Lately, I’ve found myself doing more traveling. It seems to be that time of year for many of us wanting to take advantage of better weather back in our original countries and in other parts of the world. So, I started compiling some ideas to share that have improved my travel experience. My list is by no means comprehensive but I bet some of it surprises you. And if you have your own recommendations, please share them in the comments.
This article starts with several personal observations about how travel technology has evolved and some personal preferences. Then I cover why it can make sense to work with a travel agent and how to select one, as well as a few other tips and resources that can make your experience less expensive and generally more rewarding.
The Internet Changed Everything
Most of us have experienced some big shifts in how technology facilitates our professional and personal lives and its effect on travel is a great example.
Lately, video conferencing tools like Zoom and Skype have boomed with the pandemic’s imperative to work from home. My buddy, Eric used to rack up 250,000 Delta miles a year until the pandemic hit. Now he’s worked from home for 2 years without getting on a plane. For many people, these services have meant not only a means to continue making a living but a better quality of life arising from greater mobility and work choices such as working remotely from Ecuador and more personal and family time.
Video conferencing has also permitted people to continue or develop family and social relationships across vast distances in a way that was never before possible. I have friends who hosted online memorials for loved ones and maintained romantic relationships this way.
On the other hand, In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, I flew around the U.S. selling big-ticket systems as part of managing large, commercial relationships. All of us who did that were focused on getting face-to-face meetings with clients. So travel was an essential element of the work. At that time, the internet exploded and the companies I worked for rushed to bypass travel agents and required us to do our own research to find the lowest fares, etc.
I never loved the idea of having to do all that work and sometimes it seemed like I spent about 20% of my time on travel planning. But most of us accepted the new approach as part of the job and went with the flow – it always perturbed me that the airlines got away with pushing a boatload of their costs onto their customers but that is another conversation.
Anyway, since we are creatures of habit, many of us instinctively turn first to the internet to research and book air travel. And it makes sense (especially for short trips) because it gives us a quick snapshot to work with. After all, selecting a trip with all the routes and fares displayed on one screen feels efficient. And who wants to hassle with the airlines’ call center?
However, I have learned that not all the information I need to make informed booking choices is available to me. Some missing information can include luggage allowances, seat class alternatives, routes or airlines I haven’t considered, etc.
A Visit to Catsa Travel Agency
I recently visited Bryan Vidal, Owner of Catsa Travel Agency (Whatsapp +593994923033 ) to pay his modest charges for booking some “backup” flights to land me in Cuenca instead of Guayaquil so I could avoid the Paro roadblocks. With a few Whatsapp messages and calls, he made the original purchase and numerous changes thanks to several delays because I caught COVID at the last minute. Bryan is a pleasure to deal with and you can find recommendations for him via numerous digital channels. He made it very easy for me to adjust to a rapidly changing situation while I was swimming through COVID brain fog.
The Paro ended before I needed to use the ticket so I asked Bryan about a refund. Instead, he recommended that I leave my Cuenca ticket as a credit because, even though it was a refundable full fare ticket, the administrative fees deducted to process the refund would have eaten 25% of the value. Pretty smart.
Anyway, after we took care of business, Bryan was kind enough to answer some questions about the benefits of working with a travel agent that eventually turned into this article and particularly in the next section detailing good reasons for doing so.
Here we go:
Pros and Cons of Using a Travel Agent
My own recent travel experience along with that of others, and my conversation with Bryan have caused me to appreciate the value of travel agents. This is especially true during uncertain times.
Save Money for Those 65+
Did you know a travel agent can obtain your tercera edad benefit on an airline ticket purchase? I had been led to believe one needed to go through the airline for it. The savings is a “qualified” 50% discount applicable on transport services. The “qualified” part is that you receive up to 50% of the base ticket fare for your route originating in Ecuador and excluding taxes and fees like IVA. Another qualification is that the savings are only available to those cedula holders 65 years and older. And only some airlines participate*. Others like JetBlue and Spirit do not. Note: Cruises do not receive a tercera edad discount. I asked. Sorry.
