The role of the traditional travel agent—the brick-and-mortar shop helping people book flights and coordinate rental cars—has drastically changed since the rise of the internet. These days, would-be vacationers default to scouting out deals themselves, using booking websites such as Kayak or Expedia instead of seeking the help of a travel professional.
It’s not just the ease with which we can arrange our own tickets that’s made travel agents, once considered a necessity when planning trips to far off destinations, seemingly obsolete. Anyone who’s grudgingly booked with a budget airline and endured four or five hours of discomfort just to save sixty bucks can attest that our entire attitude towards travel has changed.
To test the usefulness of today’s travel professionals, Business Insider contacted five travel agents for assistance in planning a hypothetical trip to Germany during Oktoberfest, with multiple stops in different cities. Business Insider then compared the quotes they received to prices that they were able to find online.
Four out of the five travel agents were more expensive than what Business Insider found by searching for themselves. Despite a lack of savings, the article goes on to suggest that there are some good reasons why travelers might want to give travel agents a shot.
That’s because travel agents are basically your vacation advocate. Sure, they’ll work hard to get you the best deals that they can—a travel agent’s business relies on referrals, so they don’t have any incentive to price-gouge clients.
But apart from savings, travel agents offer benefits that are worth more than their hourly rate. This includes personalized service, recommendations, advice on visas, a safety net should things go wrong, and easing the pain of planning an actual vacation—as opposed to transport from point “A” to “B.”
So, when should you suck it up and turn to a professional to book your trip? Here are four times a travel agent can be especially helpful:
1. Travel Agents Can Ease the Stress Of International Travel
They can also offer insight that a website won’t be able to. An agent can guide an inexperienced traveler through foreign travel or travel to exotic destinations. While the internet may be bursting with websites and bookings in technologically advanced areas, agents with specialized knowledge may have more knowledge of travel in areas where tourism is less developed.
In addition to providing some destination-specific advice, travel agents can negotiate international hotel and flight packages for you to help trim the costs on a trip overseas. They can also prove invaluable when visiting a nation with complicated visa or passport requirements, giving you the peace of mind that, should something go wrong, you won’t get stranded in a foreign country.
2. Travel Agents Can Help Plan a Destination Wedding Or Honeymoon
Most couples have enough on their plates attempting to organize the many details of their nuptials—travel agents can offer time and stress-saving value when it comes to helping guests coordinate their journeys, or lend a helping hand when it comes to honeymoon plans.
Again, travel agents aren’t valuable so much for discounted rates, but because you can depend on their professionalism and established relationships to provide you with an exceptional experience—as well as some potential perks, such as room upgrades, welcome amenities, and candlelit dinners.
3. Travel Agents Can Help Your Group Stay Together
It’s no secret that airlines are flying routes less, packing more people onto their reduced flight options. At the same time, each airline only allots a set number of empty seats to booking sites—and booking sites have only gotten marginally better at seating companions together.
If cost is your first concern and you don’t mind seats scattered throughout the plane, then you can actually use this to your advantage by booking seats separately. That’s because airlines often sell seats at different prices and, depending on how many remain, shopping for five or more seats at a time means that your party won’t be able to take advantage if there are any lower-cost seats remaining.
However, parents who’ve attempted to wrangle children across a multi-leg trip or coworkers who are depending on those five hours of flight time to prep for a meeting know that seating an entire group of companions together rarely occurs as planned when left to the airline.
Travel agents can hack their way through all this stuff, organizing itinerary details to ensure that your family or group travels together without a hitch.
4. Travel Agents Can Make Sure You Don’t Miss Your Cruise
Planning a cruise may sound easy—part of the appeal is that everything is taken care of. But, there are still plenty of variables to consider, including:
- What itinerary is right for you?
- Will you be spending an extra night in the departure or arrival port?
- Do you need to book a hotel room or car rental?
- What shore excursions do you want to sign up for?
A travel agent can help you sort out all of the intricacies of your cruise. Agents that specialize in coordinating cruise-related travel may even have connections that can be used to secure unadvertised deals.
To find a travel agent that deals exclusively with cruise travel, you can search for one through the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). The CLIA offers an Accredited Cruise Certification for agents—extensive training that helps travel professionals better match their clients with the right cruise itineraries.
How To Choose a Travel Agent
To deserve your business, a travel agent must provide value that you can’t get by booking the trip yourself. That could be by offering discounts, insider information, saving you time, or providing assurances when arranging high-cost tickets for events.
Whatever benefits you value most, we suggest asking for the following information when searching for a travel agent:
What are their credentials?
Rely on the travel industry's accreditation system to guide you to the right agent. Some travel agents are Certified Travel Counselors, which they've earned through The Travel Institute (the certification body for the travel professional industry). Agents can even become "destination specialists" through the program, meaning they become experts in a given region. Some of these certifications can be attained through remote course study, while others earn the title through extensive first-hand travel experience.
What are their fees?
Plain and simple, knowing how much a travel agent will charge to do your planning dirty work will help you decide off the bat if their services are worth the investment to you—or if you should just do it yourself. After your travel agent supplies you with a vacation package estimate, make sure to ask if there are any additional fees and if the cost of an agent's service is included in the quoted vacation price.
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 your itinerary research is taking place. As such, you need a travel agent with whom you will not have to sit on the phone while he or she is researching your trip, or to have to make multiple phone calls to nail down the flights or hotel that you prefer.
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, will he or she 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?
Bottom Line: The More Complex a Trip, the More Helpful an Experienced Travel Agent Will Be
Today’s travel agent survives by offering curated experiences that should pretty much guarantee an authentic, exceptional vacation in a way that crowd-sourced websites, like Yelp and TripAdvisor, aren’t always able to provide.
They can be instrumental in handling all aspects of your trip to Walt Disney World, booking flights and hotels, and planning out your park-hopping and Epcot-eating itinerary. They can sort out all the details of an African safari tour—from matching you with the right guide to handling travel logistics—or plan out a river cruise down the Seine, get you reservations at an epic restaurant in Rome, and pick out all the small towns you’ll explore on a road trip across Europe.
On a practical level, travel agents also help people with passport issues, visa applications, weather updates, and transfers. In short, they can handle whatever type of planning is necessary for your trip.
However, that expertise comes at a price, and you have to ask yourself if paying to have someone else handle the small stuff or make sure it all runs smoothly is worth the cost.
For simple vacations, or visiting family members in different corners of the country, it’s likely that most people will continue to turn to online travel providers to book their own airfare or look for the cheapest hotel rate, since it’s easy and they already know what they are looking for.
But if what you want is a custom vacation and personalized service, consider turning to a travel agent instead.
Do you have any tips or experiences regarding using a travel agent to plan a trip? Let us know in the comments below!