What to Look for in a Travel Agent

Snowed!

Oh Snowed!

You never realize just how valuable a travel agent is to your vacation until disaster strikes.

A few years ago, I was traveling to South America to take a cruise around the Antarctic Peninsula. This was the first time I had done something like that so my travel companion and I planned for eventualities. We booked our tickets with the cruise line (not recommended, because the travel insurance does not cover weather, which we thought it did) and planned to arrive in Argentina, a day ahead of boarding.

The cruise line booked us to fly north before heading south. It seemed extremely dumb at the time because we started at an international airport (MCO) and there was another south of us (MIA). Weather turned and we got stuck and then stranded in Atlanta as first our flight was delayed and then cancelled. We were shuffled out of the secure part of the airport to rebook and that was when having a travel agent worked to our advantage.

Our travel agent was booking us on flights as soon as one cancelled (and many did). She figured out how to get us out of the US when other travelers were giving up and figuring they’d get refunds on the cruise. Long story short, we managed to board a plane the next day and get to our cruise for a fabulous adventure at the bottom of the world.

I learned from that experience what to look for in a travel agent and the five most important items are:

  1. Knowledge: A knowledgeable travel agent is the first step for any strategic vacation plan. A good travel agent will know basics about areas where you want to travel, but a great agent will recommend places to go, things to do, what to pack, what to expect, etc.
  2. Willingness: If you have a knowledgeable travel agent, but your travel agent isn’t willing to work for you, then you are better off using Google to search the Internet for your travel needs. A travel agent willing to get you the best deal, to ensure you make it to your destination, or to assist in an emergency is worth her weight in gold.
  3. Ability: If willingness doesn’t match ability, you’re sunk. Your travel agent no matter how willing to help you also needs to have experience in her field. She should excel from start to finish concerning all aspects of your booking.
  4. Out-of-the-Box Thinking: When everybody else is stymied by the unexpected, your travel agent should remain cool, calm, and collected. She should be three steps ahead, coming up with alternative solutions while everybody else stews.
  5. Friendship: If you are friends with a travel agent, I would recommend using your friend at least once. Nine times out of ten, your friend will treat you better than any other travel agent you could find. They will go the extra mile for you and these are the miles that count!

If you find a travel agent with all five qualities, do not let her go! I know I haven’t!

Share your best/worst experiences with a travel agent!

Antarctica Journal Day 17: Buenos Aires to Miami

La Recoleta Cemetery

La Recoleta Cemetery

We ate some breakfast (I had toast and fruit) (Mom had fruit).

Buenos Aires Tour and Tango Show: Then we went to the Martini Bar on Deck 5 by 7:15 AM. We were off the boat by 7:30 AM. The bus was comfortable, and the tour guide, Amalia, was very nice and competent. She was an older woman and happy to be taking us around. She took us to the shanty area, but likely not the worst of the worse. She wanted us to ask questions. Mom asked her about the homeless we saw – a man dressed in rags; a man sleeping on a mattress on the street and those living under the bridges.

One of the most interesting places was the cemetery where Eva Peron is buried, La Recoleta Cemetery. Much of it has been declared a national treasure. If there are no descendents, the government keeps up the gravesites. Reminded me of the New Orleans cemetery in the Double Jeopardy movie.

La Recoleta Cemetery

La Recoleta Cemetery

We liked the little art area, but most was closed when we got there. Mom bought a cute little crèche scene for about $10.

Then to the Tango Show. The food was mediocre at best, but the show was more than excellent. And so were the costumes and the scenario. I got quite a bit of it on video on Mom’s camera.

(We heard later that the other Tango show’s food was excellent. If it is the one on the video we bought, the show itself was not as good.)

La Recoleta Cemetery

La Recoleta Cemetery

Buenos Aires airport: Then to the airport by 2 PM, but our flight wasn’t until 9:30 PM and they wouldn’t let us check in until 6 PM. We ended up playing cards, first Misery, then Rummy, with Lynne from the boat for a couple of hours which killed some time.

