By Diane Urbani de la Paz
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SUSAN PARR TRAVEL, 1210 E. Front St., Port Angeles, can be reached at 360-452-2188 and 800-455-7277, as well as via www.SusanParrTravel.com.
“I was having heart palpitations, just getting packed,” said Cooke.
Fortunately, an experienced traveler was nearby, with calming words.
“She said, 'Don't take a lot of things,'” Cooke recalled.
This fellow traveler also helped Cooke and Cruz fly to Europe, cruise the Baltic Sea and explore London and Paris with their own guides showing the way.
This traveler cheering them on — and saving them “a bundle,” Cooke said — is Susan Parr, a woman who believes in making a getaway now, not later.
That's not surprising considering Parr runs a travel agency with nine staff people. Together, Parr and her fellow agents arrange about 300 bookings a month: overnights in Victoria, two-week rail journeys across Europe; trips to Rwanda to observe the mountain gorillas.
Contrary to the belief that do-it-yourself Internet booking has caused the live travel agent to go the way of the pay telephone, Parr's Port Angeles business is thriving.
Even amid the lingering recession, she and her staff are busy sending people to the far corners of the planet. Some of these travelers are becoming adoptive parents of children overseas.
Others are looking into a trip to Cuba, which Parr says is opening up. Still others are like Dr. Carleen Bensen, who this summer explored Ecuador's Galapagos islands, Peru's Sacred Valley and its crescendo, Machu Picchu.
The journey by jet, train and boat “was not cheap,” Bensen said. “But when you add up what we got for the money,” she considers the experience priceless.
“I can't say enough about Susan,” Bensen said, adding that Parr made her South American expedition “seamless.”
Parr is fed by such rave reviews. She knows what it means when a lengthy journey turns out so well. She's a small-town girl — grew up in Sequim, was an Irrigation Festival princess in 1983 — who counts among her best memories her seven trips to Africa.
These days, Parr dreams of seeing Patagonia, Jordan, Namibia and the Seychelles, the islands northeast of Madagascar.
She's staying in the office for a while, though, after taking time off this past summer — but not for any far-flung excursion. Parr raises and shows Bernese mountain dogs, and one of hers had puppies recently.
The dogs keep her grounded, in a couple of ways.
“Being a travel agent can be extremely stressful” with its deadlines and endless details. “Doing fun things with my dogs is my way of being able to turn off the travel agent in me,” Parr says, “and allowing me to relax so that when I do come back to work, I am ready to tackle whatever is handed my way.”
Parr became an agent in 1985, before Internet entities like Expedia and Travelocity — which are, after all, travel agencies — took hold. She remembers the old days when agents got 10 percent of each ticket they sold, and when they knew exactly when air fares were going to rise or dip. She also remembers begging her boss for a fax machine, and being told no, we have Telex and that's perfectly fine.
Then the airlines capped commissions. Then they reduced them to zero. And the Internet's presence grew and grew.
The agency Parr worked for went out of business. Undaunted, she opened her own in 1994.
“The industry changed dramatically, right when I opened,” she recalls. But as a young agent, “I was able to adapt.”
Parr also credits her staff: receptionist Laurie Burke and travel consultants Kathy Carver, Heidi Smart, Kathy DeBenedette, Jo Dorstad, Kari Slater, Barb McMillen, Karen Hennings and Barbara Hanify, who's been with Parr since opening day 18 years ago. Also on the team is her father, Bill Thomas, a former Sequim mayor and longtime construction company CEO who now handles marketing and promotion at Susan Parr Travel.
Parr likens hiring a travel agent to hiring a professional tax preparer. Sure, you can do your own taxes.
“But how much is your time worth?” Parr asks — not to mention your peace of mind?
Independent travel agents have access to a broader world of tour companies and accommodations, she says, adding that there's more out there than the Internet makes available.
There were clients who went away as online booking got easier, Parr acknowledges. But many of them have come back. They have also told their friends and family members about her, so she has clients around the state, nation and world. Parr recently booked a family trip to Belize for clients in Bellingham, for example.
The agency charges fees depending on complexity of $30 to $150 per booking.
Today's clients vary in age and include many younger than 40, Parr says. The most popular destinations lately are Italy, Mexico's Riviera Maya and Maui, Hawaii.
Now and then, however, an elderly couple will come in to her office. They say to her: “We have been saving our money, to do this dream trip,” perhaps for a decade or more. But in that time, one or both of the spouses' health has declined. So they won't be able to enjoy a trip as much as they would have some years ago.
So go now and enjoy every minute of your adventure, she advises. Don't wait, even if your current budget requires a shorter trip.
Parr believes travel experiences are valuable beyond measure — and she should know.
“Doing the hot-air balloon ride over the Serengeti . . . seeing the zebras: There is nothing like that,” she said softly.
As for her clients, “people don't come back and say, 'We wish we hadn't spent the $500 more for the ocean-view room instead of the garden view.”
Parr also knows about the work it takes to earn this kind of money. She caught the travel bug when she was a Rotary Club exchange student and spent her year abroad in Australia; after that, when she wanted to reunite with other exchange students on a bicycling trip across Europe, her father asked just how she planned to pay for it.
That was when she decided to pursue a line of work that involved travel — and an income to fund it.
With the travel, whether it's hers or her clients', comes joy.
She and adoption travel specialists Carver, Smart, DeBenedette and Slater work with adoption agencies across North America, sending adoptive parents to Ethiopia, China and other nations to meet their children.
When asked where she would go if she could take off for anywhere, Parr replies: “My heart's always been in Africa.” And she has assembled many a client's exploration of Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Rwanda.
Then again, Parr also adores Italy, Switzerland and New Zealand. And Croatia is on her radar now.
“It looks gorgeous,” she says, “and not a lot of people have gone there.”
Parr is divorced with a 21-year-old son who “no longer wants to travel with me,” she says with a smile.
“So I travel with friends, or solo. Some of my best trips have been with my best girlfriends.”
Another discovery Parr makes, over and over, is that all around this planet, when a sojourner opens up, so do our fellow humans.
“If you're nice to people, they are nice to you,” Parr says.
And with that, she may have imparted the best travel tip of all.