Two days into her dive group’s trip to Little Cayman in March, Donna Nawrocki got the news — the Cayman Islands’ borders were snapping shut due to COVID. Her group of 24 divers had three days to get off the island. This meant competing with other vacationers and transplanted staffers for space on 17-seater planes to Grand Cayman to reach rebooked domestic flights.

“It would have been impossible, literally impossible, if everybody in my group was on the phone trying to get back,” says Nawrocki.

Instead, she called Cameron Akins, her dive travel specialist of 15 years at Caradonna Adventures. “I made one phone call and she immediately was making all the arrangements to get us off the islands and back home.”

Expertise On Call

Today, working with a travel specialist isn’t about booking tickets anyone can reserve online. It’s about tapping decades of travel experience and operator relationships in a single phone call.

Agents can quickly offer the local knowledge travelers spend hours searching for online, highlighting the most comfortable room for divers with knee issues or the dive guide best at spotting frogfish.

Ask Margo Peyton, owner of Family Dive Travel, who has worked in the tourism industry for decades. If a couple with a 7-year-old wants to go to the Caribbean, she’ll steer them to the Cayman Islands for proximity, familiar cuisine, frequent flights and two-bedroom villas that provide mom and dad with alone time. But if grandma is coming too?

“St. Lucia is perfect,” she says. Anse Chastanet has “a great children’s program, and I can put you and your husband in a beautiful room overlooking the Pitons and the ocean while your mom is doing culinary classes or sitting on the beach, and taking a sugar plantation walk.”

But what’s the price tag on instant insider knowledge custom-tailored to your needs?

Usually, nothing. Most travel specialists do not charge service fees, instead receiving commission from resorts and airlines.

Working with an agent may actually end up saving travelers money, according to Timothy Webb, president of Caradonna. “Our prices are generally better than they can find themselves because we’re also aware of all the specials that are out there,” he says.

Some agencies offer exclusive add-ons for booking with them, such as PADI Travel, which gives customers a complementary DAN insurance policy on trips that cost $2,500 or more per person.

“There is no downside to using an agent,” says Kelly Donovan, a PADI Travel team lead. “It is the same price, plus you get the service.”

A Dedicated Advocate

As COVID-19 continues to scramble travel requirements, working with an agent frees the traveler from tracking each country’s mandates. Travelers must comply with the requirements, but agents spare customers hours sifting through message boards or making decisions based on outdated articles.

“We are on top of what’s open, what’s closed, what’s required, what app you have to have installed on your phone, what health questionnaires you have to fill out before you go, what kind of [coronavirus] test is required,” says Caradonna’s Akins. Companies like Caradonna typically work directly with governments, providing constant access to reliable information.

An agent can also be an advocate if those rules change mid-trip, as Akins was for Nawrocki. Help in sticky situations is often the primary allure of agents, even pre-COVID-19; 85 percent of travelers say the ability to provide an extra level of service when things go wrong is the main value of an agent, according to a 2019 report by MMGY Global, a travel and hospitality marketer.

Travel specialists say they are better at handling tough situations than even an experienced individual traveler for several reasons: They are intimately familiar with the ins and outs of government regulations and airline policies; they have direct connections with operators; and their business volume gives them pull.

“When I’m [doing] a quarter million or half a million dollars in business with a company, I have more clout than one person does to say, ‘Hey, I need this. Can you please do this for me?’” says Peyton.

That’s particularly helpful when an entire destination tries to vacate at once. Flights go fast.

In that instance, Akins was “invaluable” to Nawrocki in Little Cayman.

The entire group received new flight information Tuesday morning after her Monday afternoon alert. All of them were home by the end of the day Thursday, and received a credit with the airline for future travel because their new return flights were cheaper than their initial booking. The airline is also saving seats for their reprise trip next March with no money down because of Akins and Caradonna’s repeat business.

“It was like a miracle she was able to get everybody off” the island, says Nawrocki. “You can be dependent on them… They’re going to be there for you to help you if there’s a major problem.”

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