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Travel Agents, With Reservations

More consumers than ever are booking trips online. But are there times when you should call in a pro?

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2004; Page P02

Pundits once predicted that toll-free numbers would be the death of traditional travel agents. The bells tolled again as travel agents came under assault from airlines that cut commissions and online providers that offered a World Wide Web of options.

The more recent blows have weeded out the weak and the slow-to-adapt. Americans last year booked at least part of 45 million trips on the Internet, up nearly 6 percent from the previous year, according to a new study by the Travel Industry Association of America. Still, reports of the demise of travel agents were premature.

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Picking the Right Travel Agent

With more than 100,000 travel agents working in the United States, the challenge isn't finding one, but choosing the right one. Here are tips for doing that:

Ask friends and colleagues for a referral, just as you would when looking for a dentist or contractor.

Check affiliations. Membership in organizations such as the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) and the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) indicates that the agent has agreed to a code of ethics. (They can be excommunicated from the group for failing to adhere to them.) You also can dig one level deeper and ask for the industry affiliations of a tour operator they've recommended. The U.S. Tour Operators Association, for example, not only vets its members but requires them to put money into an escrow account in case they go out of business. To find ASTA members, visit www.travelsense.org. The site allows you to search for agents by location, specialty, your destination, or all three at once.

• Check credentials. The Travel Institute, a nonprofit training center in Massachusetts, offers certification. A CTA, or Certified Travel Associate, has completed at least 12 travel-related courses, has worked in the industry for at least 18 months and has passed a test. A CTC, or Certified Traveler Counselor, has completed at least 24 courses, has at least five years experience and has passed a test. The institute also trains destination specialists. Certified agents, and those further certified as specialists, are listed at www.thetravelinstitute.com, with links to each agent's site.

• Ask for references. A good agent should have satisfied customers willing to share their experience, says Alexis Benson of the Travel Institute.

Ask questions. Ask where they've been, where their colleagues in the office have been, and where they've sent large numbers of people. "If no one in the office has been anywhere but Cancun and you're not going to Cancun, maybe they're not the ones you want," says Heather Dolstra of Democracy Travel in D.C.

Listen for questions. Agents should feel you out before suggesting a destination or particular cruise line. "If you tell me you want to go to Mexico, I shouldn't say, 'Great, I can set you up in Puerto Vallarta,' " says Kathy Sudeikis, president-elect of ASTA. "Agents should be asking what trips you've taken in the past that you've enjoyed, whether you prefer quaint, rustic or luxurious, or if you had to choose between a Hyatt and a Motel 6, which would it be. They should ask you what you like to do: If you like sightseeing, you have to go to certain places in Mexico."

• Decide if you need a specialist. Increasingly, agents are marketing themselves as specialists in either certain types of travel or certain destinations. Many agents interviewed said they can research an unfamiliar destination, but admit that it will take them more time than planning a trip to a place they know well. All acknowledge that familiarity breeds expertise, but on the other hand, as Dolstra put it, "Are you looking for someone you can have a relationship with in planning lots of trips, or a one-shot Johnny?"

-- Cindy Loose

Although many agencies are increasing their focus on corporate clients, 103,840 U.S. travel agents still plied their trade as of May 2003, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So who's getting the better deal -- the do-it-yourselfers, or those who let the professionals handle the details?

It depends a lot on what you're buying and from whom, on the level of expertise you bring to the table, and the value you put on your time.

The travel industry is complicated and volatile. But in a way, it's like any do-it-yourself home project: If you have to start building your patio between weekend soccer games by studying books about the frost line, maybe you need a contractor. If you're handy, have the tools and enjoy spending ample spare time at Home Depot, you may be your own best patio maker.

Here are five occasions when you might want to use a travel agent -- or not.

Buying Airline Tickets

Doing It Yourself: Be prepared to check a number of online sites for the best deal, and increase your odds by checking often. Be aware that some carriers, including Southwest, limit their online sales to their own sites. Most online agencies, like Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity, add $5 or so to the ticket price; airline sites do not. However, most major carriers are now charging $5 if you book via their phone reservations systems, and $10 if you buy at the counter. (JetBlue charges $6 round trip for reservations by phone; Independence Air charges $10.)

The Agents' Argument: Travel agents were forced to charge fees to book flights once airlines cut their commissions -- a process that was basically complete by 2002. On average, agents nationwide charge $26.55 to book a flight, according to the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA). (Since consolidators and charter operators still pay commissions to travel agents, they may charge nothing for those.)

"If you're comfortable with the airline, know exactly what you want and what it should cost, you can save yourself the service fee of an agent," says Lynda Maxwell of Destinations Inc., an Ellicott City, Md., travel agency. But that advice, she adds, applies to simple point-to-point destinations. Open-jaw tickets -- where you fly into one city and depart from another -- can be difficult for the amateur to finesse, and planning travel for a family or other group coming from different places can get nightmarish.

Consumers should definitely turn to travel agents when shopping for tickets from consolidators, says William Z. Goldstein, chairman of Travel-On, headquartered in Beltsville. "Some consolidators out there are less than reputable. Good travel agencies will have a network of the tried-and-true." (Air consolidators buy in bulk and offer discounts, typically for international travel.)

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