Participating airlines usually offer a tercera edad discount even off their discounted fares but it is discretionary and smaller than 50%. Your travel agent can help you save the most by comparing the different discounted fares. Also, they will also find savings available to those with disabilities & children.
Your agent can help you understand and choose the best price for the right ticket class and seat, accounting for your luggage requirements, travel dates flexibility, destinations and airplane configuration. That is pretty tough to do well on your own. And fitting all those puzzle pieces together is where my head starts exploding.
Motivated to Give Good Service
A travel agent has a vested (and often personal) interest in ensuring you have the best possible experience thus giving you a reason to use them again and to refer your friends.
There is a big difference between how airlines and their websites treat customers vs. how a travel agent treats theirs. The former are transactional and offer only solutions available through one company – their own. By contrast, a travel agent has a strong incentive to develop a relationship with you, using their knowledge and relationships with many travel providers to make you as happy as possible.
Travel agents are aware of what is happening in travel day-to-day travel patterns and trends and can get in front of oncoming problems. Here are a few examples:
Avoiding Trouble Hotspots
A good agent can tell you which airlines, routes and airports to avoid and when. This is not a small benefit because you may be unaware of these things as they change over time and picking the wrong one can ruin your trip.
Airline Itinerary Changes
A travel agent can make a big difference when airlines change your flight schedule. It’s like a little heart attack when an airline sends you an email or text saying they have changed your reservation. Not an uncommon occurrence. In fact, this has happened to me various times when the airline moved me to a connecting flight leaving a full day later than the original – and I almost didn’t notice that little fact. Ugh.
I don’t know about you, but my first reaction to these kinds of messages is to panic, drop everything else and scour the airline website for options or call the 800# and wait on hold for 25 minutes.
By comparison, my friend Stan bought his ticket to Panama through Vanessa of Cuenca travel agency, Soleil Viaje. Then, the airline made several significant changes to flight times. Vanessa called Stan after every change by the airline with proposed itinerary adjustments that ensured that he had a workable connecting flight.
The Luggage Trap
Ever get caught in the “luggage trap” like me? Paying $25 to $50 for each of the extra bags that you thought were covered by your ticket is a nasty surprise and happens all the time, especially as you move across international borders and multiple airlines. A travel agent should ask about your luggage needs at booking and compare fare classes to see which fare class gives you the lowest total cost given the number of bags you need to transport.
Travel Documentation Catastrophes
I am baffled by how many expats treat travel documentation as if it were an interesting research project instead of working with a knowledgeable travel agent. And, dear God in heaven, why do we expats turn to other expats with questions about visas and other travel documentation requirements? This is a bit like one lemming consulting another lemming about the quickest way to the cliff. There is always an exchange like this somewhere in some expat forum. Seriously friends – what are the chances another expat has the precise and current knowledge needed to assure you don’t violate international law?
Having the right paperwork is one aspect of travel that involves constantly changing requirements and it can be risky relying solely on potentially flawed or outdated internet research. But your travel agent will know this stuff and wants to protect you from bad decisions and their consequences.
For example, health and COVID documentation alone seem to change every other month depending on the country. And did you know that other countries won’t admit you if your passport has less than 6 months before expiring? Did you know you need to carry your ORIGINAL cedula when traveling or that you and your partner may have different visa requirements depending on your respective countries of origin? Have you mastered the details of traveling in and around the Schengen countries in Europe? Or what shots do you need to travel to Curacao like my friend Eric will do?
Ok. Point made.
Next a few words about consequences….
If you think travel documentation is a DIY project, talk to my friend Phil who was locked in a secret airport immigration room at the Buenos Aires airport for nearly an hour because nobody told him he needed to bring some special paperwork from Ecuador. Or my Australian friend, Les, who flew all the way from Queensland to attend our conference without the proper visa and was detained for a few not-so-fun days at the San Francisco airport before being escorted onto a return flight which he had to pay for on top of his non-refundable, original return.
Uh, nice rant, Rick. Can you finish up? I have lunch.
Right. Just one more preventable problem….
Talk about chasing your tail. (Thank you. I will show myself out.) There is so much change, confusion and misinformation about how to move pets in and out of Ecuador that you really need a reliable source like a travel agent to help you research airline and country details. Definitely not a task I recommend for Google.
