Editor's note: This article has been changed to correct the last name of Beth Drummonds, a travel agent with Alpha Voyages.
WINCHESTER — Being a travel agent sounds like a dream job. You can visit exotic places, maybe get a bit of special treatment including some free trips.
But since the coronvirus pandemic hit in March, agents have been on the phone around the clock with clients distraught over losing their deposits or with airlines, cruises and resorts trying to get their clients’ money back.
“This has not been fun,” said Katie Anderson of Frederick County, who had been planning to go on a safari to South Africa. “2020 is not going to go down as a good year.”
“I had a wedding [booked] for Mexico in June and all that got canceled,” said Anderson, who concentrates on “exotic” travel through her agency Katie Anderson Voyages Travel. “It’s really sad because the bride and family had worked hours and hours on this and then the whole thing crashed.”
Travelers don’t pay for the agent’s services. Agents earn their money through commissions paid by resorts and hotels, cruise lines, car rental agencies and airlines. And they don’t get paid until travel has been successfully completed.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen anything like this,” said Mary June Williams, owner of Alpha Voyages Inc. in Winchester, who has been an agent since 1989. “We will not have a flow of cash for a year.”
Williams said that none of her clients has lost money on a canceled trip. If they don’t receive outright refunds, they are getting credits for future travel.
“It may be slow in coming, but it is coming,” Williams said of the refunds.
Bookings for next year are starting to pick up, Anderson said. Travel companies are offering “pretty nice incentives” to encourage people to roll over their deposits to another trip, she said. About half of her clients are taking advantage of the sweetened deals.
“It’s all about comfort level,” said Anderson, who has traveled to 86 countries during her 50-year career as a travel agent.
Although cruise lines won’t sail from U.S. ports until September at the earliest, some determined clients keep rescheduling their cruises even as sail dates are pushed to later in the year. “They’re not giving up,” Williams said.
Because one thing the coronavirus can’t kill is wanderlust.
“I think people in general are hopeful about travel,” said Pat Fletcher with Alpha Voyages. “They’re waiting for the best time for themselves and their family.”
Anderson has clients going to Scandinavia in September.
“They’re well traveled,” she said. “They feel it will be safe.”
Still, domestic travel is one of the best and safest options this year, especially since the European Union probably isn’t going to allow Americans to visit when it reopens its borders in July.
Beach and mountain houses are good choices this year — if you can get a reservation. Anderson owns a beach house on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She said she started seeing cancellations for the house in March, with six cancellations for June and July. But the house was quickly snapped up by others looking for a safe getaway.
“That’s where families are headed,” Anderson said of beach vacations. “There’s a comfort level. You can stay at the house and not have to be around other people much.”
For those looking for something more tropical, another option is the Caribbean islands, which are so dependent on tourist dollars. “All of the islands are slowly reopening but on their own terms,” said Beth Drummonds, an agent with Alpha Voyages.
Some resorts are surveying guests to find out if they may have been exposed to the virus and taking their temperature. Others are requiring visitors to quarantine on the resort from anywhere to a couple of days up to two weeks before venturing off the property, Drummonds said.
Drummonds said that Sandals resorts, all-inclusive resorts for couples in the Caribbean, are stepping up the protocol for cleaning and are not filling all of the rooms.
“Everything is very fluid,” Drummonds said of openings and protocols.
The cruise industry will probably be the last to rebound, the agents said. There are just too many people living and eating in close quarters on megaships that can hold 5,000 people.
Except for a couple of European river cruises, Anderson said, “I don’t have anybody sailing anywhere.”
As dark as 2020 has been, travel agents say, there is a bright spot. When people do start to travel again, agents are betting many travelers, experienced or novice, will want someone on their side if plans must be changed.
Agents know the cancellation and refund policies of the various businesses — or they know how to find out.
“You have a relationship with a person,” said Williams, who recently opened a new office for Alpha Voyages at 158 Front Royal Pike.
“This has definitely brought the value of a travel agent to the forefront,” Drummonds added. “Now they know they can go about their life while we sit on hold for eight hours.”