he article in the July 3 issue of SmartMoney was titled "Ten Things Your Travel Agent Won't Tell You."

Uh-oh, I thought. An insider is going to reveal some travel agents' trade secrets -- how they get a room in a sold-out hotel, for instance, or how they know which cabins are the best on a specific cruise ship.

Instead of getting an insider's view of what travel agents know, I found myself reading a painfully simple-minded view of how travel agents operate. Over and over, I saw the gaping distance between a reporter and knowledge of the subject matter she was writing about.

The article, by Stacey L. Bradford, appeared to be building a case that agents, intentionally or by default, often work against the interests of consumers and that wise readers would do well to consider other channels to buy travel.

I found myself sighing for Bradford's naivete, wondering at her logic and occasionally cringing to think that some readers might be swayed from using agents on the basis of her advice.

It would not be difficult to issue a point-by-point rebuttal of the article, but Carlson Wagonlit Travel's Associate Division may possess a more effective response than a he-said, she-said argument.

Back in April, Roger Block, CWT's executive vice president, Associates Division, asked his member agencies to send in examples of ways in which travel agents have "saved the day" for their clients. He shared some of the responses he received, and collectively, they present a convincing case that if you don't use a travel agent now, you'd be smart to begin. Some examples:

• A client walked into Cynthia Dalton-Rogers' agency in North Charleston, S.C., hoping to find a fare to Reno, Nev., lower than $1,900 (quoted by airlines). She walked out with a ticket, two hotel nights and a two-day car rental for $677 (including the $50 agency service fee). The agent, of course, knew the ins and outs of vacation package deals.

• Two clients of Tricia Johnson, an agent in a CWT office in Eden Prairie, Minn., needed to be on a certain NWA flight because they were traveling with a party that had already purchased tickets. They surfed the Net and found a $620.20 fare. Johnson knew to check Continental code shares and offered them the same seat for $343.97, saving $552.46 in total.

• Kathy Etzkorn, an agent in High Point, N.C., had a client who needed to get from White Plains, N.Y., to Cleveland, returning the same day. The fare showed as $1,064. Etzkorn searched for fares to nearby airports -- LaGuardia, Kennedy, Bradley in Hartford, Conn. -- without luck, but then tried Akron, 40 miles from Cleveland, and found a fare for only $293.50. Upon hearing that he saved $770.50, the client didn't seem to mind paying the $35 service fee.

• Austin, Texas, agent Deanie Martin's husband's flight was canceled 14 minutes before take-off, and he was told to line up at the ticket counter to be rescheduled. He got in line but also called her immediately. She grabbed the last seat on the next flight out that same morning. The woman in front of him in line was given a three-hour bus ride to another airport, where she was to board a 6 p.m. flight. She had booked her ticket on line.

• One day, a woman came into Kerrie Morrow's Portland, Ore., office to book a car rental from Amsterdam to Paris -- she already had booked air at another agency. She declined all insurance.

When later her car (with clothes, travel docs and money in the trunk) was stolen from a small town in France, she called Morrow's office in a panic -- she couldn't even remember the name of the agency where she had bought her airline tickets.

Morrow called the car rental company and had another car sent to her stranded client. She also ascertained that the car rental agency had made a photocopy of her client's passport and credit card and arranged for that to be given to her client, as well. She directed her client to the U.S. embassy for a replacement passport. And, finally, she called the airline and set up a lost ticket application, convincing the airline to waive all fees -- all for a client who had bought the ticket from another agency.

• While backing out of her driveway, Nancy Twitchen, an agent affiliated with CWT in Asheville, N.C., was approached by a man who asked her how he could get to "Pinehurst," (the name of her street as well as the golf resort). He had booked a flight (on the Internet) into the Greenville/Spartanburg Airport in South Carolina, which was, unbeknownst to him, 250 miles from his North Carolina destination.

There was not much she could do about the drive he now faced, but she went into her house and called a representative she knew at the airline.

She rebooked the man's return ticket out of Charlotte, N.C., saving him 100 miles of driving on his return trip.

In each of these examples, agents went the extra mile to help. In the last example, the traveler who was helped by an agent wasn't even a paying client.

One of the worst things about the SmartMoney article was that it painted travel agents exclusively as agents of self-interest. That was the message, that's "what your travel agent won't tell you."

It's unfortunate that what SmartMoney won't tell consumers about travel agents is so much more important to its readership than what it does tell them.


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