Travel agents build and maintain relationships with different airlines and other providers which means they can offer you different solutions and choices. So, for example, they can resolve logistical questions like: “What is the best airline for me to move 10 pcs of luggage?”
And those relationships and industry knowledge can be especially helpful during travel emergencies.
Bryan explained that he can modify a customer’s ticket up until a few hours before they check-in. So, he was recently able to rebook a customer’s ticket for the next day because she forgot her passport. And he helped get her passport to her from Cuenca.
A travel agent loses control of your reservation once you have checked in so the agent cannot make ticket changes after that. But he or she can still help you.
Case in point. Have you ever been stranded because of the airline that canceled your flight? It is a very helpless feeling, as I recently learned when American Airlines canceled my late-night flight from Miami to Atlanta (after delaying it 6 or 7 times.) Instead, American required me to stand in line for 2 and a half hours only to be offered an awful replacement flight that would put me in Atlanta a full 24 hours later and with 2 connections! To make matters worse, their call center was unavailable because it was swamped with calls from many frantic American passengers whose flights were also canceled that day for lack of staff.
I had to come up with options from other websites but it sure would have been better to have had a travel agent to call upon to help book an alternative flight.
Travel agents understand a cryptic system of flight class codes and will explain what you are paying for and why and find the seat and flight that works best for you. For some really extensive trips, they can get you special treatment like VIP lounge access.
They can also recommend delightful itinerary modifications to take advantage of stopover deals (Copa through Panama city), or to visit places you have not considered, or to spend a few extra days someplace that deserves more time or a better sequence of countries or airports that take advantage of better airfares, holidays, festivals or weather at different times of the year. And remember that a good travel agent can help you book great, affordable accommodations.
Ask yourself what would you rather do:
- Get knowledgeable travel assistance quickly from somebody you trust via voice or WhatsApp or;
- Prefer to risk waiting on hold or in the carrier’s airport customer service line?
Peace of Mind
Knowing you can reach somebody you can count on for assistance means you are freer to enjoy your trip!
A small fee
Many airlines have stopped paying commissions to travel agents so they must charge $30-$50 per ticket to make something on the sale of airline tickets. Considering the Pros, the benefits to you should easily outweigh the fee.
Not all agents are equal
As with any service-based industry, your experience will be directly influenced by the quality, responsiveness & attention to detail of the travel agent helping you. This makes agent selection very important.
How to qualify a travel agent
– How good is their English?
– What percentage of their business is with expats?
– Is it a real business? Where is their physical location and what does it look like? Do you have access to the owner? How long have they been in business?
– Do they offer you help getting tercera edad, disability or children benefits?
– Are they proactively asking questions that lead you to different options and choices or are they just taking an order?
– Do they cover luggage needs vs. allowances, as well as health and other travel document requirements?
Bonus Tips for better Travel
1. Be flexible on travel dates
Time of year and day of week choices can make a very large difference in your transport costs. Airlines price seats are based on the number of customers competing for those seats so book when you are one of a smaller number of competitors.
2. Buy Travel Insurance
Travel Interruptions and delays are now the rule rather than the exception. Every traveler I know has at least one terrible tale. So, what happens when your flight is canceled and you absolutely have to be there the next day? How do you recover the cost of the Plan B airplane ticket, hotel expenses, shuttles, meals, etc?
Sometimes trip delays/interruption coverage comes in second to healthcare benefits. For example, expensive U.S.emergency healthcare costs are routinely covered, even those associated with the pandemic.
I highly recommend the kind of travel insurance with a healthcare component, especially if you are not covered by Medicare or other U.S policy. And If you think you won’t get sick while you are traveling, think again. I just filed a travel insurance claim for $1400, a large percentage of which was medical, because I got COVID at the tail end of my trip to Chicago.
3. Take a 2-step approach
My world traveler friend, Phil, recommends a sensible approach that helps with budgeting and facilitates your conversation with a Travel Agent. Do some preliminary research online on Google Flights, Travelocity, Cheap-O-Air, Kayak or one of the many other flight aggregator sites then give your sample itineraries to the travel agent to see how he/she can improve them. Chances are good that the value they add to the transaction will more than pay for their modest $30 to $50 ticket booking fee.
