Many people think they must book a trip online. Travel agents – once a staple of every strip mall – seem to have gone the way of the dinosaur and the VHS tape. But travel agents, albeit fewer, are still around. And travel agents should be used for at least some types of travel.
Key reasons to use a travel agent
- Convenience. You want to visit Orlando in May; stay at an offsite hotel with a nice view for less than $200 per night; and rent a mid-sized car. In addition to park tickets, you want one night alone with your spouse and one dinner show with the kids – but you’re not sure which show. Do you really want to book that yourself? Online? Is it worth paying an extra $100 to have someone do all that legwork and make your vacation a … well, a vacation? Granted, this is the purview of the well-to-do, but they’re out there, and you know who you are.
- Problems. The hotel room smells like smoke and the manager has no more rooms. The car rental company can’t find your reservation. The cruise gives you an inside cabin when you paid for an ocean view. Who do you call? A website that answers in India? Travel agents work with the suppliers, and a hotel willing to anger a single guest won’t be so willing to anger an agent that sends $20,000 worth of business his way year round. Travel agents also know who to contact if something goes wrong, and most have at least one horror story that they had to solve after getting a 2 a.m. phone call.
- Cruises and package tours. Airlines no longer pay agents to book their flights, so agents mush charge a fee for their service. Hotels and rental cars have also cut back. But many cruise lines and package tours still pay travel agents somewhere in the range of 7 percent to 15 percent, meaning many agents do not charge for this service. Note, however, that travel agencies many times use “preferred suppliers,” meaning steering more guests to Cruise Line A that pays a 15 percent commission rather than Cruise Line B that pays only 10 percent.
- Lack of tech savvy. Many people hate checking multiple airline websites and studying all the variables, such as the size of the connecting planes, the layover wait times, the baggage fees, and total cost of a package. While a travel agent may charge you for booking an airline ticket, your actual cost could be less or travel time minimized thanks to her knowledge of the industry. It may be cheaper to change your car’s oil than paying someone else for the service, but most people don’t do it.
Key reasons not to use a travel agent
- Money. For some forms of travel – airline tickets are the big one – the suppliers have stopped paying commissions to travel agents, so the agents now charge you for their service. To top it off, they can no longer guarantee the cheapest deal. Thanks to the Internet’s ability to change prices instantaneously, the cheapest deal today might not be the cheapest deal tomorrow. The Internet even allows cruises and tours to offer great deals through travel clubs and focused ads, so deals there could be cheaper too.
- Simple trips. If you travel between Harrisburg and Orlando three times per year to visit family, you have a working knowledge of flights and times. A travel agent cannot offer substantial advice worth the extra money.
- Free advice. Don’t go to a travel agent, ask tons of questions, and then book a trip online to save money. Travel agents should be compensated for their time and industry knowledge. It’s just rude.
How to find a travel agent
Travel agents don’t go into the business to get rich. Most do it to make a decent living that includes free and discounted travel. When seeking a good travel agent, keep the following in mind:
- Poll family and friends for recommendations. Travel agents rely heavily on word-of-mouth to get new clients.
- If you walk into a four-person travel agency, the agent with the least to do will probably be the first to offer help. Instead of working with whoever comes up next, consider asking a question, such as, “Who has booked the most cruises?” if that’s your focus. The best agents are usually the busy agents.
- Tell the agent about your future trip and ask about fees. Also ask if the agent will collect a commission from the travel seller. A travel agent’s fees are negotiable, and she may (should?) charge you nothing for selected services. You could offer to pay an hourly fee in exchange for any commission rebates, but don’t expect that to work.
- Ask the agent if she has been to your destination. It’s not mandatory – most agents hear stories from clients – but it might make a difference when deciding on a specific hotel, etc.