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Politicians, searching for everyday examples, often fall victim to the trap in the old adage, "It ain't what you don't know that hurts you, it's what you do know that ain't right." A prominent politico (no name, I'm not into partisan politics, and it happens in both parties) did just that when he tried to illustrate dynamic change by asking, "When was the last time somebody went to a bank teller instead of using an ATM or used a travel agent instead of going online?" As I'm sure lots of folks responded, the answer to both questions is, "I'm doing it as you speak." Bank tellers and travel agents are still around and still providing important services. Although I don't have any great insights about retail banking, I know with some accuracy that travel agency business is doing OK these days.
Probably the first point is that "travel agency instead of online" is what my old debate coach used to call a "false dichotomy:" setting up a situation as "either-or" when the reality is "both." Some of the biggest online travel sellers—Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, and such, are, in fact, travel agencies themselves, as are the many more specialized online travel sellers. The industry's standard term for them is "online travel agencies," or OTAs. And many travel agencies with local "bricks and mortar" retail offices operate their own websites.
But let's assume that the politician really meant personal visits or calls to an in-person "retail" agent. Even this more limited reference doesn't square with the facts. Lots of you prefer dealing personally with an agent to going online yourself, for several reasons:
- Agents can save you time. There's a good chance that you'll be reading this column online, and that you regularly make your travel arrangements online. You've found, then, that ferreting out your best deals often requires a lot of time—maybe many hours—for even a simple trip. That's why some of you prefer one call to a travel agent who can do the ferreting out for you. This service is especially relevant if you're extremely busy or place a very high value on your time.
- Agents provide skills you might not find online. Here, I'm not talking so much about personal airline and destination recommendations—you can get more of that online than you can possibly assimilate—but in such specialized areas as assembling custom tours or using airline ticketing tricks for multi-stop international trips that the OTA systems can't incorporate.
- Agents can help solve problems. If your flight is canceled or you face some other problem, an agent can probably find a better solution, more quickly, than you could on your own.
- Agents provide special services to business travelers. Many businesses find the best way to manage their travel activities and budgets do that is to use a travel agency. Small businesses and individual professionals, especially, find business-oriented agencies to be helpful.
This is not to say that you should all shut down your computers and head for a travel agency. Online is still the best bet for many of you:
- Retail travel agent services are no longer "free." Fees range from around $30 for a simple air booking to much more than that for a complicated itinerary.
- For a relatively simple itinerary, you can probably find on your own any good deal you could get through a retail agency.
- Retail agents often can't or won't use some of your best sources of big discounts, such as Hotwire, Priceline, by-owner vacation rental sites, and flash sale sites. One local agent I know won't book flights on Allegiant because of difficulties when that line cancels a flight.
All in all, if you're skilled, use good information sources, and have the time, you can probably pay less for any given trip than you'd pay through a retail agent. But if you'd rather let someone else go through the hassles—and help you fight a problem—a retail travel agent is nearby and glad to help.
(Editor's Note: SmarterTravel is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Hotwire.)