When I started traveling independently of my parents, I thought that travel agents and advisors were for old people because they didn’t know how to use the internet. Also, as a college student, I didn’t have any money to pay their fees.
I guess I have become the “old people” I spoke of because boy do I need help! It was evident from our big vacation to Switzerland last fall when I think I easily spent the same number of hours planning the trip than in Switzerland itself (that’s a lot of hours for a 10 day trip). Time, it turns out, is a bigger currency than money.
So while my love for research and reading about a destination is still alive and well, I was just a little bit curious about how, if at all, a travel advisor could help lessen the burden of our future big trips. It was serendipitous that I meet Leah just as I was starting to wonder about this stuff.
Leah Iudice doesn’t fit the travel agent stereotype in my head. May be it’s because she was (and still is) an avid traveler before she embarked on a career as a travel agent/advisor. She tells me that friends have called her Patty Planner for years because of her obsession with planning vacations; an obsession she credits to her 12-year-old self who found a pen pal named Susanne from Denmark. In 2014 her passion and career merged into one as she started working for a very niche segment of luxury travel. Eventually in 2019 she started her own travel business.
I had so many questions for Leah. And since I know that many of you – with jobs and kids – might be wondering about the same things, I thought it would be fun to do a Q&A with her. For this first round, all the questions are mine, but if you find it useful, please leave a comment with your questions and I can round them up for a Part Deux.
Chika Gujarathi: Can anyone call themself a travel agent/advisor?
Leah Iudice: I would like to believe that most people that refer to themselves as travel advisors have completed training and certifications from various places. I took part in the Travel Leaders of Tomorrow program and affiliated myself with ASTA. In ongoing training, I certify with specific vendors like Disney, Marriott, AmaWaterways, etc. Unfortunately, there are MLM companies that people sell from without any real training. I would recommend asking friends and family for a referral of a travel advisor that they have used and been happy with. Word of mouth referrals tend to be my best clients. You can also search for reputable travel advisors on the Travel Leaders website http://www.travelleaders.com .
CG: How do you do your research and stay on top of information to help your clients?
LI: I am with a wonderful host agency called Nexion. Host agencies are not necessary to travel advisors, but many prefer belonging to one. The tools and partnerships made available to me through Nexion allow access to resources all over the world. I am able to ask my 4,000+ colleagues to recommend tour operators and vendors in particular destinations or types of trips. Travel advisors are very helpful to one another because we aren’t all able to be experts at every corner of the globe, therefore being resources for each other makes us all better. In addition to using my network, I rely on personal experience and trusted publications. I have also developed personal relationships with many tour operators, hotel concierges, etc. that become my go to for various destinations. Having locals on the ground usually provides the best experiences.
CG: Even with unlimited reviews and information online, what are travelers like me missing when we set out to plan a trip ourselves?
LI: There are a myriad of responses to this question. I believe that an individual can plan a very satisfying trip on your own depending on how seasoned of a traveler you are. On the more rookie end of traveler, it may be that the flight fare you found is terrific, but the routing or travel times are not. What you do not get from reading reviews is knowing the level of expectations of the reviewer. When I speak with clients, I try and learn how they prefer to travel. By asking qualifying questions, it is easier for me to deliver an experience that will surprise and delight them then just check off a box. It is the value that a travel advisor adds by having built relationships with the vendors they have used over time. For example, having a dessert or bottle of bubbly delivered at the perfect stop of an anniversary trip. Practical items such as necessary visas, passport validity and potential vaccinations are often forgotten by self-planners.
CG: What are some questions to ask in order to know you are working with an expert travel agent/advisor?
LI: An expert will want to learn about the client’s preferences and desires. They will ask you many qualifying questions. They will be confident in their suggestions and will be happy to share their affiliations and certifications with you. While certifications with individual companies like Disney, Marriott, etc. are not required, most of us try to keep learning and stay fresh. A client could ask an advisor about the most memorable experience that they have planned for a client. Travelers all have different desires and needs for a trip. I would advise one to think about items that are important to your personal style and ask questions revolving around them. An expert will take their time with you and circle back with the items discussed. An expert advisor will also be very responsive.
CG: Is there a universal guide to how travel agents charge their fees, or does it depend on the agent/agency one chooses?
LI: This is a very relevant question as I am trying to determine what the fee structure will be for my services. This is not universal. It is difficult to answer this without explaining why fees are charged. It is very common for a client to ask a travel advisor to plan a particular trip to a destination. We spend hours on research and vetting properties, location, etc. only to have the client tell us that they ended up booking the trip on their own. Our time is valuable and we do not get paid unless the client books with us and actually travels. Planning fees are assessed to make sure the client is committed to using our services. It is a fine line to dance upon; being fair to the client and owning your expertise. No one would expect to get legal advice from a lawyer for free, but that is not how most people view travel advisors.
CG: Is it safe to assume that a travel agent/advisor knows more than me about a destination?
LI: If the destination is someplace they specialize in and book for clients over and over, then most likely. There are many destinations that clients bring to me that I have not visited or planned before and it is my job to become well versed in the destination. Clients are also resources for us. Talking about travel is fun, so the conversations I have with clients are also informational. I take notes and look up places they mention in the planning. Sometimes it is a park, sometimes a hotel, and sometimes the best gelato ever (Suso in Venice, try the flavor Manet)! If a destination requires more than I feel comfortable with, I will refer that particular trip to a colleague who specializes in the area.
