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Five times that you need a travel agent

I’ve been an online travel editor for several years now, so you’d think I’d be the right person to ask for vacation planning advice. My brother and his fiancée (now wife) Ania are physicians who work very long, stressful hours. So I thought, what better way to give them a wedding gift than by helping them plan their honeymoon to Maui?

I suggested what I know best: going online to find the best deal. I got on the phone with my brother and rattled off bundled air-and-hotel packages from major websites like Expedia and Travelocity. I also told him how to save by booking parts of the trip individually: finding airfare through Orbitz or SideStep, then a hotel on I even suggested looking at specifically, to maximize their mile-earning options with the current bonus offers. Clearly overwhelmed, he left me with dead silence on the line until he was able to utter, “ummm?errr?I need to talk to Ania.” Click.

A few days later, he called back raving about the great package deal he got through a local travel agent, and how she was able to book the whole thing for them?including air, hotel on Kaanapali Beach, and even a convertible?for one simple price. Plus, they even got free breakfast every morning, flower leis, and an upgrade to an oceanview room. How could I compete with that?

There’s definitely something to be said for the convenience of a travel agent, whether you end up paying a little more or not. You can spend hours online scavenging for the best price, even if you know where to look, but the time involved and frustration could in itself be costly. Not to mention that an experienced travel agent can give you valuable inside knowledge that will greatly enhance your trip.

In my brother’s case, the agent was able to secure a better room for a better price. They originally wanted a partial oceanview because they assumed anything better would be beyond their budget. But the agent contacted the hotel’s representing agent in Hawaii, who said it would be cheaper to get the full oceanview room. Without the agent, they wouldn’t have known.

With travel companies offering their products online, consumers indeed have more direct access to the supplier. But the problem is that the supplier is likely to have its own interests in mind and won’t tell you when there’s a better option, unless you think to ask.

But even when you do ask, you’re not likely to get very far, as most sites don’t specialize in customer service. And certainly, they won’t tell about the great deal the other guy is offering. So you’re left to do all the research yourself. Some people like this do-it-yourself approach, but it’s not best for everyone, particularly those who are not Internet or travel savvy, or who are just plain busy.

The cost of an agent

Does it cost more to book through an agent? Possibly. With travel providers, particularly airlines, reducing or cutting commissions, travel agents have to charge the traveler higher fees to stay afloat. However, the extra money you spend for expertise that can cut through the quagmire of complex travel options and pricing can sometimes yield you greater value. And, without commissions, you know that the agent (if it’s a good agent) is working for you, not the supplier.

You shouldn’t feel that you’re completely missing out on “hot” Internet rates if you go to an agent. Not only do agents have access to services that consumers don’t, such as consortiums (groups of suppliers that offer incentives to travel agencies), group rates (in which agents buy blocks of space at a lower price), and GDSs (computerized reservation systems), more and more agents are gaining access to cut-rate prices available online. For instance, some cruise lines, most recently Carnival, have leveled the playing field with uniform pricing across the board so that sellers online or off can offer the same pricing. Also, should you find a great rate online, you can always ask your agent to beat it?many times he or she can.

Money aside, agents can provide other services that can greatly add value. For instance, they can inform you if your flight changes, and keep you up-to-date on travel advisories. Some agents will also go to bat for you if something goes wrong.

According to Terryl Lofgren, owner of Denver-based World Wide Adventures & Photo Journeys, it’s the relationship travelers build with their agent that can greatly enhance the travel experience. For instance, agents can store preference information such as frequent flyer numbers and preference for first class. But more importantly, the agent will remember things like whether the traveler has kids, likes to visit certain destinations, or seeks out certain types of travel. And when specials that fit those preferences come up, the agent will contact the individual. Or, when travelers book their next trip, they can save time by not having to explain what they like all over again.

Lofgren also stresses that agents know who to contact to get the best service for their clients, such as making sure they get the best cruise cabin in the category they want, arranging for special requests like wine or flowers, and even steering them away from hotels that are unsuitable for their needs. Occasionally, agents can “pull off a coup,” and secure free perks that the client doesn’t ask for.

