Rebecca TobinA few months ago, I started my search for a travel specialist who could handle my family's trip to Japan this fall.

The initial verdict? Looking for a travel specialist ain't always easy.

I've been in the travel business for nearly a dozen years, but for the sake of conducting the search "like a consumer" I tried to put aside some of my knowledge. For example, I didn't use the phrases "FIT" or "PNR" or "qualify the customer" when talking to agents.

To start, I relied on Google.

An early search for "Japan travel specialist" took me, logically enough, to the Japan National Tourism Organization's "find an agent" page, where it lists its official Japan Travel Specialists. After I plugged in my hometown and state, the search engine returned two hits for local agencies.

One appeared to specialize in Eastern Mediterranean travel. The other was near my home: a somewhat typical brick-and-mortar agency with tour and cruise posters in the window and a website that listed more than two dozen specialties. But neither Japan nor Asia were highlighted. I sent the agency a message through the auto-form on its website, explaining that I wanted to arrange a trip to Japan. I elaborated: "Need hand-holding!" No response.

Curious about the Japan Travel Specialist program, I scrolled through the list of specialists. There are 431 specialists whose agencies start with the letter "A" (AAA, anyone?). I skipped ahead to the "J" page, for no other reason than maybe I'd find some agencies with Japan in their names. There were two, not counting entries for JTB (No. 23 on the Travel Weekly Power List). One was JapanBall, which operates baseball-themed tours. I put this info aside for a possible future Japan trip. 

But I also found one that I personally recognized: Just Cruisin' Plus, the agency owned by Travel Weekly columnist Charlie Funk.

Curious to know what a cruise-focused agency does with a Japan specialist badge, I reached out to the Just Cruisin' agent who had completed the specialist program, Sherry Webb.

Webb hasn't traveled to Japan, one of my criteria for agents on this trip. The certification program, she said, hadn't yielded any bookings to Japan. "But," she added, "I have booked many, many trips (cruises and resorts) for U.S. citizens of Japanese descent and Japanese citizens living in the U.S., primarily associated with Nissan Motor Manufacturing. Its U.S. headquarters is located about seven miles from our office. It's likely that the specialist certification was of benefit in attracting those clients."

Back to the search.

I noticed that a lot of "find an agent" options on various websites offer to send you information about agents in or near your town or ZIP code.

But what if I hate my ZIP code? (By the way, I don't; just asking a rhetorical question.)

Seriously, having an agent who has traveled in Japan was one of my requirements; having an agent within striking distance of my house was not. I don't have to meet my travel consultant at the local Starbucks. I'd prefer to find a Japan specialist who is a serious specialist -- been there, done that, knows what time the bullet train leaves -- and is sympathetic to the rigors of family travel. And with whom I would enjoy speaking on the phone and communicating via email, of course.

Belatedly, I found that ASTA's website has a travel agent finder that breaks the search down by specialty (you can also search by location, if you do prefer to deal with someone local).

I looked for an agent who had destination expertise in two areas: the "Asia -- Japan, China, Korea Mongolia" destination and "family travel" specialty.

It returned 125 results, including a travel agent in Islamabad.

Unfortunately for me, I couldn't figure out how to drill down further to get someone who was truly a Japan expert. Several of the keywords I tried in the fill-in-the-blank field -- Kyushu, Tokyo, Kyoto -- didn't return any results, or returned names of agent experts in other fields. Still, I give the site points for at least attempting to do a specialty search.

I'm not sure how many consumers know the names of the major agent consortia, since many agency groups are more focused on improving members' consumer outreach than on raising the consortium's brand profile. Still, I was curious to see what their sites could do.

Some consortia offer a "vacation search" option, which is basically a quick search for something fairly defined and supplier-oriented: a cruise or a land tour, for example. Two perfectly reasonable vacation choices. But it's not helpful if you're looking for an agent specialist who does true FITs. A search on one tool for a tour of Japan in November returned several results: SITA, Orient Flexi-Pax, Monograms (a tour for independent travelers). But since I was looking for a totally custom trip? Not for me.

The feature that impressed me the most involved something pretty quaint and old-fashioned: a telephone. On the Virtuoso home page, for example, there's no drop-down menu, no ZIP code search. Just a little box: "If you are not currently working with a Virtuoso-affiliated travel agency, call us and we'll introduce you to one."

I gave it a shot. A pleasant-sounding woman answered the phone, took my general trip parameters and put me on hold. I thought that I'd leave my name and number, which would then be sent around for agents to bid on and contact me later.

Not the case: In less than a minute I was speaking to a Virtuoso agent who had traveled in Japan.

I also stopped at Tripology.com. Consumers input trip plans, dates and other vacation information free of charge, and then Tripology sends the lead out; up to three agents will contact the consumer. Tripology has relatively good staying power -- it's been around since 2007 -- and it showed up as the top organic search result in a Google search for "find a travel agent."

I was impressed with the site's design and the questions it asked as part of the trip-planning questionnaire, especially the question on budget: Is the amount entered the maximum amount the traveler can spend, or is it an estimated cost and the traveler "needs a travel specialist to accurately determine the actual price"? I appreciated this small, yet insightful, detail.

Within less than two hours, I had two travel agents contact me with thoughtful responses.

Maybe finding a specialist isn't so hard, as long as you know where to look.

Leave Rebecca Tobin comments and suggestions under this column and follow her experiences on Twitter.

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