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Travel Agents, With Reservations

When consumers had limited access to airfare information and travel agents were working for the airlines, suspicion abounded: Is my agent steering me to a more expensive ticket to jack up his commission? Even the temptation to do so is now gone, since agents work for a consumer fee.

Can agents beat the best price the average consumer can find by enough to make up for their service fees? It depends on the skill levels and time commitment of individual consumers, compared with that of their agents.

_____Way to Go Guide_____
Travel Agents, With Reservations
Booking a Flight: A Seven-Step Plan
Hotels, by the Booking
Catching the Bus
Taking the Train
How to Renew or Apply for a Passport
Specialty Travel
Before You Go: A Traveler's Toolbox
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

A series of studies by Topaz International, which advises corporate clients on travel issues, sheds some light on the subject. For the past three years, Topaz compared the cost of business travel itineraries booked by a corporate travel agency with those booked on an Internet site. Each year, travel agencies beat the competition, but by less and less. In 2001, agencies saved corporate clients an average of $171 on each round-trip flight. Last year, the difference was $69. Since business travelers tend to pay higher airfare prices, it's safe to assume that leisure travelers can't expect the same results.

Travel agents also point out that those with 24-hour backup can help bail you out when connections are missed, flights are canceled and things generally go awry.

Bottom Line: If you have a modicum of ability on the Internet and a willingness to invest some time, you should be able to track down your own point-to-point flights, especially in the United States. When it gets more complicated, as with open-jaw tickets, group travel and last-minute ticketing, a travel agent can save you time, and maybe even money. Unless you have first- or secondhand info about a consolidator, a travel agent who has experience with a trusted provider could save you grief.

Booking a Cruise

Doing It Yourself: Start by doing some homework, checking out various lines and their ships at independent sites like CruiseCritic.com, CruiseMates.com, CruiseOpinion.com and, for smaller lines, SmallShipCruises.com. Once you feel confident that you have some idea of what to expect, shop. The cruise lines all have toll-free numbers, some have online booking sites, and numerous Web agencies are fighting for your business. In addition to the well-known, all-purpose sites, there are online cruise specialists. Among them: Cruise411.com, CruisesOnly.com, CruiseBrothers.com and Cruise.com. All advertise drastic reductions, but often it's for a few cabins on a given cruise. You can easily truth-squad them by checking the site of the relevant cruise line.

The Agents' Argument: Since it usually doesn't cost you a dime to book your cruise through a travel agent, you might as well take advantage of their expertise, says Kathy Sudeikis, a Kansas travel agent and president-elect of ASTA.

Cruise lines and even individual ships have personalities. Finding the right match is critical, says Maxwell. "A couple dreaming of black-tie dinners will be miserable on a cruise with kids in tank tops drinking beer, and vice versa," says the Maryland travel agent. Moreover, a given ship may have 20 different categories of cabins. Are you aware that a "porthole balcony" is basically a hole cut into the side of the ship, or would you be expecting to sunbathe on a private veranda?

"The most advantageous rooms are midship and as high as you can go," says Goldstein. But do you know on which deck lifeboats are stored? First-time cruisers often don't even know basic things, such as that drinks cost extra, says Maxwell.

Since cruise lines pay commissions, the travel agent does stand to earn more by selling higher-priced cruises. But with the growing transparency in prices, an agent who fails to serve the customer's best interests is taking a major risk. A good agent works to find the best value not only on the cruise, agents say, but on airfares and port excursions as well.

Cruise lines often charge top dollar for their land excursions, and they'll be filled with fellow cruisers. If you want to book your own, you have to be careful, says Maxwell. An experienced agent, she says, can point you to trusted providers who offer shore excursions that are better, or cheaper, or both.

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