Are Travel Agents Worth the Extra Cost?

As the country emerges slowly but surely from recession, people are once again traveling, booking trips by air, making hotel reservations, attending conferences and hitting hot tourist destinations.

A recent TripAdvisor survey revealed that 83% of survey respondents planned on taking a family vacation in 2011, up from 79% in 2010. Other surveys also reveal that business travel is on the rebound.

There are dozens of websites and travel related apps to help the savvy traveler book a dream getaway or perfect networking opportunity, but many travelers still decide to go old school and use a travel agent.

Julie Sturgeon, a travel agent and owner of the travel agency Curing Cold Feet in Indianapolis, opened her shop in 2008. “When my agency was new, people said 'Why should I use a travel agent when I can go to a travel site myself?” Sturgeon said. “A lot of people see the commercials for these sites and don’t realize these companies are making money from travelers doing their own work. Travel agent fees are paid for by the supplier and are built into the cost whether a traveler uses an agent or not.”

Sturgeon said that once travelers understand that they don’t pay additional fees for services such as research and that additional layer of customer service, it is a no-brainer for many to use an agent.

Sturgeon uses the example that a major tourist attraction might charge $2,200 for an all-inclusive vacation, including hotels and theme park tickets. “What people may not realize is that price assumes the traveler is using a travel agent and the 10% fee is already built in,” said Sturgeon. “If the traveler does all their own leg work and books themselves, they are still not refunded that 10%.”

What travelers may be missing when they do their own research or book through a travel site, for example, are the added resort fees, pre-payments on hotel reservations and the fat that some sites book non-refundable reservations for them. Sturgeon said good travel agents are trained to look for these sometimes-overlooked fees.

“I like to use the analogy of the pump-it-yourself gas station: if you’re going to get the same price but more customer service at a full service station,” she asks, “do you still want to pump it yourself?”

Aines Maza is a frequent traveler who lives in San Antonio, Texas. She’s used Sturgeon to book her trips since 2008. “I just feel comfortable talking to her and booking my trips through her,” said Maza. “She is very knowledgeable from all her travels and she reads everything.”

Maza said she has saved a lot of money on her trips, which are mainly overseas adventures. “She always tries to find the best fares and it’s good to have another person searching for the best prices who looks at them constantly.”

Maza said that they have also developed a personal connection, which allows Sturgeon to make travel recommendations and activities she believes Maza would enjoy. “She talked me into doing bridge flying and I don’t think I would have ever done that on my own,” said Maza.

There are two main types of agencies, Sturgeon explains: those hosted by a larger travel entity, such as hers, which is hosted by Montrose Travel in Montrose, Calif., and those that are completely independent. She said many (like hers) are now home-based, but there are still a few bricks-and-mortar agencies out there.

“A hosted agency looks like a retail franchise: we are free to use the larger company’s databases and equipment,” Sturgeon said. “We also have a whole team behind us if there is an issue with the travel or an emergency.”

Carole Beasley, an independent agent and owner of Dream Destinations Travel in Greenwood, Ind., was formerly a contractor who decided to go out on her own at the end of 2010. She said there are distinct advantages to using an agency not hosted by a larger travel company.

“Sometimes, when there is a franchise, the agent is more restricted in what they can sell,” Beasley said. “Being independent also means we can do anything the client wants, if we’re not set up with a supplier, we’re free to set it up.”

Sturgeon adds that there are some other important things to look for when seeking out a travel agent. One of those is finding an agent who knows how to travel, and it doesn’t hurt to find one who has traveled to the destination or taken the cruise you’re looking to embark upon, which isn’t as common as you might think.

“Agents don’t get a lot of free travel, contrary to what most people believe,” said Sturgeon. “If an agent doesn’t know your destination personally then they need to know how to find the answers you’re asking.”

Another tip is to find an agent who specializes in the type of travel you’re planning, be it a European tour, a cruise or even a visit as narrowly defined as a planning trip for professionals in a specific industry.

Maza said that finding the right travel agent for an important trip is worth the effort and less costly and time consuming than planning the trip alone. “I know when I book my trip, I can depend on my travel agent,” Maza said. “She’s made many of our trips very memorable.”

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