By Susan E. Campbell
In an era when travel arrangements can be made online with the click of a button, one may wonder if brick-and-mortar travel agencies are still relevant.
“Travel agents are more relevant now than we have ever been,” said Stacie Baxter, co-owner and manager of family-operated Heber Travel Services in Queensbury. Baxter said half to 60 percent of Heber’s clients are aged 50-plus.
“My senior clients enjoy researching travel online, but when it comes down to booking their bucket-list safari or even their family vacation, they would rather trust an expert than an app,” she said.
There are different factors when searching for a flight or a cruise or a hotel than 10 years ago, when there were just a few travel apps, according to Baxter.
“Dozens of online sites today claim to be offering the cheapest tickets, but actually the fares are just marketed differently,” Baxter said. “On a long trip a traveler can save thousands of dollars, but can also lose thousands.”
She recounted how a client, an older gentleman, had argued with her over a fare he had found online. To his way of thinking, the price she quoted was obviously higher.
“Get your pencil out,” Baxter told him. “You have a quote for a ticket on a flight, but what seat are you going to get? The aisle seat you want may be $35 higher, and to check your bags, add another $50.”
She made her point: What you expect and what you ultimately pay for may be two different things.
“Even within economy class there are multiple levels and pricing, plus every airline is different,” she said. “Arranging travel has gotten very complicated. It’s not like it was 20 years ago.”
Baxter educates customers in other areas as well. Traveling out of the country and even domestically can be unsettling, as “bad things can happen anywhere because there is unrest everywhere,” she said.
“But seniors feel more comfortable with security and foreign travel when they know the rules,” she said. “Travel to Asia is different from travel to Europe.”
Baxter recommends that all clients, young and old, short trip or long, buy travel insurance.
If spending $6,000 on a honeymoon, she said, $200 for insurance is an inexpensive way to protect the couple’s investment.
“The insurance covers your luggage, lost connections, extra hotel expenses, your lost cell phone, or medical expenses for slips or falls,“ she said. “Or what if you get sick on a cruise ship and need to be airlifted to a hospital.”
Such insurance could be an even better investment for seniors, who may have prescriptions or perhaps a higher probability of requiring medical care.
Health insurance doesn’t cover care out of the U.S. Baxter said she herself was hospitalized once in Mexico and had to pay thousands up front before her release. Insurance reimbursed her expenses later when she filed a claim.
But situations like these are not keeping seniors at home. They are bicycling in Europe and walking 100 miles of El Camino.
“Even our least active clients are still traveling, even if they are on oxygen,” said Baxter. “Handicapped people travel extensively as well, so we just make it as easy as possible for them to travel with their caretakers.”
One couple did not let the wife’s need for dialysis stop them from traveling to Italy. Baxter simply set up an appointment for her at a hospital in Rome.
Personalized service such as this is unlikely to be found with an app, Baxter said. “And you probably cannot call an online agent at 2 a.m. in the event of an unforeseen mishap.”
“A 65-year old client told me she wanted to spend five weeks in London, Ireland and Wales,” said Baxter. “I knew she was a bus driver and suggested she rent a car.”
Apparently the woman got tired of driving during week four. Baxter told her to get back in the car and go. The morning after her return the client was at Heber Travel Services thanking Baxter for the trip of her dreams, which “she had no idea how to put together on her own,” she said.
In a word of caution, Baxter said there are a growing number of online scams in the form of counterfeit travel and cruise sites that her agency wants all travelers to be aware of.
“People think they are putting money down on a cruise or a resort on a legitimate site when it is actually a look-alike site,” she said. “Our industry gets emails almost daily reporting scams like these.”
Baxter said she enjoys advising all her clients, meticulously planning their vacations, and “being there for them throughout the journey.”
“There are so many ways to travel the world,” she said. “I do out-of-the-box bookings and love the challenges that other agents cannot do for their clients. In fact, they refer those clients to me.”
For more information, visit www.hebertravel.com.