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Imperial Tours Named Travel + Leisure Magazine Super-Agent for 2011

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In an era of DIY vacations, travelers have more tools—online travel agencies, review sites, booking apps—at their fingertips than ever before. But when it comes to expert advice about a destination and customization, you can’t beat a good agent.

“Today’s agents provide insider access, learn and understand your desires and personality, and are there for you 24/7, before, during, and after your trip,” says Kimberly Wilson Wetty, co-president and co-owner of Valerie Wilson Travel.

To stay competitive in the age of TripAdvisor, agents like Wetty are trying to appeal to a younger, more tech-savvy clientele by offering what no online service can replicate: personalization. Your agent can offer options (coveted dinner reservations; last-minute romantic surprises) and handle potential mishaps (a missed flight; a dank hotel room; a hurricane; a medical emergency)—services that are well worth the planning fees, which generally range from $75 to $500, and are sometimes already built into the trip cost.

And the advocacy on your behalf doesn’t stop there: the best agents know their beats. Whether it’s South America or culinary travel, they’re already out there, scouting that emerging destination, testing the beds in a new hotel, or vetting a local outfitter.

“More small agencies are homing in on a niche,” says Brian Tan, founder and CEO of Zicasso, a service that connects people with travel advisers.

An agent’s knowledge of a destination translates into quality control and insider experiences you couldn’t arrange on your own. Chicago resident Lindsay Everest was glad she handed over the planning reins to Jet Set World Travel’s Julia P. Douglas for her honeymoon in the Maldives. “Knowing that my husband loves food and wine, Julia arranged for a private, nine-course dinner in an underground wine cellar at Soneva Gili,” says Everest, who is working with Douglas again on an upcoming trip to Bermuda.

This kind of access to special perks—ranging from deeply discounted airline seats to room upgrades—is the result of longstanding industry relationships and memberships in invitation-only travel-agent consortia and cooperatives such as Virtuoso and Signature Travel Network, which are affiliated with hundreds of hotels, airlines, and other hospitality groups.

While the benefits of getting professional advice for your trip are clear, wading through hundreds of specialists and companies can be daunting. To help you find the travel adviser who is right for you, we’ve broken out our list by areas of expertise and outlined a few key questions to ask before you book your next trip.

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