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The old-school secret to a relaxing vacation

Magdalene Taylor   

The old-school secret to a relaxing vacation

I had just turned 9 when I discovered Anthony Bourdain's show "No Reservations." It wasn't like the other Travel Channel shows. Sure, the premise was straightforward: Bourdain traveled around the world to meet up with locals and try their cuisine. But instead of focusing on tourist hot spots and flashy, curated experiences, "No Reservations" was about traveling by the seat of your pants and getting as close to the local culture as any outsider could be allowed. I was an immediate disciple.

Travel shouldn't be about checking off items on a bucket list by sticking to sanitized excursions marketed to foreigners; it should introduce you to someone else's slice of life. On family trips to New York City, I cringed when my mother pulled out a paper map. "Everyone is going to know we aren't from here," I thought.

Though I grew less self-conscious over the years, that mentality remained. Others in my generation — I'm on the cusp between Gen Z and millennial — were on the same page, determined to seek out "authentic experiences." For years, people explored the world with the help of travel agents. But those services — sending you to places curated just for tourists — seemed to fly in the face of the Bourdainian ethos. Travel agents felt like vestiges of the preinternet world, like video-store clerks or pay phones, and I couldn't imagine ever needing them. What could they tell me that Reddit couldn't? Isn't it simpler to just book my own flights? Doing everything myself felt easier.

As of late, though, my attitude has changed.

Ever since the pandemic-era travel restrictions subsided, travel has boomed. Everyone is jetting off to Italy, Japan, and Costa Rica. Money spent on travel and entertainment surged 30% in 2023, fueled largely by young people. We're all desperate to make up for lost time, but there's a catch: Many of us 20- and 30-somethings are tired. It turns out that aspiring to be a DIY traveler takes a lot of energy — energy that we've already exhausted on careers, relationships, and day-to-day responsibilities. When we do finally have the time to venture away from home, we're burning ourselves out trying to coordinate all the details of our trip. Meanwhile, the sense of precarity we all felt during the pandemic hasn't left. Flight delays and cancellations from weather, short staffing, technical issues, and random bad luck are more common than before. The odds that something could go wrong feel higher.

That's precisely why some are turning back to travel agents. In 2014, the number of travel agents was half of what it was at the industry's mid-'90s peak, with many expecting it to become obsolete. But by 2021, 76% of advisors were seeing more customers than before the pandemic. And in a 2023 survey of 2,000 American travelers, 38% of Gen Z and millennial respondents said they preferred a traditional travel agent over online booking. Only 12% of Gen Xers and 2% of boomers said the same. Whether we're bopping around the Mediterranean or just posting up at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico for a week, a lot of us are deciding we'd rather put the planning in someone else's hands.

Matt James, a 29-year-old software engineer in New York City, was initially excited to plan his summer trip to Vietnam himself. Like many his age, he's primarily interested in sightseeing in cities. "I found myself going down hourslong internet rabbit holes trying to hone in on a perfect itinerary," he said, "Googling 'best neighborhoods in Hanoi Reddit,' 'two-week Vietnam itinerary Reddit,' etc."

After a while, though, he said it was hard to find the time and energy to plan. Doing his own research was mentally exhausting. He decided to give up the hunt and hand the work over to a travel advisor who was also a family friend. "He was able to take care of booking visas, flights, hotels, and a few excursions," James said. "It was very tempting to have him take care of it all in one email thread for a couple-hundred-dollar fee." Now, he said, all that's left is deciding what to see and eat at each location — something that lets him satisfy his urge to rabbit-hole.

A flight to Mexico City and five nights at a boutique hotel in Coyoacán, however, feels a little more firmly within our grasp.

In a Business Insider survey, in collaboration with YouGov, millennials cited travel as one of their most important goals for the next five years, more important than having fulfilling romantic relationships, owning a home, advancing their career, or starting a family. In fact, the only two goals millennials considered more important than traveling were being financially stable and improving their health. Amid rising costs for housing, childcare, and everything else, key milestones get pushed further down the road. A flight to Mexico City and five nights at a boutique hotel in Coyoacán, however, feels a little more firmly within our grasp. In a 2023 Morning Consult survey, both millennials and Gen Zers were more likely than older generations to travel frequently, with half of each cohort saying they took three or more leisure trips a year. Gen Zers were also more likely to go overseas than their older peers.