Another group of 4 played Euchre and sort of taught us how. Their flight wasn’t going until 11:30 PM. It was a zoo. Most airport workers spoke no English. We had lined up in the wrong area, but it didn’t take long to get through the right area. A fellow came along and gave us all a computer print out. We then knew we were in the right line.

Chatting with one couple, they asked if we got sick on the boat, didn’t believe we’d been to Antarctica because they hadn’t seen any of what we were describing. Turns out they were on the Norwegian boat, not our boat. Ha.

La Recoleta Cemetery

La Recoleta Cemetery

Amalia took a couple of couples back into Buenos Aires to shop. She said she didn’t know why Celebrity planned the tour for so early, it could be done later without so much airport time.

Inside the security part of the airport we had a chicken calzone, which was excellent. Then we had a Fanta – it tasted so good! Mom window shopped around the airport, but didn’t buy anything. Lots of perfume; Hermes; Mont Blanc; liquor; chocolates. Everywhere we paid with US dollars, and usually didn’t get any change, though we got 1.25 pesos at the airport.

Mom and I were separated on the plane because Mom exchanged her aisle seat in front of me with the sister of the family with a baby in that row. Mom then had the cattycorner aisle. Lucky.

La Recoleta Cemetery

La Recoleta Cemetery

The flight dinner was excellent: chicken, mashed potatoes, veggies and a sort of caramel egg custard (not my thing or Mom’s.) The OJ was excellent! Breakfast was fruit, more OJ and a croissant that didn’t hold up to the croissants on the boat.

Antarctica Journal Day 14: Puerto Madryn

Puerto Madryn

View of Puerto Madryn from Boat

11:16 AM: Mom noticed we had a message waiting from yesterday. It was from Violeta, the concierge, wanting to talk to her. They want to offer us a meal at the exclusive restaurant because of our inconvenience with the lost luggage.

Steven S. called us to tell us they were meeting at 8 AM, then leaving the boat. They had no solid plans. We said we’d see if we saw them outside or not. We never did see them. Later we found out that some went biking to Porto Lumo. The rest went by cab. Ken went out to the Welsh village to have tea and bought a tea cozy. He said they put on quite a spread for tea. They all said the roads were bad, gravel and dusty.

Teresa and Joseph (he will be 72) went to see the penguins. They said it smelled. Box lunch was nothing to write home about. No gift shops or anything. Interestingly enough, where Mom and I went in the Falklands did not smell. Thankfully.

Playground on the beach of Puerto Madryn

Playground on the Beach of Puerto Madryn

Steve B. wished us a good day and we did the same on the elevator.

The pier is very long. Too far to walk off. Immediately off the ship there is a stand to order various trips if you didn’t want to take one of the boat tours. The trip to Tumbo to see penguins is $100/each for a 6 hour trip. Checking when we got back, the trip through the boat was $150 each. At least one couple was being met on the pier by someone holding a sign for them. There is a free shuttle bus that goes into the town and back to the boat.

We really just wanted to walk around, though Mom wondered if we had made a mistake because there is so little to do in town, at least at the time we got off the ship. I’m so glad we aren’t on a 6 hour ride!

Besides the penguins are the same ones we’ve seen. Some of the stores opened at 9:30 AM; the rest at 10 AM; though one didn’t open the entire time and we had hoped it might. There is a mall, but we did not find it. Some folks were given fliers when they got off the boat, but we were not. There was evidently a craft show area too, which we didn’t find. We did see a couple of men setting up cloths where they would sell jewelry along the water.

Keira on Beach of Puerto Madryn

Keira on Beach of Puerto Madryn


The town reminded us in some ways of Naples. Lots of graffiti. Lots of dust in the air.

Not a lot there. We walked quite a ways down the main street by the water, then back along the water’s edge. Several small children’s parks, several statues, most covered with graffiti.

They said this is a stop so you can see penguins and sea lions. But they had both been available before. Perhaps we should have gone to see the sea lions.

Mom and I found two little shops almost next to each other where we each got silver pendants. Mom also got earrings. They have some of the cave drawing depictions from local Indians. We paid in US dollars and got change back in US dollars.

We came back to the boat, had a snack, took a short nap, had lunch, then went to the Thalassotherapy pool. We stayed there several hours, reading in the only spot in the shade.

