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Any Risks in Dealing with a Travel Agent?

We all talk and write so much about possible problems with buying tickets, cruises, and tours online that we sometimes ignore dealing with traditional travel agents. One reader asked:

“I expect a travel agent to add a fee for working on my trip, but beyond that fee, do I run any risks of paying too much?”

The short answer is, “Not with most agents, but there are always a few travel agents—like accountants, plumbers, or doctors—who value a quick buck over service to a client.”

Why Use an Agent?

Despite today’s focus on Internet shopping, lots of travelers—including some very savvy travelers—still rely on an individual travel agent or agency to arrange their trips:

  • Many leisure travelers figure they have enough to do without spending hours online to cut a few bucks off a travel buy. Instead, they rely on an agent to do the searching for them.
  • Other leisure travelers rely on agents for experience-based counsel on destinations or cruises they’re considering—valuable insights about which hotels have the right mix of location, features, and price, or which ship attracts the most congenial cruising companions.
  • Small-company and independent professional business travelers rely on travel agencies that specialize in business travel not only to make arrangements but also to keep track of budgets and expenses and assure compliance with company travel policies.

Whether for these or other reasons, lots of travelers prefer to work with an agency. And most agencies deliver value for what they charge. But sadly, in any profession, a few service providers put profits ahead of client service. They often don’t last very long, but they can cause plenty of problems while they’re active—and a blot on the reputation of their profession. Here are the main potential problem areas I’ve observed over the years:

Excessive Markup

Even when they’re working on a fee basis, some agents add a markup to the services they arrange. If that markup is confined to a small commission they might still receive from suppliers, that’s harmless. But sometimes the markup can become excessive:

  • I’ve seen cases where agents buy discounted airline tickets from consolidators and mark them up to the airlines’ published fares. In addition to the price gouge, that practice can cause a lot of grief when clients find out that their consolidator tickets entail more restrictions and change and/or refund limitations than the airlines’ regular tickets. I still see trade ads from consolidators hyping the fact that agents can mark up their tickets as much as the agents wish.
  • I’ve also read of a few cases where an agent marked up the price of a low-fare ticket to the full-fare level, claiming that full-fare was the only option available for the client’s trip.

Bad Choices

Sometimes an agent can foist a service on a client from a less-than-the-best supplier. Usually, this happens when the agency has some sort of volume reward or exclusive deal with a few suppliers. I’ve seen it with airlines and hotels, but most consumers know what they want and can easily avoid those problems.

The main wrong-supplier problems I’ve seen have been with travel insurance. Often, an agency sells policies from only one or two suppliers, and those suppliers may not offer the best policies or prices for each client’s trip. As I’ve noted elsewhere, consumers should buy cancellation or medical insurance only from a supplier that waives the exemption for pre-existing medical conditions, and not all policies do that. Many travelers really need “any reason” cancellation insurance, offered by only a few companies. If travelers buy medical coverage, they should insist on primary medical—again, a feature not all the insurance companies provide. And agents may sell expensive “gold plated” policies with a lot of trivial coverages for minor risks.

What’s Easy, Not What’s Right

Agents may sometimes select a travel product because it’s easy to sell or arrange rather than because it’s in the client’s best interest:

  • Probably the most frequent such instance is selling an expensive railpass to a traveler heading to Europe who would be better off buying individual by-the-trip tickets. Because railpasses are promoted so vigorously for rail travel in Europe, many travelers don’t realize that a pass is not always the least expensive way to go. The suppliers have been complicit in this problem by pushing their packaged products. “Quick, easy, and profitable” sounds more enticing to an agent than hours of drudgery.
  • Also, some agents rely totally on their industry-only “GDS” computer systems for every service they sell. Those agents fail to find some of the very good deals that are available only on the Internet.

Dealing With an Agency

If you’re considering working with a travel agency, your first challenge is finding one that’s right for you. As I’ve noted before, this isn’t always easy. Referral from a friend or colleague remains the best way to locate the right agency. Once you start dealing with an agency:

  • Set the ground rules with the agency well before you start arranging a trip. That means specifying just how the agent expects you to pay and cases when the agency adds markups and when it doesn’t. The agency should be willing to show you what it actually pays for any trip component and to disclose any overrides or other rebates it might receive.
  • Tell the agency about any suppliers you especially prefer. If you like extra legroom, for example, tell the agency you want to fly JetBlue whenever you can, even if the agency has a deal with some other line. Tell the agency about whichever loyalty programs are most important to you. And make sure the agency knows what kind of travel insurance you want under which circumstances.
  • Let the agency know when, and under what circumstances, you’ll need flexible and refundable options and when you’ll accept highly restricted or nonrefundable options. For hotels or rental cars, an agency working on a fee basis should be willing to buy from Hotwire or Priceline if that’s your preference.
  • Let the agency know if you’d like it to notify you of any special deals it receives for specific destinations you’d like to visit or cruises you might like to take.

Mostly Good Folks

I want to reemphasize that the serious problems I’ve noted with travel agencies are rare. I’ve personally never known a dishonest or less-than-professional travel agent or agency. The ones I’ve worked with were dedicated, trained professionals who treated their clients as any other competent professional would. If you think that kind of agent can help you, give one a try.

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