By Sharyn Alden
If you grew up with computers at your fingertips, you probably don’t automatically turn to travel agents when planning a trip. In fact, you may wonder what these mysterious “agents of travel” do that you can’t.
Thanks to sites like Expedia, Orbitz, KAYAK, Hotwire, Priceline, TripAdvisor, Travelocity, and even Google Flights – not to mention AirfareWatchdog, Hopper, Options Away, and the myriad of airline and hotel sites that let you buy direct — many travelers have become their own booking agent.
That’s because it’s so easy. Any electronic device with Internet access can quickly and easily let you search for and compare airfares, lodging prices, and rental-car deals. But if your time is money the meter can quickly add up — especially if you’re trying to coordinate multiple flights in various locations on different dates.
So why bring in a travel agent when you can do so much on your own? Because good travel agents really do provide service after the sale.
I’m proof of that. It had been years since I had turned over trip planning to a travel agent. But for a recent cross-Europe venture that involved multiple flights, tight schedules and connections, shuttle buses, cars and trains between countries, and various other details, I handed over planning to an agency.
I was too short of time to deal with searching and matching up the best times at the best prices on exact dates via preferred air carriers (for racking up miles, naturally), so the agent handled everything for me. And in the process, I learned three big things:
- They had my back, no matter where I was during my trip;
- They found the best fares for the variables I gave them (I triple-checked this later);
- Their fee was really modest given what they did: an $80 flat fee because it was an international trip, $40 if it had been a domestic booking.
There are some other big reasons for using a travel agent, namely:
- They can save you money! It may sound like an oxymoron to pay an agent to save you money, but agents shop for you until you decide what combination of dates, times and prices work best for your budget and schedule. I had started out doing my own research for my cross-Europe itinerary and thought I had a handle on what my international flights cost. Voila! The travel agency did better than I was doing on my own. Agencies have strong working relationships with travel suppliers and the latest reservations technology, so they can access up-to-date information and get you the best value. As Penny Seaver, manager of Journeys Travel Group in Madison, Wis., said, “Travel agents assure a great experience while having your back — and they answer the phone!”
- Agents go the extra mile. On my European trip I was nine hours ahead of the agent’s timezone, trying to check in online for the first in a series of flights on my way back home. I was in France, driving to Geneva to fly to Copenhagen for a few days. The first flight was on Cimber, a Danish airline recently purchased by SAS. However, neither the Cimber site nor SAS would allow me to check in, even though it said it was possible. I was not eager to get up in the middle of the night and drive to Geneva without checking in with Cimber before leaving France. Several of us tried the online checkin, to no avail. I emailed my agent back home and explained the problem, and she got right on it. She too found the Cimber site cumbersome, and it took some time for her to navigate through. Even so, within an hour she emailed me a PDF of my boarding pass. It was all I needed to get on the road. However, in the process I also got peace of mind – thanks to her.
- Agents save time. It takes time to read through reviews of hotels, quaint little lodges, sightseeing opportunities, and train trips. If you’re heading to a place you’ve never been before, a travel agent can help you navigate the maze, either from personal experience or research, or by connecting you with expert colleagues. They can also set you up with travel insurance right on the spot.
- Agents are convenient. Travel agencies are one-stop shops. I was crazy busy before this trip, so turning the trip planning over to a travel agent was like receiving a gift of free time. And for busy people, free time = free money.
- Agents build relationships. When was the last time you felt you had a personal relationship with hotels.com, cheapfares.com or some other website? Travel sites understand that you’re there to get the best deal then get going. You’re not looking to build a personal relationship. But travel agents want to make your experience with them count for more than one trip. “Travel agents want to build a relationship that will transcend one trip,” Seaver said. “They’re your collaborators and advocates. That’s why we take care of all the details behind a person’s exact travel requests.”
In the end, if all you’re booking is a round-trip flight from Dallas to Chicago, it’s probably easier to do it yourself. And it can be cheaper, since travel agents can’t use your miles or rewards to book a flight or hotel. For anything more complex than that, though, travel agents have proven their worth again and again.
Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, Inc., based in Madison, Wis.