Keira is Ready for Cocktails

Keira is Ready for Cocktails

Evidently all the buses came back simultaneously with a huge line to reenter the ship.

Shortly thereafter, there were a couple of games that we went to do. Photographic memory. That one was hard to do, because it didn’t work on his big screen, so we had to gather around the laptop. Then Deal or No Deal. My team just barely lost.

Then we had some pizza and stir fry to tide us over until dinner.

Later the guys invited us up for a cocktail hour in their room. They had quite a spread! They ordered room service and got fruit, crackers and cheese, offered drinks and soda. It was a lot of fun. Then we went down to Deck 5 to the Martini Bar (and music) to await dinner. We also took photos with them on the long staircase.

They had lobster tails for dinner, but not with drawn butter, with a sauce that looked like 1000 island, but wasn’t. It was quite good.

The show was at 10:45 PM, which is late, but it makes the time less rushed when you get back into the ship, as well as lets people wear their formal wear for longer. There were quite a few tuxes. The guys got complimentary tuxes since they had no luggage. (They said for their luggage to go back to Atlanta. A friend of theirs went into the bowels of the Atlanta airport and found them. Meantime if he hadn’t picked it up, it would have gone to some other place for unclaimed luggage.)

It was the last show by the production dancers and was terrific, music around the world.

Afterwards, we were so tired, we came right back, and fell into bed. Zzzz…

Antarctica Journal Day 11: Ushuaia

Docked in Ushuaia

Docked in Ushuaia

5:30 AM: Mom took pictures every so often. It was really beautiful with the sky lightening and the back drop of mountains with snow.

We don’t have anything planned here, but we understand there is plenty to do – and plenty to choose from, if we wish. The catamaran that we canceled because we didn’t know we’d have warm jackets, goes to a penguin rookery with the same kind of penguins that we saw already, so we didn’t need to do that. Other choices were to go out to a national park or kayak. It is possible to take a taxi to the national park. I think that is what Suzanne and Chrissi were planning to do. There is also a railroad and a cable car (which goes to a glacier area.)

Keira walking around in Ushuaia

Keira walking around in Ushuaia

Carole has been here before, says it is beautiful. She only visited shops because they didn’t have as long a time in port. She and Joan have nothing planned either.

7:30 PM: Mom and I had a nice day. We are now sitting up on deck 11 in the Constellation, in the far front, waiting for the boat to sail, which it has just done. We are heading to Chile next. There will be about an hour delay at some point while the boat is cleared to leave Argentinian waters and enter Chile’s. We are on the way to Cape Horn. Woot!

Laguna Negra in Ushuaia

Laguna Negra in Ushuaia

We saw our luggage on the dock as we exited the boat. We had high hopes that it would make it to our room. It did. It was there when we got back. It took two tries, because we felt we needed to dress warmer, plus it was raining a bit, so we went back up and got geared out, then went out.

On the dock we saw the info about the railroad, and it sounded like a winner. We had almost an hour before it left for a 3 hour excursion. So we went up into the town. Up, is the operative word. The lecturer said yesterday the climb would kill an older person. That was an exaggeration, but it was steep.

Mom drinking hot chocolate

Mom drinking hot chocolate

We just looked around. Mom and I are not ones to buy leather purses or etc. We found Laguna Negra right away, which the lecturer had recommended for hot chocolate. That’s what we did, and it was yummy.

Back to the dock to buy the railroad tour (49 USD for one or 97 USD for two). They bused us a half hour in each direction to and from the train aka Tren Fin del Mundo (Train at the End of the World). The bus went past what looked like some slums, including graffiti, then some richer looking homes right smack on top of the road. Once out of the city proper we drove on dirt roads, but the bus was very nice.

On the Tren Fin del Mundo

On the Tren Fin del Mundo

We didn’t run out of camera battery until we had taken nearly all the photos we wished.

Ushuaia bills itself as the southernmost city, at the end of the world. There is another city in Chile which has hardly any inhabitants so it doesn’t really qualify (at least according to Argentina!) It is the stopping off place for going to Antarctica. It really is lovely, nestled into the mountains, and the mountains are high peaks. It doesn’t look like there are roads or houses up there, though there may be.

