Tourists enjoy the Dumbo ride in 2012 at the New Fantasyland attraction at the Walt Disney World Resort's Magic Kingdom theme park in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP)
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In an age of online deal hunting and book-it-yourself everything, it’s easy to forget there are travel professionals out there who just might be better at scoring you a good deal than you are.
In fact, chances are good they can save you a bundle. And if not always a bundle of money, at least they can save you a bunch of time — not only in handling the arrangements, but also in making sure you’re not spinning your wheels once those precious leave days start ticking away.
Just ask Adria Presnell.
When she was trying plan a recent trip to Disney World for her Air Force fiancé and his 5-year-old daughter, Presnell was overwhelmed by all of the packages, prices and properties, so she decided to tap into Ears of Experience for help in figuring it out.
“Their itineraries ... really allowed us to get the most out of our days there,” she says. “There is no way we could have done so much and stressed so little without their help.”
Run by Amy Sinclair, the wife of a recently retired Air Force C-17 pilot, Ears of Experience specializes in helping military families with Disney vacations.
“All we do is Disney,” she says. And by all accounts, they’re very good at it.
“We get a lot of people who say they tried to do it themselves and have spent hours and hours trying to figure it all out and are now totally frustrated,” she says.
Sinclair started Ears of Experience in 2009. Before that, she was director of operations for one of the largest cruise line travel agencies in the country, where she worked since 1999.
She says she makes it her personal mission to try to take the frustration out of vacation.
“Why try to make yourself an expert?” she says. “Just because there’s a wealth of information out on the Internet doesn’t mean you need to figure it all out on your own, especially when there are people out there who can do it for you for free. It just causes more stress. You only have so much free time in your life. Let someone else plan it and be done with it.”
Yeah, sure, but there’s no such thing as “free,” right? If you don’t pay for it upfront, you’ll pay for it through inflated prices on the back end.
That’s a common misconception, Sinclair says.
While some travel agencies charge small service fees, the majority make most of their money through commissions from hotels, cruise lines and resorts. Agents can tap into basically the same discounted rates that you’ll find with the online search engines, while also offering the personal touch of experience.
“Say you’re trying to book a vacation to Hawaii,” says Greg Reese, who opened Picture Rocks Travel in Tucson, Ariz., a few years ago after retiring from the Army. “I tell people to try the Expedia route first. Often we can match or beat that price, but then also get some added incentives like room upgrade or dining credits.”
Perhaps you think you can just rely on military discounts to get the best travel deals. Maybe. Or maybe not, says Reese, as his fingers start flying through a quick reality check.
He picks a random six-day Carnival cruise through the Western Caribbean, departing from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“The military discount rate is $524 per person for a balcony room. That’s a pretty good price, but there’s no opportunity for an upgrade. And it’s not in an ideal part of the ship.”
Indeed, he says, it’s not uncommon to find cabins earmarked for military discounts that are in the worst parts of the ship, down low and at the far ends, making for long trek to where the food and fun happens.
Another discount he can get costs $754, with a big bump up in the room category and much better position on the ship.
“It’s more, but it’s a much better deal for what you’re getting,” he says.
And once you’ve locked into a vacation package, good travel agents will monitor price changes and new promotions that could bring significant savings.
“One of the biggest services we offer is auto-adjusting,” Sinclair says. “When a promotion comes out, I know it’s happening and I spend the entire day auto-adjusting for my clients. Disney is not going to do that for you.”
And you’d have a hard time doing it yourself.
“You’d have to know that the promotion came out and ask for it,” she says. “And by the time you do, you may not even be able to get it because it’s only applicable if there’s inventory in your category. You have to be quick.”
For example, Disney recently announced a free dining special for trips in September.
“That morning, we had teams online and on the phones adjusting all of our clients. We had people who were saving $900 off their packages. Some of our military people were actually saving more off that one special than they would have with their military discounts. That’s why we run the specials against all the other options to see where you’ll save the most money.”
Right on base
Of course, most morale, welfare and recreation offices offer their own cadre of on-base travel agents, as well.
Darcy Cunningham’s husband had been an active-duty sailor for seven years before she ever visited an MWR office.
When she finally went in, she was impressed by the deals the information, travel and tours, or ITT, agents could get her.
So impressed, in fact, that for the past eight years, she’s been one of them. She now works at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River office in Maryland.
“I can’t always beat Expedia, but I will always try to save you money,” she says.
Organized tours often offer the deepest discounts, she says. Last fall, ITT put together a fully guided 12-day trip to Ireland to watch the Navy-Notre Dame football game for $3,900 per person that included round-trip airfare, hotels, transfers, meals and tickets to the game.
Even if you don’t use your local ITT office to book your entire vacation, don’t be shy about calling the office to check for special deals in whatever area you’re traveling to, she says. “It’s like having your own local concierge service.”
Her office in Maryland has “great relationships with all the professional sports teams in Baltimore and Washington” and can get deals on tickets, she says.
Her office also has negotiated occasional specials with local attractions over and above any other military discounts already available.
Great Wolf Lodge, for example, offers a standing 10 percent military discount at all of its water park resorts, but Pax River gets deeper discounts a few times a year at the local resort, she says.
To find the right travel agent for you, Sinclair recommends shopping around.
“You can ask for credentials, but anyone can get online training, so that doesn’t really do you any good,” she says. “It’s better to ask if they’ve been to the property or cruise they’re selling. How often do they go? When was the last time?”
She goes to at least one of the Disney resorts for a few days every two to three months.
“Our clients shouldn’t spend more than 20 minutes waiting in a line, so we run the itineraries, eat at the restaurants,” she says.
“You’ll usually be able to find a good travel agent by word of mouth,” Reese says. “Ask friends. A lot of it is just picking up the phone and talking to someone. What does your gut tell you? If something does go wrong, will they have your back?”
For flight cancellations or other bumps in the road, he says, a good agent will be available 24/7 to help get you back on track.
“They will be on the front line for you, at 2 in the morning, if need be, instead of you having to deal with some call center. Call centers don’t know who you are and don’t care who you are, but airlines are a lot more responsive to the travel agents. That’s why we’re here.”