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The Pros and Cons of Using a Travel Agent
Should you plan your trip with an agent or rely on the internet? Experts weigh in.
Is hiring a travel agent right for you?(Getty Images)
Need to pivot your trip plans but don't want to deal with the extra time, money and hassle of rebooking your flights and hotel rooms on your own? That's where a knowledgeable agent can help you get your plans back on track, explains Erika Richter, director of communications for the American Society of Travel Agents. "In the world in which we live, unfortunately with viruses and terrorism, you need to be as safe as possible when you travel," she says. And while most travel agents do impose a service fee, varying from $25 to $100 depending on factors such as your desired itinerary and budget, ultimately, they can help maximize savings with exclusive promotions, perks and inventory that isn't available to the public, Richter says.
"I think there's a bit of a resurgence of brick-and-mortar agents," says Clayton Reid, president and CEO of MMGY Global, a travel and hospitality marketing and research firm. Younger travelers who are tech-savvy and aren't seasoned travelers want to connect with experienced agents, he explains. And the demand for agents doesn't seem to be just a passing fad. According to a 2015 study by Lodestar Advisory Partners, 92 percent of U.S. leisure travelers who used an agent plan to turn to an agent again, Richter says.
With that in mind, U.S. News enlisted guidance from top industry experts to identify the draws and downsides of relying on a travel agent, so you can determine if hiring one is right for you.
You'll Gain Added Value and Perks
One of the top incentives of turning to a travel agent is getting access to their expertise and industry connections, explains Christopher Elliott, a consumer advocate and journalist. "Time is money," he says. Instead of conducting mind-numbing hours of research, agents who are members of larger consortia like Virtuoso have established industry connections and can help you negotiate with a big supplier for a discount, he adds. Richter echoes similar sentiments. "They work in large networks and have relationships with suppliers that you don’t have. Think, direct access. Speed dial access," she says. "Some travel agents can enhance trips with perks and surprises," she adds, highlighting that top agents have relationships with award-winning chefs, hotel managers and tour operators that booking sites do not.
And in terms of scoring the best deals, "believe it or not, travel agents often beat those internet prices," Richter says. Since many agents have access to their own booking and distribution systems, which offer access to cruise packages, airline tickets and hotel rooms, they can typically access the same web promotions, she adds. While agents are still earning off commissions, there is consistent value back for clients, says Jay Johnson, president of Coastline Travel Advisors. "Say the service fee is $100," he says. "You'll get more money back in amenities such as breakfast and spa and beverage credits," he says.
You Won't Have to Sweat the Details
As Richter puts it, "there's the time factor." Rather than researching on your own, a reputable agent can anticipate expenses and amenities to "help you avoid surprises," she explains, pointing to meal costs, resort fees and tourism fees as added costs that can drain your budget. And if you're planning a complicated trip or an international getaway to a far-flung locale, an agent can offer helpful guidance and point you to tour companies that best match your needs, Richter adds.
Johnson offers a similar perspective. "Working with an agent can give you piece of mind," he says, noting that they have relationships with companies in just about every country in the world and vetted suppliers in isolated places like Mongolia. For a far-off and expensive vacation, you're never going to get that time back, he says, highlighting that it's a wise idea to speak with an expert on when to visit and where to go or what to skip, so you don't have to worry about logistics and other details.
You'll Have Help Troubleshooting Common Travel Hiccups
"Because they've been around for so long, agents really know what to look for," Elliott says. They have access to technology to spot weather delays, he adds, pointing out that an airline will notify an agent first and there are automated systems in place, making it easy to rebook itineraries right away in the event of a natural disaster. Even better, an agent will put in the legwork of sifting through travel insurance policies and point you to the plan that best suits your individual needs and itinerary, he adds. "If a flight gets canceled, you'd much rather talk to someone like me," Johnson says, highlighting that an agent is an advocate who's there for you 24/7 to help you rebook your flights quickly, eliminating extra time, effort and hassle.
If Price is Your Top Priority, You May Score a Better Deal on Your Own
If you don't want to pay for someone's connections, time and travel advice, using an agent may not be worthwhile to you. "There’s really no set fee structure," Richter explains. And while in many instances a travel advisor can help you clinch the greatest values, you will need to pay for their consultation hours, efforts and knowledge. "If they handle the arrangements for you, that money will most likely come back to you in one form or another," she adds.
That said, there are instances when you're better off booking yourself, Elliott says, as some agents will take a commission and a reservation fee. "If you're planning the trip of a lifetime or a destination honeymoon, that's when you call the experts," he says. Alternatively, if you're planning a quick flight from New York City to Los Angeles, it's easy enough to book it yourself online directly or through a discount booking site, he adds.
You Must Do Your Homework to Find a Reliable Agent
A reputable agent should devote ample time to understand their clients' needs, Johnson says. One major con of turning to an agent is "speaking to an agent who doesn’t know what they're doing," he says. If you're working with an agent who provides you with limited options to choose from, that's a red flag, he says. Another tell-tale sign of a lackluster agent: the response time, Johnson says, pointing out that if communication is delayed, that's a sign that they're too busy or they're working as travel agents as a part-time gig. If you work with someone who is inexperienced or has an incentive to book you with a certain supplier, they may not be prioritizing your best interests, he explains. And you likely won't get a great deal, so choose your travel specialist wisely, he says.
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