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Why You Still Need a Travel Agent

A few years ago, a good friend took an international trip with a two-stop flight itinerary. Afterwards, he reflected on how beat up he felt when it was over: “Adding that third airport into the mix seemed to add a ton of extra travel this year; it was rough.”

I asked how he booked the flights. He said that he’d used one of the big travel booking sites, and that the itinerary he purchased was the best combination of duration, flight times and price he could find. My response: “Next time, call my travel agent first. You’ll feel a lot better when it’s all over.”

The following year, he did just that, and the agent came up with options that he could never have found himself using a single booking site — specifically, a short and affordable Southwest flight that put him in an airport with countless options for direct flights to his final destination. What would have been another expensive, six-flight endurance test was replaced by a far less demanding trip.

I use my travel agent on about 50 percent of all my trips that involve air, so when CNN marveled that travel agents may be making a comeback, I had to agree.

The Return of the Travel Agent

Why? Personally, I’ve found that the likelihood of using a travel agent increases in direct proportion to the abundance and complexity of travel options you can find on the Internet. Many travelers are discovering the following:

  • In offering more options and amenities, online travel sites have actually made it more confusing to figure out what they are selling, not less so.
  • The explosion of restrictions and fees — many of which are not obvious to the casual travel buyer — further muddies understanding of the bottom line on any itinerary.
  • The absence of popular airlines from major booking engines — the juggernaut Southwest being the most glaring — eliminates what could well turn out to be a specific traveler’s absolute best itinerary.
  • The big online travel sites got too smart for their own good; by tidying up and repackaging all the data each according to their own assumptions about travel purchasing, they show us what they think we want to see, but not always what we really want to see. That is, by becoming “online travel agents,” rather than mere booking sites, they end up in competition with real travel agents, who can usually do the work better than computers can.

And my number one reason to use a travel agent for booking flights: the reduction in flight capacity by the airlines has resulted in significantly more full flights on the routes I fly. At the same time, the booking sites have gotten only marginally better at offering seat choices and at seating companions together. Just try to book your family on a multi-flight trip and you’ll see what I mean. Travel agents can hack their way through all this stuff.

It has gotten to the point that many travelers truly dread the moment they have to sit down at the computer to research travel. Seems like a good time to call in a pro, no?

If this describes you, or even just your next trip, here are some tips and guidelines for choosing, communicating with and evaluating a travel agent. For more info, including how to find an agent, when to use a professional and when to do it yourself, and some potential conflicts of interest to consider, see How to Find the Right Travel Agent.

Choosing a Travel Advisor

To deserve your loyalty and money, a travel agent must provide a service that is better, faster and more affordable than you can do yourself — or naturally you would, in fact, do it yourself. When searching for a travel agent, I suggest asking the following questions:

What are the fees? This will help you figure out for which types of travel you might need help, and for which it will be worth the investment of time to do it yourself. See below for more on fees.

Is the agent comfortable working entirely by e-mail? Part of the point of having a travel agent book your trip is that you are freed up to do other things while the itinerary research is taking place. As such, you need a travel agent with whom you will not have to sit on the phone while she’s researching your trip, or to have to make multiple phone calls to nail down the flights or hotel that you prefer. She should be able to do all of this by e-mail, with response times measured in minutes or hours, not days. My own travel agent has come to expect nearly instantaneous e-mail replies from me in return.

Is the travel agent open to suggestions from you, the customer? For example, if you go out and find a decent fare and flight combination, but for whatever reason want some of the services a travel agent can provide, does he check into the flight you suggested or simply ignore your input?

Is there a 24-hour solution line you can call if you get in a jam? For example, say you’re flying on a Sunday night red-eye from west to east, and your flight is delayed or canceled. Is there someone you can call at 10:30 p.m. to try to get you on the best next flight, or at the very least into a convenient and affordable hotel? Note: Not all travel agents provide this service, so if you find one, consider yourself lucky.

