On New Year's Day, James Vaughn gave his travel agent a tough assignment: Book a 10-day trip to India. Departure date: Jan. 13.
In 48 hours, David Rubin of DavidTravel in Corona Del Mar, Calif., had booked flights and hotel rooms, hired tour guides and even called the manager of a sold-out hotel to finagle a room.
And the work didn't end once Vaughn and his husband boarded their flight from Los Angeles to Delhi. When their flight from Delhi to Agra was canceled, Rubin came to the rescue. "They would have been on the phone for the next several hours trying to sort out what to do," he said.
Instead, they went sightseeing while Rubin's local contacts did the sorting. By the time the couple returned to their hotel, their bags had been packed and loaded into a car, and a driver whisked them off to Agra.
Rubin had tried to persuade them to drive to Agra in the first place, but they didn't take his advice, said Vaughn, a public-affairs consultant. "Ultimately, he was right," Vaughn said. "Seeing a camel going through a toll booth on a highway is not something you get to see while you're flying."
Once, it seemed travel agents such as Rubin had gone the way of the milkman as online booking sites such as Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity soared in popularity.
Now they have been given a reprieve. That's because many vacations have become as hard to plan as the name of last year's traveler-stranding Icelandic volcano was to pronounce. Natural disasters cause flight cancellations. Revolutions put tourist destinations off-limits. Airlines and rental car agencies confound with ever-increasing fees. And the Internet spews so much information that it hurts as much as it helps.
"Not only are customers confused and frustrated by new airline fees and events, but they are bombarded by social media," said John Clifford, president of the luxury travel consultancy InternationalTravel-Management.com. "Everyone is trying to tell you where you should stay, where you should eat, what you should do."
A study by Forrester Research found that the number of leisure travelers who enjoyed using the Web to book their vacations dropped from 53 percent in 2007 to 47 percent in 2010. In an American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) survey, 44 percent of agents said they had more clients in 2010 than they'd had the previous year.
Travelers "don't have hours to spend on research to compare multiple flights, multiple cruises, multiple packages," said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Forrester Research. "It's not unlike doing your taxes. Depending on who you are, what your priorities are, there are some people who will choose to do it themselves or to use a professional."
Vaughn used to plan his own vacations but turned to Rubin when his trips got more elaborate -- and, recently, for even the easy trips. For a one-week jaunt to New York, Rubin gave him a list of off-the-beaten-path places to visit.
"It's convenient," Vaughn said. "I could paint my house or change the oil in my car, but I don't have the knowledge or the time to do it the best way possible."
>Ups and downs
Credit commercial aviation with the rise of the travel agent in the 1920s. Blame online booking sites for the travel agent's fall in the '90s.
In 2001, there were 37,981 travel agencies, according to ARC, a company that provides financial services to travel agencies, airlines and travel suppliers. As of March, there were 16,564. Lauri Reishus, vice president of operations for ARC, said much of that decline is due to the consolidation of agencies.
The agents who survived have had to change their modus operandi. Airlines no longer pay them commissions, so most agents now charge fees in addition to receiving some commissions from cruise or tour operators. The average fee agents charge for buying a plane ticket, for instance, is $36. Of the 111,000 U.S. travel agents, 28 percent are now home-based. To compete with online travel sites, they must be available round the clock; most now have specialties.
"Consumers are looking for specialists. They want a destination wedding specialist, an Africa specialist, a Puerto Rico specialist," said Tony Gonchar, chief executive of ASTA.
What hasn't changed, agents say, is the relationships they can build with vendors. Many travel agents can get upgrades or perks, such as breakfast or a welcome cocktail, at hotels they use often. Many are also part of a buying consortium that negotiates special rates with hotels, tour operators and other vendors.
"What you're really finding is the digitization of travel, offline or online," says Andrew Weinstein, a spokesman for the Interactive Travel Services Association.