To begin: I am my best travel agent. I have never had a good experience with any other kind of travel agent.
Here’s where I will probably get stomped on by many an agent, whose job I would probably love to have, except then I’d have to deal with making people happy for a living, and that would make me unhappy, particularly if they are frightfully difficult individuals as most people are.
Of course, their kind is withering away, thanks to the Internet and the wealth of information from various sources like My Travel Hats.
Why do I dislike travel agents? Every single time a travel agent has been involved in my travel plans, or other people’s travel plans, something gets messed up. In most cases, you get an entire itinerary of activities, but never, ever has that itinerary come to fruition. Something gets skipped because of time. It’s usually not the travel agent’s fault, either, but the fault of whoever he/ she ended up booking with, and then inevitably the irate traveler comes back and that travel agent has to soothe many feathers.
Recently a work colleague returned from Egypt and Tanzania having entirely missed spending time in Cairo and a couple other tours she and her friends had flown all that way to enjoy. The agent had worked with some flight bookers out in Egypt who, in an attempt to save themselves some money, booked my colleague on some cheaper flights that left at inconvenient times. So any attempt to have 24 hours in Cairo, for example, were cut in and reduced to 6 hours in Cairo due to flight times. They also arrived at a couple destinations late because of this booking and missed a couple of wildlife tours.
My own experience dealing with pre-planned itineraries:
-Delhi. I went with my business school class, who arranged to take the group to the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort (right) and some marble factory. Well, the marble factory was our second stop after the Taj, and it was a complete sham. A “demonstration” of how marble art was constructed for the Taj Mahal, followed by a long tour through their shopping area, where our tour guide would earn some rupee commission. As a result, we completely missed the Red Fort. Look at it! I can’t believe I flew all the way to India and missed this amazing relic. (Apparently the guide also kept taking other students to shopping areas where he had arrangements to make commission, rather than to the markets they and our professor requested, and then our professor, who is Indian and teaches marketing, got into a yelling match with the tour guide on the phone about the rules of business and customer service.)
-Chiang Mai jungle trek. We were supposed to go swimming in some hot springs, but alas, time did not permit.
-Royal Caribbean. We were supposed to stop in St. Croix, but then it was Christmas Day, so we had to sail all day instead. Granted, all the Caribbean islands start to resemble each other, but it would have been nice to be forewarned that I’d be trapped on the boat all day than snorkeling in the ocean.
-I also dislike having to book flights through a travel agent for work. I ended up searching online for the best deals and times, and then phoning her and letting her know which one I wanted. Otherwise she would spend a day or two doing exactly what I just did, and either miss the fare or the seat availability. There was also never a discount involved.
Which is why I spend hours planning our journeys myself and comparing timetables, booking flights, creating back-up plans, and adding padding here and there for airport/ train transfers and the like. When too many people get involved in our planning, that’s when inevitably, something screws up.
How to do it? Create a spreadsheet with the dates and activities you’d like to do. Arm yourself with several travel books and lots and lots of Google searches. TripAdvisor is a great place to start. Also Frommers has a good searchable forum as well as great suggested itineraries you can use as a guide for your own. Blogs like this one will also give really good ideas. I like to plan separate sheets for transit, hotel, potential activities and prices. I do not, however, plan actual activities for several reasons: what if it rains that day? What if we don’t feel like going to a museum that morning? Instead, I’ll allot a certain amount of time per city based on other people’s experiences and what I’ve found online (i.e. 3 days in Bangkok, 2 days in Chiang Mai, etc). Eventually, everything gets woven together. One day, I will post my actual planning process. If you end up missing something but you hadn’t paid for and anticipated it, it’s just another reason to return there !