Hiring a professional to do something you could do yourself can be a good idea or a bad one. It comes down to the value you receive.
And so it is with travel agents, a species of advisers many consumers might assume went extinct. Today, consumers have the ability to book online for airline tickets, hotels, rental cars, cruises and all-inclusive vacation packages. But travel agents still exist, having evolved from travel bookers to travel consultants.
For some people, using a travel agent can be a great idea, said Robert Krughoff, president of Consumers' Checkbook, which rates local service providers, including travel agents.
"If you're going to an unfamiliar place or have a complicated trip with various people involved, in those situations it might make a lot of sense for you," he said.
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However, do-it-yourselfers who are familiar with making travel arrangements online, have the time to spend researching travel offers and are traveling to known destinations domestically would probably prefer to book trips themselves, he said.
Here are considerations in using a travel agent.COST
Contrary to popular belief, a travel agent won't always cost more. In fact, it's possible you will pay less than booking a vacation yourself because agents might be aware of promotional offers and occasionally have access to exclusive deals.
Some agents will charge a per-hour fee for their time in planning a trip. Agents can earn commissions on some bookings, but it's not nearly as lucrative as it used to be because airlines don't pay commissions.
In general, however, using a travel agent will often cost about the same as booking it yourself, experts say. But you save a lot of time and could get great advice that makes your trip more enjoyable. In that case, you end up getting better value for your money, argues Chris Russo, president of the American Society of Travel Agents.
"People always ask me, 'How much more is it going to cost me to use a travel professional?' I tell them, essentially, it shouldn't cost you more; it should cost you less," Russo said.
Sometimes, a travel agent will have a relationship with a vendor. They might not be able to get a better price but might be able to get you some extras, such as an onboard credit or free shore excursion during a cruise or a free hotel room upgrade or free breakfast.
"I still subscribe to the notion that we're going to find you the best deal," Russo said. "What seems cheaper on the surface might not be cheaper in the long run."
A complicated itinerary that takes an agent many hours to develop will probably incur a fee, he said. Pricing is something to ask about up front. Agencies might charge $25 to $30 to book a domestic flight, $50 to $80 to book a vacation to a single destination and about $100 per hour for research and planning advice, according to Consumers' Checkbook, online at Checkbook.org.
Even with their expertise, travel agents might not get you the same rock-bottom prices that ultra-frugal consumers might get if they're willing to spend the time and assume the risk of blindly bidding on airfares, hotels and car rentals at such online sites as Priceline.com, Krughoff said.
Some people enjoy trip planning, while others consider it an arduous chore. Research for even a simple trip can consume hours. Part of what you're paying for with a travel agent, assuming you're paying extra at all, is for someone else to do the research and present you with options, making the process less time-consuming for you. Krughoff said he books his own trips, but a recent trip to New Zealand probably cost him and others in his party a total of 30 to 40 hours of planning.
How valuable would it be if an expert could tell you to stay at hotel A but avoid hotel B, or choose the great snorkeling excursion but skip the lame biking tour? Counseling you on what to do and which services to choose, based on personal experience or that of colleagues and customers, is where a travel agent can shine.
"Even if a travel agent didn't save you money, it might still be worth it," Krughoff said. "It might cause you to get a much better experience."
Besides counsel on bookings, a travel agent can advise you on such issues as exchange rates, travel insurance, crowds, weather, competency of tours, areas of a town to avoid, travel visas, vaccinations, passports, tipping etiquette, packing lists, and trip cancellation penalties and restrictions. A travel agent can sort out which airlines charge for checked bags or roomier exit-row seating.
"The airlines have created confusion in the marketplace with all the fees and things," Russo said. "That is actually good for us."
A travel agent can be your advocate before, during and after your trip. If something goes wrong with a canceled flight, missed connection or something more serious, you have someone on your side who probably knows the system a little better.
"Having a travel agent to intercede for you sometimes can be helpful," Krughoff said.
CHOOSING AN AGENT
You can find one through word-of-mouth, via friends, neighbors and relatives. There are also ratings of travel agents from Consumers' Checkbook and Angie's List, which require subscriptions, and Yelp.com, which is free.
"Customers are very good judges of travel agents ... because human service is the critical element," Krughoff said.
Russo's group set up a Web site, Travelsense.org, that can help find agents who are members of the American Society of Travel Agents. Members are required to adhere to a code of ethics and are offered continuing-education programs. Some travel agents are certified travel counselors, which means they have at least five years of experience and have completed an educational program.
Because the travel agency business is less lucrative today and there are far fewer agencies, the ones remaining are likely to be pretty decent.
"Some of those still standing have survived because they offer superior service and expertise," according to Consumers' Checkbook.