- Travel agent Melissa Miller Lonsk says travel agents have taken on a new role.
- Melissa Miller Lonsk was working in publishing when she decided to quit her job and take a six-month world tour, launching her career.
- She tells everyone to be prepared when they travel, as delays and cancellations can make vacations unpredictable.
Melissa Miller Lonsk doesn’t remember everything about the vacations she took as a child, but she can easily recall one specific detail: the name of the travel agency her family used to book their cruises.
Thanks in part to Sand and Sea Travel, Lonsk caught the travel bug early.
As a college student and then a 20-something working for a book publisher in New York City, she turned her attention to budget-friendly adventure, maximizing her exposure to new places. Lonsk stayed with friends in countries worldwide, fueling her passion for different cultures.
And when Lonsk and her now-husband Seth got engaged in 2014, she asked what he’d think if she quit her job and they planned a six-month world tour after their wedding.
“I mean, I was half kidding,” Lonsk said. “And he was like, ‘Yeah. Let’s do it.'”
The joke not only launched the newlyweds on an adventure — including extended stays in Australia and New Zealand — but it also put Lonsk on a new professional path. Seven years later, she is a full-time travel agent. Her company Vacation Curation operates as part of Tzell Travel Group, where she trained after making the career change.
Contrary to mainstream beliefs, Lonsk insists that the industry is not a dying one.
“People think it’s going away with the Internet, but it’s just changing,” she said. “You want somebody to help you sort through all of the information. Yes, you can do it yourself, but knowing it’s been curated helps you not waste your time.”
Agents are also able to leverage existing relationships with hotels, resorts, and destination management companies.
Bigger changes in the travel industry resulting from COVID-19 have, in fact, created new opportunities for agents like Lonsk. In March 2020, she helped several clients get aging parents and other family members out of foreign countries and home to the US.
More than two years into the pandemic, Lonsk’s access to a global distribution system that connects directly to many airlines, hotels, and car rental services has proven helpful for those facing an unpredictable, understaffed travel landscape.
“Ideally, now, I can see that your flight’s unfortunately been canceled or delayed, and you’re going to miss your connection,” Lonsk said. “I can rebook in the system while you’re in flight. I don’t always have to wait on hold because I have a preferred line.”
Beyond managing the inconveniences of contemporary air travel, agents are also able to leverage existing relationships with hotels, resorts, and destination management companies. Lonsk’s connection with Tzell gives her opportunities to meet with vendors worldwide, then match their offerings to her clients’ needs.
One of Lonsk’s favorite parts of the job is building relationships with clients, then helping them plan travel at various life stages.
“For a lot of people, the first time they reach out to a travel agent is when they’re going on their honeymoon, because that’s going to be a really big spend for them,” she said. “Now, all those honeymooners from six years ago are having little kids, and getting out there and traveling. I have some families with older kids. I ask people to send me their vacation pictures so I can see their families grow and change.”
“I just tell everyone that they’ve got to be prepared.”
Due largely to staffing shortages in the post-pandemic world, almost everything — from booking trips to processing paperwork to securing refunds — takes longer. Flight delays and cancellations are more widespread. That can mean frantic travel days, missed excursions, and other pricey snafus, which Lonsk works to remedy in real-time for clients, who pay her a flat fee for services.
“I just tell everyone that they’ve got to be prepared,” she said.
Lonsk recommends springing for refundable rates, but reminds customers to review specific airlines’ refund policies prior to booking. Many policies have become stricter.
But she remains optimistic and is grateful for the chance to nurture travelers. She is so in-demand, that she occasionally must suggest another agent to a prospective client.
“When people come back and they’ve had a great time, it’s a memory,” she said. “Vacations are things you’re going to remember. As I said, I still remember the travel agent that booked our cruises when I was a kid. [I’m] contributing to that.”