How Do I Find a Reliable Travel Agency or Tour Operator?

AskEd & AnswerEd
by Ed Perkins – August 4, 2008

No matter where you look, travel suppliers tout the great wonders of their destinations and “savings” of their prices. Although big airlines and hotel chains are familiar household names, many tour operators and retail travel agencies carry names you’ve never heard before. And you can be understandably concerned about paying a lot of money to one of these unknowns. I frequently get questions about choosing an agency or operator. Here’s an example:

“I found a tour to China that seemed very attractive, but I’m not sure the tour operator is reputable. How can I protect myself against possible loss or disappointment?”

The short answer is, “If it’s an obscure supplier, you’ll have a tough time finding out much about it.” But the question raises several fundamental issues about buying from unfamiliar sources.

Travel agents
Presumably, you use a travel agent rather than booking yourself because you value the counsel and assistance a good agent can provide. Customer service therefore becomes the dominant basis for choice.

Recommendations from friends and relatives are clearly the best option.
Most travel agents post a laundry list of accreditations and trade memberships. Some, such as CLIA, are strictly marketing and lobbying operations; others, such as IATA and IATAN are part of a network selling air tickets and other travel services.

ASTA (the American Society of Travel Agents) is the only trade association that has an active consumer office. If you have a problem with an ASTA member agency that you can’t resolve locally, ASTA will help mediate the dispute. That’s a good reason for selecting an ASTA agency.

One important caveat: You don’t want an agency that sells only the travel products carried by one of the GDS (Global Distribution System, one of the industry’s computer-based selling systems) networks it uses. These days, too many good deals are available only directly or through the Internet; a GDS-only agency can’t get at them.

My take
Neither nor I can go out on a limb and recommend any individual agencies or operators as “reliable” or “reputable.” I’ve been following this business for more than 40 years, and some of the biggest failures I’ve seen have been of companies that were widely regarded as “reliable” right up to the day they folded. And we obviously don’t want to be on the hook because a site we recommended failed to deliver a promised ticket.

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You aren’t a travel agent

by Lisa Kadane, Calgary Herald

So, you think you’re a travel agent? You’ve got a computer, high-speed Internet and a burgeoning library of websites that promise the best deals on airfares and accommodations, from to Plus, you googled “African safari” and found a slick site selling off Big 5 tours for next to nothing. Now, all you need is seven hours on a Saturday to research and book your trip.

If that sounds about as much fun as a day spent pulling weeds, you’re not alone. Some trips are easy to book on the web — a round-trip flight from Calgary to Vancouver to visit a friend, for example. Others are more complicated affairs — Galapagos Islands, anyone? — that illustrate the need for travel counsellors in an electronic age.

“The myth is that everything is cheaper on the Internet,” says Steve Gillick, president and COO of the Canadian Institute of Travel Counsellors.

In reality, Gillick says travellers often don’t understand the time it takes to DIY their trip, nor do they realize the invaluable insider information to be garnered from travel agents. Forget to factor in crucial details, from visas to travel insurance, and being your own agent could become one big mistake.

The Herald talked to travel counsellors across the country and rounded up four scenarios where it pays to use an expert.

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