4. Carry U.S. 800#’s
Arm yourself with backup emergency support by carrying the phone number of your airline’s U.S. call center in your phone. Getting through and resolving problems with the U.S. call center can be much easier and quicker than calling a foreign carrier and trying to speak with an English-speaking agent. Most travel hubs offer free wi-fi so calls over apps like Google Voice or Textnow.com are free so put one of these apps on your phone to call the carrier. Also, carry the concierge help number if attached to your credit card as well as the travel insurance company’s helpline.
5. Avoid booking directly with local carriers
I strongly encourage travelers to avoid booking through the local carriers’ website or local office. Doing so is fraught with more problems than I will take the space to share here. Save yourself a lot of time, aggravation, and cost by avoiding their customer-facing assets. I look forward to reading some anecdotal rebuttals to this advice because I love reading success stories, but my repeated experience with our local carrier is that they are mostly unreliable, unhelpful, and inflexible. You will probably need to fly them at some point but you are better off booking your trip through an intermediary who cares about your experience.
6. Reclaiming IVA
IVA is the 12% value added tax that Ecuador collects with many purchases including airplane tickets. If you are going on a big trip with a $10,000 airfare, you may be able to recover $1200, for example. According to our IVA recovery expert, Eric, the success rate of these requests is pretty low but it is worth a try depending on the amount of the refund. To do so, you need the ticket number and invoice showing the IVA amount to claim on the SRI tax authority system. If the ticket number is not in the system, you need to head to the SRI office to request the refund. Read about claiming IVA refunds in our article.
Below are some helpful resources for you. By the way, one of my theories about why expats hesitate to use Cuenca travel agents is that it is challenging to find English-speaking agents. The following 2 definitely will help you in English.
Catsa Travel Agency
- Contact Name: Bryan Vidal, Owner
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CATSAEC
- Website: https://www.catsa.ec/
- Whatsapp: +593994923033
- Email: [email protected]
- Address: Av 12 de Abril y Av Jose’ Peralta (Ground Floor)
Agencia Soleil Viajes
- Contact Name: Vanessa
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Agencia-Soleil-Viajes-782445171849580/
- Website: https://soleilviajes.wixsite.com/travel
- WhatsApp: +593 99 464 9118
- Email: [email protected]
- Address: Miguel Cordero 2-22 y Cornelio Merchán
Rick Steves Book – Europe Through the Back Door
The 2022 version of Europe Through The Back Door costs about $20 on Amazon. If you click the link you can preview all his travel documentation recommendations in the Paper Chase section. They are accurate and thorough. Props to friend Stefan for this tip.
My goal was to share some practical thoughts to help with your travel. Here is a summary of suggestions:
- Do initial research on the internet for budgeting then show it to a travel professional.
- Avoid using the Ecuadorian carriers’ booking resources like their website or ticket office.
- Expect that working with a good, local travel agent will reward you with a lower fare, a superior travel experience and/or greater peace of mind.
- Screen travel agent candidates for proactive service, responsiveness and experience with expat travel requirements
- Ask “essay questions” of your travel agent like “What else should I know or think about?” or “What other ideas can you recommend?”, “How can you help me after business hours?”, If they don’t supply some good answers, consider going elsewhere.
- Get the tercera edad discount if you are 65+ years old – it should be an agent’s first response to your travel inquiry.
- Buy travel insurance. Chances are very good that you will need coverage for expenses associated with trip interruptions and/or medical expenses.
- Be flexible with your travel dates to save lots of money.
- Save the U.S. 800# call center number into your phone for your airline carrier, travel insurance company and credit card concierge service.
- Try reclaiming IVA from your airplane ticket because it represents 12% of your ticket cost. Save your ticket number and a copy of the ticket invoice.
*Airlines that participate in the tercera edad discount: AA, Iberia, Avianca, Latam, Air Europe, KLM, Copa, Delta, UAL, Aeromexico
Do you have any other international travel tips that have worked for you? Or perhaps you also have a good travel agent recommendation? We’d love to hear them in the comments below.