Then as you go along, watch out for the following:

Does she always lead off with a very expensive itinerary? If this describes your agent, does she have a good reason, which might be the absence of upgradeable seats, aisle seats or a too-tight connection? If not, she’s not really meeting our primary criteria of doing the job better, faster and more affordably than you can do it yourself.

Before I call my travel agent, I almost always check fares myself very quickly on the Web. This way I can figure out if there is a flight or hotel I can book easily myself. It also gives me an idea of the going price on the route. I briefly worked with an agent who always quoted me a very expensive fare, as if money were no object for someone who could afford to use a travel agent. The truth is that now and then I can’t afford not to — and I would appreciate it if my agent was on the same page.

Does the travel agent suggest truly awful itineraries? For example, I once tried to work with a travel agent who insisted on showing me international connections that required an overnight stay at the connecting airport. This would require me to collect my bags, clear customs, go to a hotel, get back to the airport, check in and check bags again, pass through security again, and then repeat the customs and bag collection again at my final destination airport.

When I objected, I was told “it’s really not that bad.” Multiple check-ins and customs lines are not that bad — really? It sounded like the agent had never been to an airport — or worse, assumed I had not, and thought he could get away with selling me a nightmare. If you are being shown too many ridiculously complicated itineraries, it’s probably time to find a new agent, or book the trip yourself.

Communicating with Your Travel Agent

A short, concise and information-packed e-mail is the best way to start the conversation about a trip. Here is a sample message I sent to my agent recently:

Dear Rekha,
I hope you are doing well, and thank you for your help with my trip last month. I may want to purchase airfares to Zurich (final destination is Lucerne) for the second weekend in July. I will be working hard on the 10th, 11th and 12th, so we are thinking about traveling on the 8th, and returning the 14th, but are pretty flexible within a day of either of those depending on airfares. Travelers would be me, my wife and our son (now 2 1/2 or so), so direct flights are strongly preferable. I saw some $441 roundtrips online last week for the 8th – 13th and almost bought them, but figured I would get in touch since you can see all the seating and other options. If you are available to look into these, please let me know. Thank you!
Ed Hewitt

Travel agents can also be extremely helpful if your final itinerary is not quite set, as they can price out multiple options and show you everything in one place when finished. Here’s an e-mail I sent with details on a much trickier itinerary:

As promised, our potential itineraries:

– All travel together on June 3 from either Philadelphia or Newark to Sacramento (we have friends we are visiting in Oakland, so we could fly into the Oakland or even SFO airports)
– Depart Sunday, June 7 for San Diego
– Depart San Diego for return home on either June 11 or 14 depending on pricing, flights, etc.

– Wife and son travel together on June 4 to Sacramento (we have friends we are visiting in Oakland, so we could fly into the Oakland or even SFO airports)
– Wife and son depart Sunday, June 7 for San Diego
– I travel Sunday, June 7 for San Diego
– All depart San Diego June 11 or 14 depending on pricing, flights, etc.

I hope this is clear enough; please let me know if you have any questions. Thank you!

In each case, my travel agent came up with something better and more affordable than I ever could have, fulfilling our guidelines in every respect.

What Does It Cost?

Since airlines no longer offer commissions of any kind for their work, travel agents have had to charge travelers directly for airline bookings. Most hotels, cruise lines, car rental companies and other travel service providers still pay commissions to travel agents for completed bookings, so you may not have to pay any agent fees whatsoever for other bookings (see the section subtitled Potential Conflicts of Interest in this article for more information).

My own travel agent charges as follows:

  • $35 per person for roundtrip flights up to $700
  • 5 percent per person for roundtrip flights over $700

A local American Express office charges as follows: $59 per person per roundtrip ticket, with a $100 discount when you pay with an American Express card

On the Newark-Sacramento-San Diego-Newark itinerary above, Rekha booked the whole thing for $325 per person — less than $1,000 for three people to fly about 7,000 miles, complete with seat assignments, frequent flier credits, consolidated itineraries, the middle leg of the itinerary on Southwest and only about 20 minutes of my time.

All of that for $105. No wonder travel agents seem to be making a comeback.



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