I'm notoriously hard on travel agents, I do a lot of research and reading and I come to the process with some knowledge and lot of questions. The demanding part is I want a travel agent who knows my destination and listens to my needs and responds to me. Most of the travel agents I worked with early in my travel life were of the "I can book what we sell for you", and I wanted a much more personalized and customized experience.
When I started planning for a family trip to Africa for 7 people with diverse interests including 3 young teens, I contacted one of the premier destination travel agents (they literally "wrote the book") about making an itinerary for us. I specifically requested it not to include an area I felt was a little too unstable for us to travel with young girls. The itineraries I received all included that area, and I was left feeling like had not been heard. Scared off a bit, and a little overwhelmed, I put the trip off for a year and went back to more research.
This time however, I decided to forgo the "books" and try this new fangled thing called the Internet! An up and coming website called Trip Advisor seemed to have some good stuff on it, if I could figure out who to trust. Luckily, trust comes in the form of Destination Experts, and as luck would have it, Craig Beal, the owner of Travel Beyond was one of those Destination Experts for Africa. I asked a few questions on the Africa forums, which he answered, I asked more questions on line, which he also patiently answered. I emailed him off line with more impossible requests- a budget that barely matched the level of accommodation we wanted, during the high season. People with kids and our budget went to Tanzania, with a group; we wanted Botswana, by ourselves. And did I mention it was the year the World Cup was held in South Africa? (See what I mean about being a demanding client?) Working some magic, with his connections and his knowledge, Craig worked out an itinerary for us that included all the ecosystems we wanted to see, at the level of camp we wanted, in our budget. He knew Wilderness safaris was offering a special buy 6 nights, get the 7th night free, and that they had extended their shoulder season through the very end of June due to the recession. If we could book all 7 nights at the safari camp in before July 1st, we could travel for 1/2 of what it would cost in July and August.
(As an aside: In New England we've got 5 snow days built into the school calendar. It's a no no to plan trips that don't account for those potential extra days and have kids leave school early, especially when one child is in high school with final exams to take. But we rolled the dice and decided to book, and in the event we had a snowy winter and those days were used our kids would miss the last days. We felt that a trip to Africa was an amazing experience and we would sort it out with the schools somehow. Well, the fates were smiling, and 2010 was the only year in my children's 14 years of schooling that we needed not ONE of those extra days! The girls finished school and we flew to Johannesburg the next day!)
Even though Craig's agency was located in MN, we were able to transact all our business via email and the phone and I learned another important travel lesson. Good travel agents need to be destination experts for the places you want to travel. They don't need to be in your back yard in this day and age, but they need to come highly recommended by people who travel with them and they have to "know the territory" (to quote Music Man)
In the years since our amazing African Safari, the Craig Beal, Jenny Mikkelson and the Travel Beyond staff has put together trips to Ecuador and the Galapagos, French Polynesia, Eastern Europe and even Disney World for us. They respond to every request, answer every question, and on occasions when something snafus (and with travel details, something always snafus) they problem solve, advocate with travel vendors and get it fixed to our satisfaction. Even for someone as demanding as me...this is top notch service and our trips have been one of kind special due to their expertise!