and any other creative title a travel agent or travel advisor may come up with.
In reality, it doesn't matter what a travel professional calls themselves.
What matters is the service they provide.
There are people who call themselves Travel Agents who do everything you'd expect the best Advisor to do. Then there are people who call themselves Advisors or Consultants who are really just selling you a product.
How do I find a luxury travel agent?
It comes down to service.
If you're looking for a travel advisor or travel agent, the first thing you'll probably do is look online. A travel agency website can tell you a lot about what to expect.
Is their site full of travel deals and advertisements? If all you're looking for is a traditional agent to sell you a vacation, that's fine.
But if you're looking for someone to truly advise you and add the "wow" factor to your trip, you'll want to keep looking.
If you're looking for a luxury travel advisor, their website should be luxury. No ads, no "lowest price" claims. You can also look at the travel agency listings for a luxury consortia like Virtuoso, who only work with specially selected luxury travel agents.
They also most likely will charge a fee for their services. A true luxury travel agent or advisor should charge a substantial fee. That allows them to guide you to any hotel, flight, or experience that they think will best suit you, regardless of commission potential.
For example, my fees start at $750. To some people that seems like a lot. If the entire budget for a trip for two people is $3k for a week, you're right. It is a lot.
But if you're planning a trip with a budget of $10-15k for 10 days, suddenly a $750 fee makes sense. You're looking for a bespoke travel experience that's truly special, and that's what you'll get. With that budget I'm able to use my connections to create an experience you'll remember for the rest of your life.
The bottom line
What an advisor or agent calls themselves doesn't matter. What matters is the service they provide and how well they understand what you, the client, desires.
Because at the end of the day you're entrusting your time, your most valuable asset, to them. And they should understand that.