Keira by map for the Tren Fin del Mundo

Keira by map for the Tren Fin del Mundo

After the train, we went back to Laguna Negra for more hot chocolate and a kind of cheese and ham tostada. The second time it was quite noisy with a couple of loud tables. One table had musicians from the boat.

Then we went back to the boat. The wind had picked up so much that we practically flew, literally, down the dock. One couple said they had to help an older lady who was holding onto a pole.

Keira and Waterfalls

Keira and Waterfalls

Oh joy! To get our luggage. I had the idea to go to the whirlpool before we showered and dressed in our own clothes. Mom says, “Great idea!” We went up to the Thalassotherapy Pool – it is warm sea water (with chlorine) with bubbly areas flowing over metal tubing that slants to the side edge. Heavenly!

One man said the view from deck 11 was fabulous. He was bringing his beer up. Mom went up, robed from the pool, and chatted with them. Then down to clean up. Heaven!

View out the train of the Tela del Fuego

View out the train of the Tela del Fuego

Meanwhile I stayed in the pool and whirlpool for longer. I sat and chatted with Sky. Sky said she overheard someone saying that they would commit suicide if their luggage didn’t show. How ridiculous!

After we were ready to go out, I wanted to get Tapas and go to the library. Mom wanted to return some of the borrowed coats, etc. So Mom met me on deck 5, then I got my sweater from Deck 9, and we met on Deck 11 (Mom with the food.) Musical decks?

More waterfalls, the sound is so lovely!

More waterfalls, the sound is so lovely!

So now here we are, heading off into a cloudy sky and fog on the top of the mountains. It is very lovely.

Earlier in the day, the sea was like glass, literally, in this beautiful bay (deep enough for large ships.) Now it is choppy with white caps, buy not rocky. Everyone is still sitting here.

Bye Ushuaia!

Bye Ushuaia!

Antarctica Journal Day 4: First Sea Day and Formal Dining

Nice breakfast. Beautiful sea. It’s still basically moderate weather here. Our deck area was very nice this morning. We bought sweaters that are very soft and didn’t worry about much else as we are exempt from the dress code. People ate outside on the upstairs deck.

10:30 AM: We heard a professor (Richard Ojakangas) (Antarctica: The White Continent) tell about being on geological expeditions to Antarctica beginning about 1979 as I remember it. He actually has a mountain range named after himself, but not by him, by the expedition leader. He said he’d say to God, if you get me off this mountain, I’ll never go up again – only to say it the next time. Lots of slides. Very interesting. We heard that last cruise the waves were 30 ft high! But it was nice in Antarctica. Gotta be mentally prepared.

Suzanne and Keira All Dressed in Formal

Suzanne and Keira All Dressed in Formal

Mom told me that dressed in white pants, the white Celebrity T-shirt and white tennis shoes, I looked like staff. One couple (women who met on another cruise and like each other so well, they now travel together) (they are not a gay couple) asked me a ship question and were surprised I didn’t know the answer. When I explained what had happened to our luggage, they were the first to offer to loan me clothes. I took them up on it later.

I got quite a number that fit me, both casual and dressy. They were so cute in their eagerness to help us – even offering shoes. They said they brought more than they could wear. Joan and Carole were so nice.

I got pasta for lunch and brought it back to the room to eat on the deck. Mom sat inside so she could see the computer screen – and she wasn’t hungry yet.

Our Dinner Companions

Our Dinner Companions

3 PM – Graham Sunderland gave a talk on Wildlife, People and Places of the South Atlantic – focusing only on Falklands. He will do more about penguins in another talk. He was very funny and droll. Both of us fought sleep by the time he got off the Falklands and onto the wildlife. He is a naturalist.

5:15 PM – They found 1 suitcase. It was still in Atlanta and will get to us in Uruguay – though by then we might not need warm clothes. And we don’t know whose it is, mine or one of mom’s two – one of hers only has warm coats, basically.

For a while today the water was a gorgeous azure turquoise. The boat is rocking pretty good right now, and it is colder outside. People are wearing jackets on the upstairs deck.

