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Trade sources are citing data showing that travel agents are regaining some of the ground they initially lost to the Internet. Booking travel online has become so complex that an increasing number of you are turning to professionals for help. And the savvy they provide often outweighs their modest charges.
Only rarely do travel agents have access to deals that you can't find for yourself. Instead, they can almost always find any deal you can find, and they can add extra value to the mix:
- The number one reason most consumers use travel agents is to take advantage of their specialized knowledge—destinations, the best deals from where you live, resorts, cruise lines and cruise ports, and such.
- An agent is a big help if you value your time. A five-minute call to a travel agent allows you to avoid many hours of tedious search through online sites.
- Although online booking is easy for buying a conventional one-way, round-trip, or multi-stop air ticket, more complicated international tickets can be daunting. Moreover, a good agency rate desk agent knows about ticketing tricks that you'd never be able to use online.
- An agent is your best source of help if something goes wrong—either before or during your trip. Just call your agency or its 24/7 backup and get someone started on a fix right away.
- If you're not comfortable doing business online or don't have any online skills, you're totally out of luck without an agent. You can no longer navigate today's complicated travel marketplace by phone.
Travel agency services are no longer universally free. If you want to book an ordinary airline ticket, for example, you should expect to pay up to $50 per trip: Airlines no longer offer standard commissions on any tickets. On the other hand, many other travel suppliers still do offer commissions. Always discuss fees before you enter any agency negotiation.
You can also occasionally encounter other problems in dealing with agencies:
- A few indolent agents may try to sell you what's easiest to sell rather than what's best for you—a package tour rather than independent travel, for example, or a railpass instead of individual rail tickets.
- Some agents may try to steer you to "preferred" airlines, hotel chains, and cruise lines—suppliers that give them extra bonuses or override commissions—rather than suppliers that are best for you.
If you don't already know a reliable agency, you have several approaches to locating one:
- As with any professional service, the best way to locate a good agent is by referral from friends, business associates, or family members who have a good agency relationship.
- You're usually safe with the local branch or franchisee of a nationwide system, such as AAA, American Express, or Travel Leaders, although independent agencies can also provide outstanding service.
- Two websites—Tripology and Zicasso—ask you about what you want in the way of a trip, then shop your request among participating agencies, three of which will get back to you with bids and suggestions.
With any professional service—travel included—the more you know going in, the better a professional agent can serve you. Before contacting an agent, you should develop your own ideas of experiences, destinations, and general price levels. That way, you can keep the agent focused and make a sensible evaluation of alternatives the agent proposes.
I'm not recommending that everyone use a travel agent. In fact, much of my own professional efforts are focused on finding good deals and valuable resources online, and I rely heavily on online outlets for my reports. But to be fair to readers, I periodically revisit the virtues of using an agency. And for minimizing your time and taking advantage of others' knowledge, you'll find it hard to beat a good agent.
Have you recently employed the services of a travel agent? If so, was he or she able to provide you with rates you wouldn't have found yourself?