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.
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.)
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.
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.
Agents can also help cruisers sort through the myriad insurance options so they cover the contingencies most likely to happen to them.
Bottom Line: An experienced cruiser who knows his or her way around the various lines shouldn't find any surprises when booking without agent assistance. But given that travel agents generally don't charge booking fees for cruises, agents are a good bet.
Reserving a Hotel Room
Doing It Yourself: Most major-brand hotels promise that if you find something cheaper than what's listed on their own sites, they'll match and give you a bonus, such as an upgrade or free breakfast. Most online sites, such as Hotels.com, Quikbook.com and all-purpose sites like Expedia.com, make the same best-price guarantee, under varying circumstances. They also allow you to view prices at thousands of hotels at one location. But these sites generally require you to prepay, so you'll end up paying at least something if you cancel. Sometimes you'll find your best price by calling a hotel directly and negotiating. You also can find inns and bed-and-breakfasts at local tourism sites and by using a search engine that will lead you to B&B trade groups. Beware of taking the photos at face value.
The Agents' Argument: It's a common misconception that travel agencies will only steer you toward major hotel chains. Heather Dolstra, of Democracy Travel in Washington, says she deals with providers who rent villas and condos and with groups of small inn and B&B owners. Goldstein, of Travel-On, says his agency belongs to three buying consortia that provide discounts to tens of thousands of hotels worldwide. If you doubt that you're getting the best rate on a particular hotel, you can of course check that hotel's own site.
Agents are inundated with notices of special promotions, says ASTA's Sudeikis. "If you like the Four Seasons, for example, I can tell you that the one in Boca Raton is having a half-price special." Agents can also clue you in to the little things that may be a big deal to you -- like the difference between an adjoining and a connecting room. If you're getting a second room for your kids, you'll probably want connecting -- meaning there is a door between the rooms. If your snoopy in-laws are with you, you'd want adjoining (no connecting door), or maybe different floors, or even adjoining hotels. (Blame the latter on a travel agent mix-up.)
Some agents charge a fee for making hotel reservations, some don't. Those who do charge an average of about $15 per trip, according to ASTA.
Bottom Line: If you want to stay at a chain hotel or someone has recommended a lovely little property or resort, do it yourself. If price is your chief concern and you're willing to do the legwork to ensure that you're in the right part of town, skip the agent. If you're not sure where you want to stay, or have a special request -- say a villa in Provence -- you might be better off getting the help of a travel agent who's been there or has heard back from a lot of satisfied clients.
Renting a Car
Doing It Yourself: Online travel sites generally provide prices from a variety of car rental agencies. Check a few, and be sure you know what is and isn't included. Things to watch out for: Is mileage included? Is the company on airport grounds or merely "near" the airport? Given that weekend rates are so cheap compared with weekdays, are you better off taking cabs for a couple days of your trip and then renting later in the week? Is insurance included, and if not, is it mandatory?
The Agents' Argument: Travel agents routinely negotiate bulk rates, but usually only with the top car companies. Thus, if you're determined to deal only with a major brand like Hertz or Avis, you might find that your agent's negotiated rates are as good as it gets. Agents have an incentive to book with the companies they've negotiated with, since if they don't deliver volume, they won't get the best rates the following year.
If you're open to other car companies, make that clear; an agent can shop sites open only to agents, as well as sites consumers can see, too. Some agents charge a fee for this service -- an average of about $15 per rental. Some waive or reduce the fee if the customer is also buying other products.
Bottom Line: If you prefer to deal with the largest car companies and have an agent who has a negotiated rate with your favorite firms, call the agent. If you're shopping for price only, it's probably not worth paying an agent fee.
Booking a Tour Package
Doing It Yourself: All the major all-purpose sites sell packages, as do discount package sites like Go-today.com and Site59.com. Surf a number of them to get an idea of which one comes closest to what you want, and do some price comparisons. Then, to really get an idea of whether the package is worth the hype, break it into its individual pieces and price each segment (air, hotel, etc.), remembering that packages are always priced per person, while hotels often are priced per room.
