(Washington Post illustration based on iStock images)

There are many ways to book a vacation: You can do it directly with hotels and airlines, through a travel agent, through third-party sites or separately through aggregators such as Google Flights. The choices can be overwhelming, and might lead travelers to wonder: Which way is best?

First, they must decide what they mean by best. Does best mean the lowest price? The most efficient process? Bookings that result in the most luxurious experience? And even then, there’s no easy answer. “There are definitely more ways to book a trip today than there ever have been before, but that doesn’t mean that there is a single way that’s going to get you the lowest price,” says Bjorn Hanson, an adjunct professor at the Tisch Center for Hospitality at New York University. Because each getaway is different, travelers will need to do their research for every trip, Hanson says, to see where they’re going to get the maximum value for their money.

The concept of value, like the concept of the best booking process, varies depending on the traveler, according to Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and the founder of Atmosphere Research Group. “Some people want the lowest price and don’t care about anything else, while others like amenities and inclusions at their hotel and would rather pay more money for a nonstop flight versus a connection,” he says.

Harteveldt prefers the latter approach for his own trips and often turns to a travel agent for help. “I’m a fan of traditional agents because they can sometimes get me room upgrades and deals that aren’t available elsewhere,” he says. “They can also get me extras at a hotel for no charge, like a nice welcome amenity.”

To illustrate how different ways of booking a vacation can lead to different results, I researched a sample trip using several methods. I looked at a five-night vacation for a family of four — two adults and two children — from April 13 to 18, traveling from Chicago to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. My hotel of choice was the Atlantic Hotel & Spa, an upscale beachfront property with 124 suites, all with balconies and kitchenettes. It also has an Italian-inspired restaurant called Coastal, a spa and a pool. I searched for nonstop flights that would allow us to choose our seat assignments (it’s important that my family can sit together) and carry-on luggage.


(Washington Post illustration based on iStock images)
Method: Directly through hotel, airline

Hotel price: A reservation agent for the Atlantic Hotel & Spa quoted me $376 a night for an ocean view studio king room, the property’s entry-level category. (All hotel pricing is without taxes.)

Airfare: I found a number of affordable nonstop flights from Chicago to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport by searching on different airline sites. Given that I’m a frequent flier on American Airlines and have racked up lots of miles with the carrier, the most appealing was an AA flight for $278 a person round-trip, and it was the cheapest.

Total: $2,992

Inclusions: None

Good to know: The reservation agent I spoke with was very friendly and also knowledgeable about the hotel. He was able to answer my questions about the room’s size and help me determine if it would be large enough for my husband, me and our two kids, both under 12 years old. (It probably would be.) He also knew about the property in general and even told me about his favorite treatment at the spa — that would be the Swedish massage.


(Washington Post illustration based on iStock images)
Method: Travel agent

I called Jack Ezon, the founder of Embark, a New York City travel agency that specializes in luxury trips. All travel agents can try to snag clients extras such as an upgraded room or free breakfast, but agents that specialize in luxury trips tend to have more success. While some travel agents charge planning fees, Ezon said he would not charge a planning fee for a simple trip like mine because he would get a commission from the hotel.

Hotel price: Ezon got me the ocean view studio king for $315 a night.

Airfare: Ezon found the same American Airlines flight I did and quoted me the same $278 a person, round trip, per ticket.

Total: $2,687

Inclusions: Daily breakfast, a space-available room upgrade, early check-in and late check-out, a welcome gift of either chocolate-covered oranges or key lime tarts and a boat tour for four of Fort Lauderdale.

Good to know: Ezon’s insider knowledge about the Atlantic Hotel & Spa was impressive. (Coincidentally, several of his agents had stayed there before.) “Not all studio king rooms are created equal,” he told me. “I’m going to book you in one ending in 12 because they are the biggest and give you 75 more square feet for the same price.” He also assured me that he would be on hand to help if I had any problems with flight delays or cancellations or with my room when I checked in.


(Washington Post illustration based on iStock images)
Method: Expedia.com

Package price: Here’s where the booking process got tricky. When I searched for an air and hotel package for two adults and two children, Expedia.com showed the Atlantic Hotel & Spa as sold out. However, when I changed my search to two adults only, I got a package price of $1,014 a person for five nights with accommodations in the studio king room. I had a choice of flights with the package, including the same American flight I had been looking at. The site wouldn’t let me book one room plus flights for four travelers. I found the American Airlines flight I wanted for $268 a person. That left me two options. I could book the package and then add two flights, for a total of $2,564; I could also book flights and accommodations separately for four travelers. I found the room for $348 a night. With the four flights at $268, the total would have been more: $2,812, so the package plus two flights was the clear winner.

Total: $2,564

Inclusions: None

Good to know: Given that I had already called the hotel directly and had also been in touch with Ezon, I knew it wasn’t sold out for the dates I wanted. By tinkering with my search, I was able to book the hotel, but this isn’t something that all travelers would think to do. Those who are keen to book through Expedia.com are likely to choose another hotel and buy a package that allows them to bundle flights and accommodations for the number of travelers in their group.


(Washington Post illustration based on iStock images)
Method: Booking.com and Google Flights

Hotel price: Booking.com, one of the world’s largest accommodation booking sites, found the same studio king room for $350 a night.

Airfare: Google Flights, which is a search engine for flights, turned up several nonstop flights with seat assignments and carry-on luggage privileges, including the $278 a person round trip on American Airlines and $331 a person round trip on United Airlines.

Total: $2,862

Good to know: Searching was straightforward and fast.

The verdict

It wasn’t the cheapest, but booking my trip through Ezon of Embark would have been the way to go for this particular trip. He got me the lowest price at the Atlantic Hotel & Spa and was able to comp me valuable extras, such as breakfast and the boat tour. And then there was the superstar service he provided. I may not have needed his hand-holding for an uncomplicated trip like this, but it was nice to have. A travel agent might not always be the best choice for a vacation, but after this experience, I will definitely consult one before booking future trips.

Vora is a writer based in New York. Follow her on Instagram: @shivanivora78.

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