Travel agencies — when you should and shouldn’t use them

Ten or fifteen years ago, travel agencies made money by selling travel services to consumers.  Airlines, cruise lines, hotels, and rental car agencies paid travel agents commissions every time they made a reservation.  So their services were essentially free to consumers.

Back then, there was no reason not to go to a travel agent for all your travel needs.

But by the mid 1990s, online travel agencies like Expedia and Travelocity made it easy for consumers to make their own airline, hotel, and rental car reservations.  And travel review sites like Tripadvisor, Fodors, and Frommers, gave consumers access to trip planning information that they used to get from travel agents.

Before long, cruise lines and tour companies — who used to be terrified of alienating their distribution channel — were jumping on the bandwagon and allowing consumers to bypass travel agencies and book directly.

Many consumers liked being able to make their own arrangements.  Broadband Internet access made it quick and easy.  And comparison sites like laid out all the options.  In fact, the Web 2.0 consumer sites are more robust than the old travel agency res systems.

So if all you want to do is book a flight, arrange a car, or reserve a hotel room — if you’re already familiar with the hotel — do it yourself.  It will definitely save you some money.

But remember that websites make properties and services seem more attractive than they actually are.  And unless you know a city, it’s hard to tell if the location is desirable.

Travel agencies position themselves as being unbiased, but that’s not strictly true.  Most travel agencies belong to consortia which negotiate deals with cruise lines, hotel chains, and other travel suppliers. These relationships result in commission overrides, bonuses, and other incentives that aren’t always disclosed to consumers.

As an example, a travel agency that gets a 2% commission override from Princess Cruises but doesn’t get one from MSC Cruises isn’t really 100% impartial.  And a travel agent who’s one booking away from a free cruise isn’t exactly neutral.

Travel agents also like to talk about how they advocate for their clients if something goes south.  But if your flight is cancelled, there’s not that much they can do for you.  If you have a smart phone, you have access to the same information they do, and you can probably reach your air carrier as quickly.

If you’re a frequent flier with elite status, you probably have more sway with the airline than your travel agent.  And you can sign up with the airline for text alerts in case there are any changes to your flight.

Given all this, there are still times when using a travel agency is worth the added expense.

Here’s when you should hire a travel agent:

1)  If you’re a first-time cruiser.  It’s easy to get a great deal on a cruise online.  In fact, it’s hard not to.  But if you’ve never cruised before, a travel agent that specializes in cruises can really save you a lot of grief.   If you end up on the wrong ship, it won’t matter how much money you saved.  You won’t be happy.

A good cruise agent can get you a good deal on a cruise that suits you.  And it likely won’t cost you any more.

2) Want to spend a month traveling independently in India, or Chile, or Slovenia?  Call a destination specialist.  Sure, you can do it yourself, but the amount of time you’ll spend makes the $200 or $300 you’ll pay a travel agency seem like a terrific bargain.

These agents usually have local contacts with up-to-the-minute information about the places you’ll visit.

Each year, Conde Nast Traveler lists the top travel agents for destinations around the world.  You can find a specialist for your dream trip at

In most case, the expertise of a destination specialist is well worth any  service fee they may charge.

3) If you’re traveling with a group that’s coming from more than one city, hire a travel agent.  Otherwise, you’ll end up being the travel agent for everyone in your group.  And you will not succeed.  Travel agents are great at coordinating schedules.  And they may get better deals for multiple bookings than you can.

4) Travelers with very special requirements shouldn‘t go it along.  If you want an 8 o’clock dinner reservation at Taillevent, an after-hours tour of the Vatican Museums, or a private wine tasting in one of Burgundy’s top cellars, a travel agent is a must.  He or she can arrange everything down to the last detail and then give you a comprehensive itinerary that spells it all out.

5) When’s the best time of year to visit Bali?  What’s the best way to get around Paris?  What should I see when I’m in London?  All this information is freely available on the Internet.  But if you’re not willing to take the time to find the answers, go to a travel agent.  They’ll help make sure that your trip is the best it can be.

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