To be fair to online sellers, many are getting better about offering customer support or advice. However, they aren’t quite there yet, and still tend to be spread thin in their offerings and might not specialize in the particular product you’re interested in. Travel agents, on the other hand, often specialize in certain types of travel such as cruises, vacation packages, age-based trips, destinations, weddings, and just about anything else you can think of, allowing them to narrow the options down to exactly what you are looking for.

When to use an agent

Although I rate myself highly on my online trip-planning savvy, here are my recommendations for when it’s a good idea to axe the online search and book with a travel agent.

    Special occasions: When planning a special occasion like a honeymoon, destination wedding, family reunion, etc., you’ll want everything to be perfect. (It’s not as if your other concerns such as guest lists, caterers, and decorations aren’t stressful enough.) You won’t want to worry about nonsynched flight connections, airport transfers, or flight change updates. These are all things a travel agent can organize for you. Plus, agents can arrange special perks like in-room champagne or birthday cakes, which can really give your experience that added special quality.

    Cruises: Cruises are big-ticket items, and if you don’t plan correctly, you could risk not getting the vacation you’ve paid for, particularly if you are a first-time cruiser. Because agents often specialize in particular cruise lines, they’ll be able to direct you to the cruise that’s right for you, whether you’re looking for a demure line like Cunard or a family cruise like Disney. If you know what cruise line you’re interested in, you can go to that line’s website or call for a list of recommend agents that specialize in that line.

    An agent also can assist in selecting a cabin. After all, you don’t want to get stuck in the smallest inside cabin next to noisy galleys or within earshot of the boiler room. Additionally, they can help you with dinner seating arrangements, shore excursions, and dress-code information. Agents might also be able to swing perks like upgrades and shipboard credit.

    Vacation tours: Like cruises, tour vacations can be big-ticket items. There are thousands of tour companies to choose from. An agent can steer you away from the bad ones and also point you towards the operators that specialize in the type of tour you’re looking for, whether it be for seniors, adventurers, families, etc.

    Group travel: Booking a large group requires a lot of coordination. Plus, agents can buy in bulk, which can lower the price considerably. Some agencies specialize in group travel.

    Special needs: There are agents who specialize in just about any type of travel including disabled, pet travel, or any other type that requires special considerations. Also, most agents, specialized or not, can make arrangements for the disabled, such as making sure travelers have necessary wheelchairs and other equipment, as well as ensuring that adequate access is available.

How to find a good agent

Before you run off to a travel agency, take some time to find a reputable agent. There are enough agents running fly-by-night operations to make anyone weary. Also, after commission cuts in recent years, some agents might have become biased against certain providers who they feel left them out in the cold. On the flipside, some agents might form alliances with certain providers who will give them “override commissions” if they consistently make sales with that provider. With all this wheeling and dealing going on, how do you know that your travel agent has your best interests in mind?

Ed Perkins, columnist and former editor of the late Consumer Reports Travel Letter, recommends finding out about an agent’s fee structure, so you’ll know what extra costs are coming your way. Most agencies charge a flat fee that’s a minimum of $20 to $40 for airfare bookings, and whether that price is per person or per party varies by agent. You’ll also want to be careful of agents that mark up the price on tours or cruises, in which they still receive commissions. You should also always ask if the agent accepts override commissions, which in theory could bias the agent and compromise the client.

Word of mouth from a trusted source, like a friend or family member, is always your best bet. If you have no luck there, Perkins recommends agents who are members of The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), which has a code of ethics. ASTA will also adjudicate complaints against a member agent, offering a level of protection for the consumer.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about how my brother and new sister-in-law’s trip turned out, they said it was fabulous without any glitches. They can thank their travel agent for much of that. Now that the honeymoon is over, I can only wish for them that rest of their lives together will be as blissful.

Is there a travel topic you’d like to know more about? If so, e-mail with your thoughts.

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