Do I need a travel agent and, if so, how do I find a good one? A reader planning a trip to Peru recently posed that question.
The first part is easy: If I'm hopping to D.C. to see the sights, I book my own airline and hotel. But for overseas trips with various stops and complicated logistics, I turn to a pro -- someone who knows the area, saves you hours of planning and booking, and can lend a steady hand if things go awry.
The second part requires a little more thinking.
Top priority is experience, wisdom and faith that the person will be your solid travel advocate. Membership in the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) is a good sign. The organization has a code of conduct for its agents backed by training and continuing education. You can find an ASTA agent at the group's consumer website, www.travelsense.org.
Though there are many excellent boutique and specialty travel agencies, you may feel a degree of confidence by turning to a big-name, well-respected agency such as AAA, Carlson Wagonlit and Travel Leaders.
Ask around with friends, too. It can be reassuring to know that others have had a good experience.
Narrow your pick to a few agents, then meet them in person. Ask about their fees, how long they've been in the business and how they handled some recent tricky situation that threatened a client's trip. Hopefully, you're building a relationship with someone who will come to understand your preferences and vacation style and who will be able to help you for years to come.
Send your questions or tips to travel editor Kerri Westenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow her on twitter @kerriwestenberg.