For as little as $100 — or nothing at all, given that some agents work on commission from the hotels and other travel companies they work with — overwhelmed young travelers can have someone take all the pressure off the experience. There are travel agents specializing in just about every type of travel imaginable, from multicountry group tours to luxury all-inclusive trips. And different types of agents can offer different perks.

For complex overseas trips, where a million things could go wrong, it makes sense to hire an agent to not only ensure everything goes as smoothly as possible but also handle the rebookings in the event of a hiccup. When something goes awry, it's someone else's problem.

While James decided to have his agent handle just the basics of his Vietnam vacation, many agents can help curate the experiences in between, promising to find their clients the coolest markets to shop at or the most-recommended museums. On a different trip, to Oktoberfest in Germany, James' travel agent — a native German speaker — was able to secure all sorts of reservations that James would never have been able to land on his own.

Increasingly, travel agents are luring people in through social media, where they can speak straight to the millennial and Gen Z desire for a unique experience and a relaxing trip. "We can give you the special slice-of-life experience you want," they pitch, "just without the hassle." Companies like Fora, for example, use TikTok and Instagram to seed sleek ads for package trips to the Croatian coast or boutique hotels in the Florida Keys, with extra attention given to "sustainability" and travelers' specific "aesthetic" desires.

Agents elsewhere on TikTok tout all-inclusive trips where the point is to just lie on the beach and chill the hell out for a second. Searches for topics like "best all-inclusives Cancún" heavily feature travel agents promoting their services, ranking their favorite resorts and highlighting the perks they can offer clients who book with them. One of their main selling points: Their services are free. And many agents also claim that their customers can receive better deals thanks to the special pricing and perks available to agents.

"We can give you the special slice-of-life experience you want," they pitch, "just without the hassle."

"Many of my Gen Z clients are in entry-level careers, graduate programs, or saving for other big expenses, so they're often looking for destinations that allow them to relax while making the most of their limited vacation days and budget," said Kayla Smith, a travel advisor for Sojourney Travel, a company specializing in beach vacations, cruises, and theme-park trips.

Smith is a Gen Zer and said that over half her clients are Gen Z. "Going from school to the workforce is already a huge life transition, and when you add on a pandemic and varying career expectations, you're bound to see a generation who is experiencing burnout at a rapid rate," she said.

For that reason, resort groups like Sandals are seeing an influx of Gen Zers and millennials. Ashley Kooker, a senior business-development manager for Unique Vacations, a sales and marketing affiliate of Sandals and Beaches Resorts, said that these properties had been attracting younger customers in part by blending the all-inclusive format with the opportunity for more exploration. At Sandals Royal Curacao and Sandals Royal Bahamian, guests can opt to go off-resort and visit local restaurants as part of their all-inclusive plan — allowing experience-minded vacationers to have their cake and eat it, too.

Exhaustion aside, many of us 20-somethings still yearn for these hard-to-get-to, out-of-the-box journeys — the trips that make us feel like travelers rather than tourists. William Lee, a travel agent at Chima Travel, a family-owned agency in Ohio that's been operating for over 100 years, told me he often gets requests for obscure destinations young clients see on social media. "We had a client come in and ask us about Oeschinen Lake in Switzerland," he said. "They saw the lake on TikTok and wanted to go there. I had to let them know that to do so would require hiking into the Swiss Alps and going a bit off the beaten path."

I recently wrapped up a 10-day trip to Peru, where I hiked for three days through the Lares District, ate quinoa soup in the San Pedro Market in Cusco, and bar-hopped in Lima. It was a trip packed with experiences — the kind that my generation is always talking about prioritizing — but I don't think I relaxed for a moment. And that's despite leaving all the planning to my friends.

I'm already plotting my next big, multiweek international trip — I'm looking at Vietnam, myself — but before then, I need to book a few days somewhere where I can be by a pool with a margarita in hand. Where will I go? I'm not sure. That's for a travel agent to decide.

Magdalene Taylor is a writer covering sex and culture. She lives in New York City and publishes the newsletter Many Such Cases.

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