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Image of the plan and organize your own travelAt Business Travel Exclusive, we recognize that most small business owners end up being their own travel agents these days. Over the last two decades, there has been a transition from relying on a travel agent to make all your arrangements for you to making all our own arrangements. At the beginning, this transition was not so smooth, but as the online tools have matured and the public’s knowledge of travel has grown, many now prefer the flexibility of making their own travel arrangements.

Being your own travel agent isn’t as easy as the pros made it look
Travel agents from the days of old were masters of planning, organizing and technology. A mastery of the technology is probably the most overlooked skill of professional travel agents. They connected airline, hotel and car rental reservations to centralized booking services over standard phone lines. Also, the process for making a reservation was not point-and-click but instead involved typing cryptic codes on a command line and then deciphering the results displayed.

One advantage of a central booking service was the automatic creation of a detailed itinerary that could be printed and include paper airline tickets. The itinerary would also include any hotel and rental car arrangements in chronological order with confirmation numbers in case you needed them. You could leave a copy of this itinerary with your office and at home so those who needed to contact you would know how. Yes, before the age of cell phones that thing on the nightstand next to the bed in your hotel room used to have a purpose beyond ordering room service.

Being swift with the technology also helped keep a professional travel agent organized. But what about the planning aspect of the job? Here is where the exceptional travel agents separated themselves from the pack of average and ordinary. It’s quite likely that the more successful travel booking websites today tapped the knowledge, skills and abilities of those exceptional travel agents as travel planning and booking moved online.

Step 1: Get it booked, you can always change it later
During the planning of a business trip, there is going to come to a point where you find an exceptional price or offer of some kind on either your airfare, hotel or rental car. When this happens, the best piece of advice we can give you is – book it right now. Typically if that component of the trip is a hotel or rental car, you can cancel or change it without penalty right up until the day of arrival. Even in places like Las Vegas where you need to put down a deposit on your room, it is almost always refundable as long as you cancel within a reasonable timeframe.

The airfare component of a trip can be a bit trickier. We wrote an entire article about that: Find cheap flights for business travel. There are two takeaways from that article:

If you travel enough, having to pay a change fee once or twice a year when you guess wrong on a booking won’t be that big a deal
Book on an airline like Southwest that charges no change fees and only asks for the difference in fare when you make a change.
The single most important part of planning your trip is to hedge your bets by locking in low fares, cheap hotel rooms and rental car deals as soon as you find them. The other trick to planning a trip is to start looking for fares and such as soon as the trip dates begin to solidify. It also helps if you can combine business in a geographic region, which allows you to be a bit more flexible with your travel dates. If the client for your primary appointment tells you they can meet Tuesday or Wednesday, just plan to fly in Monday evening and out Wednesday night. Once you know exactly when they can meet, you can schedule other appointments without having to change your trip or pay higher last minute fares.

The technology greatly simplifies your job as an amateur travel agent
There is a trend in online booking that allows you to stay on one site for all your travel needs once you start the trip planning process. This holds true on sites like Expedia or Travelocity as well as most of the airline sites. If you visit Delta or Southwest to book an airline ticket, they will likely offer you hotel rooms and rental cars sometime during the booking process or even after you have booked your airfare. This one-stop shopping can be helpful when you are starting out, but at some point, you may develop preferences for certain airlines, hotels and rental car companies in order to maintain your preferred status with those companies.

If you manage to book your entire trip on one site, you’ll also end up with a digital version of the itinerary the professional travel agents used to provide. What if you prefer to book your air, hotel and rental cars separately? There are tools like TripIt that allow you to consolidate all your travel plans including things like dinners, sporting events and shows all within one digital interface. TripIt becomes your itinerary on steroids and includes the capability to send you notifications when flights are delayed or gates change while you are in transit.

Plan, book, organize
Successfully being your own travel agent comes down to following the lead of the professional travel agents that came before you. First, plan your trip. Figure out the dates and times of your travel and the cities in which you’ll need hotel rooms and rental cars. Next, book any of the aforementioned as soon as a great deal presents itself or once the particulars of the trip have solidified. Finally, use either a single service to book all your plans or an itinerary consolidation service like TripIt to keep all your plans organized.

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