CG: What parts of the world do you consider as your expertise as a travel agent/advisor?
LI: My niche and expertise is mostly Europe, North America, and luxury cruising all over the world. I spend a lot of time in Europe experiencing many of the places first hand. I especially enjoy assisting clients with river cruising. There is something to be said for unpacking only once and having incredible access to some of the most charming areas along the Danube, Rhine, Rhone, etc. I have also spent a significant amount of time planning South Africa for many folks in a luxury setting. Now that I have branched out on my own, I have planned trips in many other areas of the world. The more trips you plan, the more you learn AND the more places you intend to visit. South America is trending toward the top of my “to be explored” list.
CG: A place/city that you will never tire of exploring.
LI: Spain. My love for that country knows no bounds. Every city and town is unique, yet distinctly Spanish. The food, the culture, the lifestyle, the wine! I have traveled all over the country and have yet to find a place that I didn’t love. San Sebastián is an area that stands out as well as Sevilla. I always feel so at home and alive when I am in Spain. There is no better olive oil than the ones I have found in Spain. I have returned with many bottles packed in my suitcase. Adjusting to the Spanish schedule takes a little getting used to. Many places are closed for siesta in the afternoon and dinner doesn’t begin until 8:00 pm or later. It is a lifestyle I think I could get used to.
CG: What are some of your travel essentials when on a trip?
LI: Admittedly, I am an over packer. I love to have options. Typically, I do pick a color theme so that my clothes all match and can be repurposed in various outfits. Shoes are super important to me. I have several color options of Rothy’s and Tieks. They are super comfortable and light to pack. I have a stack of paperwork in a folder. While most people are digital these days, I print every reservation. If a phone dies or a computer is down, I can present a hard copy of my reservation to avoid confusion. I take a ton of photos, so my back up battery is always in tow. Hand sanitizer and wipes have always been in my bag long before COVID 19.
CG:What are some of the travel mistakes you regularly see people making?
LI: There are two ways I can answer this. As a traveler myself, I believe some of the best experiences and stories come from mistakes. As a professional, people are quick to hop on a great deal without knowing what that deal actually entails. Sometimes clients book a cheap flight they found online not necessarily paying attention to routing, flight times, time change or airports involved.
CG: When the world is ready for travel again, where do you plan to go first?
LI: I was supposed to head to the Baltic area; Copenhagen, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, etc., but that has been pushed back to 2021. While I am not typically a nervous person or traveler, we are in uncharted territory. I will probably do a couple of road trips to ease back into travel. My girlfriends and I have been chatting about a weekend in Greenville, SC. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is high on my list. Taking a trip home to visit family in Buffalo, NY. Hopefully, international travel will take place in late 2020 or 2021. I am obsessed with the European Christmas Markets and would love to enjoy them again.
CG: When the world is ready for travel again, where do you plan to go first?
LI: I am trying to have a routine as much as possible. Since there has been a lot more down time than I have had since I was a kid, I am working on my travel scrapbooks. It helps to re-live the adventures as I arrange the photographs and memorabilia I picked up along the way. So far I have worked on the Basque region of Spain and Ottawa, Canada. I’m currently working on Venice, Italy and the Dalmatian Coast. We stopped in Croatia, Montenegro and Greece. Also, I am beginning to help friends and clients plan trips a little further out. Many of us are needing to have something booked as something to look forward to!
CG: What do you love about traveling?
LI: That is quite a question. I love everything about traveling. It begins with researching the destination the minute one is selected. While I do hit some of the bigger tourist sites, my favorite thing is to learn about what the locals do. Where do they gather, shop, eat? The electricity I feel from setting foot into a new city or country is a feeling I continue to follow. I love perusing supermarkets to see what is similar and what is different from home. Sitting in a café and people watching – and sometimes collecting new friends. Travel makes the world so much smaller. It is difficult to have a closed mind when you experience so many different cultures and ways people live.
CG: Your favorite person to travel with?
LI: I am very lucky to have a posse of friends who always have their passport ready. Some of them live near me in Raleigh, others meet me in whatever corner of the world we determine. While I have traveled my entire life, this group really culminated when I began running races sponsored by Rock ’n Roll Marathon back in 2011. Savannah, GA was our first. There is a group anywhere from 2-10 people on a trip at any given time. I have also enjoyed traveling with my mom.
CG: Do you do any solo trips?
LI: Though I haven’t traveled solo very recently, I have done some. I am over due for one. I find that taking a long weekend trip on my own somewhere really helps nourish my sense of wonder. Typically I stay domestic for these or tag on a few days before or after an international trip. I have aided solo travelers in planning their own journeys as well. Often they are to celebrate something like completing their residency or degree of some sort. It is rewarding for me to help someone with their first solo journey.
CG: I never understood travel pillows. None of them work. Am I wrong or right?
LI: Personally, I agree with you. I have yet to find one that works for me that warrants adding it to the items I have to pack. I know many others will make cases for their pillow. Everyone is different, but I can’t seem to contort my body in a way that seems comfortable with any of them. I hope for a window seat and try to use an airplane pillow to lean on. It will be interesting to see how this habit evolves with the current pandemic.
A BIG thank you Leah for answering so many of my questions with patience and honesty. You can follow along on Leah’s adventures on Facebook and Instagram (@leahbella). And please don’t forget to leave a comment with any questions you might have on your mind about travel agents/advisors.
Feature Photo Credit: Emanuela Picone @emanuela