What a Travel Advisor Really Does and Why You Need One

A good travel advisor can be the key to a memorable trip, handling logistics, access, and on-the-ground support. Here’s how to find and use the best of the best.

Illustration of two people, with one holding a tablet and larger images are coming from the tablet, showing a hotel, a helicopter, airplane tickets, and a restaurant

The best advisors have connections that an open doors for travelers: to exclusive hotels, to popular restaurants, and to special VIP experiences.

Illustration by Rose Wong

Planning trips these days can feel like a full-time job: flights to book, an itinerary to perfect, the best restaurants and hotel suites to reserve. Luckily, it literally is a full-time job for many knowledgeable people—and they’ll do all the planning and booking for you.

There are thousands of travel advisors across the world who specialize in virtually every destination and type of trip. And they’re more in demand than ever as people seek authentic, meaningful, and conscientious experiences in a world of overtourism, air travel hassles, and climate concerns.

But what value can travel advisors add in this interconnected age, when you can text almost any person or company around the world in an instant, and endless startups are replacing personal interaction with AI-formulated answers? They can add a lot.

More than just logistics

These days, the phrase “travel advisor” most commonly refers to what used to be called a travel agent—a generalist based in the country you live in, who can arrange an itinerary almost anywhere via the local providers they know around the globe. But it’s also worth broadening the way you think about a trip planner to include destination experts—the in-country providers themselves—who create and run trips only in that region and who often work with travelers directly. No matter which kind of travel planner you work with, there are benefits to be had—and they’re not limited to booking flights and hotels. They can usher you into a VIP world of exclusive reservations, singular experiences, and special amenities.

“The best ones know the destination incredibly well and have connections to be able to pull strings to make things happen that you might think are impossible,” says travel journalist and industry expert Wendy Perrin, who maintains a “Wow List” of the best-reviewed planners and matches travelers to the ideal people for their needs.

Her site, WendyPerrin.com, is full of detailed reviews from travelers who have used the experts on her list. Take Jeannie Mullen, who’s on the board of directors of a professional theater company in her hometown of Highlands, North Carolina. Perrin connected her with Jan Sortland of Norwegian Adventures, a destination expert who arranged for Mullen to meet his actress sister-in-law for coffee, followed by a backstage tour of Oslo’s National Theatre. Then he packed in storytelling with a reindeer herder and four nights of northern lights viewing.

Advisors can also unlock such perks as hotel credits for free breakfasts and late checkouts. These benefits “can be valued in hundreds of dollars, depending on the accommodations, without [you] having to play the points and rewards game,” says Josh Bush, the CEO of family-owned travel advisor group Avenue Two Travel. Other advisors may have access to cruise credits and cabin upgrades.

Illustration of a person holding a giant yellow umbrella over a family of travelers with luggage, protecting them from rain

A travel advisor can help prepare and protect travelers in cases of bad weather, sickness, and other emergencies.

Illustration by Rose Wong

When things go awry

Advisors can come in handy during your travels, too. They’ll have an extensive support network on the ground to “prevent the pitfalls that can hex a trip,” Perrin says.

Amina Dearmon, who founded the agency Perspectives Travel, recalls a time some of her clients were leaving the Caribbean country of Dominica. Adverse weather canceled their Friday flight home, and they were told at the airport that the next flight would be on Tuesday. Dearmon used her knowledge and contacts to get them on a flight the following morning and arranged a shuttle back to their villa for an extra night. Fancy doing all that yourself at the end of a holiday?

When Afar’s executive editor, Billie Cohen, landed in Beijing with food poisoning, Mei Zhang of Wild China (a destination expert who’d fashioned a two-week trip for Cohen) was there to help. “Mei was on the phone with my driver as soon as I landed . . . and was ready to take me to the doctor if I needed it,” Cohen says. “It was reassuring to have someone looking out for me, and who spoke the language.”

William Kiburz, vice president of Coronet Travel, was able to go a step further when a client had a health emergency while touring Christmas markets in Europe. Kiburz had secured the traveler a comprehensive insurance policy that allowed him to have surgery in a German hospital—and then Kiburz assisted with claims to cover the medical procedure.

Unexpected perks

Enlisting the right professional can also improve your travels in ways you may not have imagined. Come in with an open mind, and they’ll broaden it further. Perrin often makes a case for new possibilities—Panama instead of Costa Rica, say, or Sri Lanka (which “so many people just don’t even think about”).

Bush agrees: “Advisors can redirect clients to an alternative destination by getting to the ‘why’ and identifying another similarly amazing destination with those attributes and interests. And they can point them to a time of year when it’s great to go but minus all the crowds.”

Indeed, in popular spots, advisors can help avoid the scourge of overtourism. For cruises on Egypt’s Nile River, Jim Berkeley, founder and CEO of Destinations & Adventures International, introduces travelers to small, semi-private dahabiya houseboats, which can dock at ports the big ships can’t access, allowing guests to visit less crowded sites off the typical main route.

Advisors can also do a lot of the groundwork to ensure trips are sustainable—an increasing request from travelers—by vetting suppliers and partners. Advisors at Avenue Two Travel, a certified B Corp, take time to research the activities and in-country companies, appraise them in person, and have “frank conversations,” Bush says. They then present travelers with ways to leave a smaller footprint, give back to the community, and engage in philanthropy. “An advisor takes the worry of sustainability off the client by handling it for them,” he adds.

How to find the right advisor

Don’t blindly Google your way to a good advisor. First, consider consortia. The Virtuoso group is a network of some 20,000 travel advisors and more than 1,800 travel companies; each one must be invited to join and must meet certain criteria regarding business model, philosophy, and culture. Signature Travel Network is another; it’s been around since 1956. The Afar Travel Advisory Council, meanwhile, is a small, select group of 14 experts in experiential travel. Kiburz and Bush are both members. SmartFlyer (whose CEO Michael Holtz is also a member of the Afar Travel Advisory Council) is a travel agency of in-house advisors and more than 250 independent affiliates—Dearmon’s agency, Perspectives Travel, is one of them.

The price of an advisor varies. According to Perrin, the cost is usually applied as a deposit toward the trip or as an additional fee.

But another option is to join a membership-based travel agency such as Indagare. For about $3,000 per year, members receive unlimited customized itinerary planning, a dedicated “trip designer,” and other perks.

A good advisor is well connected, well traveled, and always learning, Bush says. He recommends searching for an advisor based near your home if you’re after an in-person interaction; if you’re not, Perrin suggests a phone or video call at minimum to kick off the planning. “It’s important to find an advisor who you connect with and enjoy working with,” Bush says, noting that successful partnerships can last years or even generations. “The goal is to find one who really gets your travel and communication style.”

Tim Chester is a deputy editor at AFAR, focusing primarily on destination inspiration and sustainable travel. He lives near L.A. and likes spending time in the waves, on the mountains, or on wheels.
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