The Agents' Argument: The U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA) requires its members to make their tour packages available to travel agents, and they are paid sales commissions. Consequently, most agents will not charge for booking a package. There is one caveat: Some agents now charge planning fees that are deducted from the cost of whatever you buy -- a way of avoiding people who come in for the sole purpose of picking their brains for hours, with no intention to buy.
Agents say they are best equipped to match you with a reputable tour operator and match your desires with a tour that's right for you. They might even be able to save you money. "We are promotions central; my e-mail inbox would horrify you," says Dolstra. "Some of the offers are junky, but if a good deal is out there, chances are it's come to our desk."
Experience teaches travel agents the right questions to ask both of clients and providers, they say. "Just the other day, two senior women came into my office with a brochure for a trip they thought was perfect for them," says Sudeikis. First she talked to them about what they were most excited about, then called the tour operator and pinned down details. "Not only didn't they go on that tour, but they went on another one that was four days longer, it did more of what they wanted, and when all was said and done, it ended up costing less, too," says Sudeikis.
Can a consumer find a better price than an agent's best price? "It depends on the nature of the trip, how complicated it is and how much time they are willing to spend shopping," says Goldstein. "If an amateur armchair agent has sleepless nights and spends three hours on the Internet, he could find something more price-appealing, perhaps. But again, he doesn't know much about what he's getting and may not know whom he's getting it from. Since there is little or no cost associated with going to an agent, why not use our expertise?"
Bottom Line: If you already have a pretty good idea where you want to go and what to expect once you get there, then invest some time in focused online window-shopping. If you have only a vague notion of a destination, the shopping alone could drive you crazy. If you're nervous about giving your money to an unknown entity, then let a good, experienced agent broker your deal, especially if they're not going to charge a fee.
Planning an Exotic Trip
Doing It Yourself: Unless you've been there, done that -- or know someone who has -- finding that great African safari or planning a trip through Russia could be challenging. Generally, a search engine will come up with tour providers. If they're strangers to you, check that they belong to a reputable trade association, like the USTOA. Pay by credit card so that if the company goes belly-up before you leave or return home, you have a chance of getting your money back. Tourism and visitors bureaus for particular states and countries offer a wealth of information, although none would recommend one tax-paying provider over another.
The Agents' Argument: The farther afield a traveler gets from his comfort zone, the more he needs us, agents say.
Travel agencies looking to survive in the leisure market have increasingly turned to specialization as a niche, says Karen Dunlap, CEO of Travel-On. Specialties like Caribbean travel are even getting diced down to the island-by-island level. And agencies that advertise themselves as generalists often bring to the table a lot of specificity.
Travel agents add the most value when directing clients to destinations that require a lot of knowledge and thought -- safaris, for example, says Goldstein. You not only have to identify a safe and reliable provider but know which countries have the animals you want to see and the migration patterns of those animals, to say nothing of what's happening in a volatile region of the world.
Clients often come to a travel agent with only the vaguest idea of how long it takes to get from one part of a country or continent to another, how much time is needed to explore a given locale, what prices are fair, what travel documents or shots are needed, or even what weather to expect, agents say. Often, they even delude themselves about what kind of traveler they really are.
An agent has to be a bit of a psychologist, says Dolstra. "They might think they want to see seven countries in eight days, but you have to ask a lot of questions. Are they really the kind of people who are up at 7 a.m. and still raring to go at midnight, or deep inside, do they actually like to putter?"
Bottom Line: The highly experienced, intrepid traveler may not need any assistance. If moving into unfamiliar and particularly dangerous parts of the world, do your homework and develop a broad idea of your desired trip -- pinpoint where you want to go, what you want to see and, possibly, where you want to bunk. Then consider letting a travel agent help with the details.