Some vacations require more planning and coordination than others.
Technology — hotel-booking sites, travel blogs, price-comparison tools — can help nearly anyone schedule a journey but, sometimes, you need knowledge, savvy and experience to help navigate the great unknown.
Even though you can DIY almost anything a travel agency can do, there are still reasons to use one.
Why Use a Travel Agent?
Good travel agents can save you a lot of legwork. But they also provide other benefits. If you use a travel agent who has visited your destination, you reap the rewards of their firsthand experience and local contacts.
Good agents may also have access to money-saving deals and promotions. The agent can alert you to current security warnings, obtain visas and other essential travel documents, and help with other details. If anything goes wrong, a good agent can be a central source of help and leverage.
What Can You Get from an Agent?
Since many types of trip-related commissions have dried up, travel agencies now charge fees for most services, so using an agent usually costs more than booking on your own. When airlines paid travel agencies a commission on the tickets they sold — typically 10% of the fare — agencies could survive solely on airline ticket sales.
Agencies still receive commissions on hotel bookings (typically 5% to 10%, although only about half of hotels pay them), cruises (10% or more), car rentals (2% to 5%), and tour-operator packages (10% or more).
To compensate for lost commissions, travel agencies charge customers fees for each service — typically $30 to $50 to book a domestic flight, $30 to $100 for an international flight, $0 to $150 for a cruise, and $75 to $150 per hour for research and planning advice.
Fees often depend on how much the agency can make from commissions. For instance, buy a trip with a tour operator that pays a 10% commission, and the agent might not charge any fee. But for an overseas trip that includes flights, stays at multiple hotels, rail passes or car rental, fees can be $300 or more.
Paying for trip planning is a big hurdle to many consumers. In fact, fees should not be your main consideration. What matters is whether an agency will really help you.
Getting Good Advice and Service
Your first question for prospective agencies should be whether they have staffers who specialize in where you want to go. You'll likely find that some agents focus on cruises vs. Europe vs. South America vs. seeing Disney efficiently.
Work with an agent who has recently visited your destination, or at least has on-site expert contacts and books several trips a month there.
A good agent will stay on top of details and keep closely in touch until your plans are firmly set. If an agent is slow to respond, proposes flights that fail to satisfy your travel constraints, inaccurately describes destinations or misses other details, consider making a change.
Getting the Right Price
In general, you want an agent who uses various cost-saving tactics. Unfortunately, this is an area where there can be substantial variability.
Because agencies get higher — or more reliably paid — commissions from some travel suppliers than from others, the industry is rife with conflicts of interest. Agents you hire should look out for your best interests by selecting the best options and seeking ways to save you money — but don't assume that all will do so.
Especially if you're booking with a tour operator, a cruise, vacation package or other trip that involves bundled services, ask three or four agencies for proposals. You'll likely see big differences in costs, even for similar itineraries, lodging and other services.
Tips on Working with a Travel Agent
Perform at least some research on your own. Knowing the basics — including information about available deals — will help you determine if you're working with an incompetent or lazy agent.
Even if you regularly rely on one agent, consider using a different one for trips that require special knowledge. Beware of suppliers neither you nor your agent has heard of. They may have significant strings attached. Pay by credit card. If you have a problem, you can dispute the charge.
Twin Cities Consumers' Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. You can access Checkbook's unbiased ratings of local travel agents until Nov. 5 at Checkbook.org/StarTribune/Agents.