Mom had the equivalent of high tea just now because she didn’t have lunch and dinner isn’t until 8:45 for us. They serve tea in all the dining rooms, but also on an inside walk through area – with pastries. She got some on the 10th floor and brought them back to the room. I was sleeping like yesterday.

A lot of people have laptops all over the ship. They work in most public areas, evidently. Mom still hadn’t bought an Internet package. Trying to figure out how much to buy.

Mom with Friends

Mom with Friends

The laundry has been returned. It was done very nicely. Even the jean jacket was pressed.

The movie today is Knowing.  Our musical show tonight is at 11 pm after dinner. Looks like we missed the opportunity for this movie.

It’s impossible to do everything that is offered, because it is double booked. While we listened to the naturalist, there was also scrapbooking offered. Mom would have liked to do that, but wanted to hear the speaker more.

Antarctica Journal Day 3: Boarding the Ship

No luggage.

We were met promptly by representatives of Celebrity. They said we needed to file a claim with Aeromexico, so we went back inside and did that. It took quite a while to file. [We still have yet to see any money from their losing the luggage.  We would have been better filing at Delta.] Meantime a man had been told their luggage might appear on the Delta flight coming in at 7:30 so we watched for ours too, but when I asked Delta, they had no info that it was on the plane, but it showed it had made it to Cancun (the opposite of what we’d been told.) Delta said we didn’t need to refile a claim that they would coordinate with Aeromexico.

The man and his friend were surprised Mom was taking it so well. She was actually happy!  I was taking it less well. Mom said, far better that we make it to the boat, than our luggage! Too true!

We stayed at the airport until 10:30 when we went to a bus that took us to the pier. It took about 40 mins from the airport. At the pier, it was very fast getting into the boat. Again, we didn’t have the paperwork quite as it should be. They took our passports and will return them after the Falklands. Not sure why.

First thing we did was go to our room (after welcoming mimosas.. yummy!) and dropped off some stuff. Then up to the buffet to eat. It was delicious. Mom had the Asian food. I had DIY pasta. Once there, we immediately went out and got the soda package for us.

A couple next to us eating are veteran cruisers. They said we should talk to the concierge, when they heard about our luggage problems.

We did, and she was most helpful – free laundry service, underwear, socks, shirts, deodorant and etc. She will let us know what she finds out. Asked if we had got any compensation. I said that I hadn’t thought to ask. She asked if we had trip insurance (No… lesson learned) Later she found me a pair of pants. White.

She told us sometimes the luggage makes it to the plane, but the people do not. I am so glad we did. Mom too. It seems like almost an impossible demonstration. But we are here. The room is prettier than I remember it (from our Alaskan cruise with the whole family.) It is possible that it has been redecorated. We both feel we deserve to get an award for criss-crossing the Atlanta airport the most times in a 12 hour period!

Later we snacked on a couple of things at the bar area by the pool – hot French fries, good chocolate chip cookies, some guacamole and chips, etc.

The best thing in the world was taking our showers. I napped for much of the day catching up on all the sleep I had lost the previous 2 days.

5:44 PM – We are moving out of the port. It’s very windy. Water is very muddy looking. At first our balcony was in bright sun and hot. Now it is in shade. White caps out beyond the stone breaker. There is a cruise ship moving out ahead of us.

We found our friends again when we had to muster for the lifeboat drill. We invited the 8 men to come to our balcony to see the ship off with us. But they preferred to go to the front. One couple has been together 12 yrs; another for 17; and a third for 18; two are single. They are all friends. They live in Atlanta and had gone back home for part of the night.

6:13 PM – The boat made a turn coming out of the port and we are back in the sun again. Mom is going to go outside, then figure out how to compose emails offline to save on our internet package.

The shops are filled with all sorts of great things in all price ranges, including diamonds and furs. Fun to walk around and look anyway. At least one couple bought a painting of some sort.

Excellent dinner. I had prime rib. Mom had spiced Moroccan lamb (didn’t taste spicy at all, but it was just superb.)

We went to the 11 PM showing of Bride Wars. That was fun. Mom slept through it off and on.