Find out how a travel agent can make planning a trip easier for you. Learn their tips and tricks of traveling and why it may be smarter to book through one.
By Janice Hough
These days, many people are surprised travel agents still exist. However, as counterintuitive as it seems, the biggest problem a travel agent that is still in business has is hiring people.
Booking online often appears fast and easy. But, the truth of the matter is that there is a lot of conflicting information out there, and a lot of confusion.
Travel agents know the rules
A good travel agent can help cut through the clutter. Agents still sell a high percentage of airline tickets, cruises and hotel rooms. With those sales come both clout and know-how to make a trip easier and more enjoyable.
For starters, most agents have access to one of the major central reservation systems. These high-powered systems allow agents to have real-time access to almost all airline seat inventories, as well as programs that help find the lowest prices available between points for air travelers.
Airlines all used to pay commissions to agents; these days, commissions are rare. So you will generally pay a fee for a booking. But, even with the fee, the total price may be less than travelers can find on their own. A good way for a price-conscious consumer who is on the fence about buying from an agent is checking online, and then calling an agent and asking if they can beat it, even with the fee. Many agents will be happy to try to compete, so long as you then don’t take the flights they find and book direct.
Travel agents can get special deals
Some agents have preferred arrangements with airlines that can both benefit the agents and consumers. Consumer benefits can range from access to special help desks to things like free seat assignments with airlines that otherwise charge. Other little-known benefits might include even waivers of everything from change fees to missed advance purchase rules.
Travel agent reservations systems have access to rental car and hotel availability, often these days down to the last available room, along with access to corporate rates on both cars and hotels. And, many agents these days either are part of a large agency group or consortium, with negotiated deals on hotel rooms. These prices may be the same or lower than available on line, they also may include such perks as free breakfasts, welcome gifts, upgrades, early check-in or late check-out, and significant restaurant-bar or spa credits.
When it comes to allotting rooms, hotels are more likely to favor bookings made by travel agents or agency groups with clout, on issues ranging from bedding type (one or two beds), views, location within the hotel, etc. At any property, someone gets the worst room in the house, but it’s not likely to be a client of a preferred agency. (A side note: many hotels do not even allow customers who book through certain online sites to make any requests regarding room type, which, say, for a family of four wanting two beds, can be a problem.) In addition, travel agents may have personal relationships with individual hotel people that can make a big difference.
For vacations, and at times corporate travel, agents may be able to get travelers packages with reduced airline and hotel prices. This can be true for both destinations like Hawaii and Europe. Sometimes, airlines may have special airfares that are not published and available only with an included hotel or tour purchase. For business class airfare, sometimes a package with hotel nights included can be less than the airfare alone. There are restrictions on these kinds of deals, but they can result in big savings.
Travel agents can be a traveler’s advocate
A very important general advantage of a travel agent is also having an advocate on the traveler’s side, during and after travel, and not just for flights. An agent can work to resolve all sorts of problems with hotels, tours, etc., often immediately, and potentially rescue a trip.
In times of trouble, travel agents can help
Plus, in the case of a missed connection, bad weather or other issues causing major airport problems, booking through a travel agent means having someone to contact, and not waiting on hold or in line for an hour or more. (Note: some agents also have 24/7 help desks, usually requiring an extra charge, which might still be worth it for that 4 a.m. phone call.)
Specialized agents help with special trips
All travel agents are not the same. Some are generalists, some specialize in business travel, some may have experts in particular regions of the world, others may sell only cruises. In general, membership in ARTA or ASTA is a good sign, as is belonging to a consortium, and an agent should be able to tell travelers what kind of perks they may offer. There are many ways to find a good agent, although referrals are often the best. And, what constitutes a “good agent” is often different for different consumers.
Travel agent fees are the norm
A few notes up front, though, because travel agents now may derive much of their income from fees, and because the good ones are busy, the days of calling around and having several people do a lot of work for proposed trips with no fees are largely over. Some agents now ask for fees up front; others will do some preliminary work but start charging after a certain time. Many agents have learned to be careful and not offer exact itineraries to a new caller up front, due to the unfortunate few who take the information and then book direct without a fee.
A good agent should also be realistic up front. If the travel budget is untenable, or travelers want, for example, to pay a bare minimum fee for a long complicated itinerary of bargain hotels in Europe, or regular service on nights and weekends., an agent may suggest they look elsewhere.
What is a consolidator?
A consolidator is a discount airline ticket seller. Some OTAs (online travel agents) also function as consolidators. They may offer discounted tickets at prices not available through airlines directly. The airline name is usually—but not always—disclosed in advance.
Consolidators are not limited to no-name airlines. The world’s largest airlines generally sell tickets through consolidators.
There are, however, plenty of horror stories involving consolidators, in part because the rules can be different from tickets purchased directly from an airline or through a travel agent. Always use a credit card in case of disputes, and be aware of all restrictions.
Curiously enough, consolidator tickets are not always the lowest price. Sometimes an airline may negotiate a deal with a consolidator, and then undercut them later.
In some cases, consolidator tickets might actually be less restrictive than a ticket purchased directly from the airlines, being refundable for a fee instead of nonrefundable, or it might allow a free stopover. Sometimes they may also be available until the last minute when published fares require advance purchase. (These days it’s always worth checking, as airlines may offer their own last-minute fares, and in some cases travel agents can get carriers to waive advance purchases directly.)
On the other hand, while most nonrefundable tickets purchased from airlines can be reapplied to another flight upon payment of a fee if plans change, consolidators may not allow that flexibility. Other consolidator tickets may be marked “non-endorsable,” which is an important piece of jargon — it means that if an airline cancels or delays a flight, no other airline may accept their ticket, even if other passengers on the plane are accommodated on different carriers.
Airlines have been known to break their own rules for stranded consolidator ticket holders, but don’t count on it. Depending on the type of ticket purchased, passengers also may not be eligible for frequent-flyer mileage credits or frequent-flyer upgrades, let alone advance seat assignments.
When consolidator tickets are refundable, only the consolidator itself can do it. And travelers can’t count on what an airline may tell them about the rules at the airport, because they don’t know what the consolidator contracts include. While many consolidators are quite reputable, they can go out of business, which is one of the reasons to use a credit card in case of disputes.
There are even some first- and business-class consolidator tickets. Be careful, though, as some so-called consolidators are actually selling frequent flier tickets, which have their own set of problems. In fact, in many cases the airlines consider them illegal.
A travel agent can be a big help in finding a reputable consolidator, or as mentioned early, they may suggest working with a tour operator with discounted airfares. It might even be cheaper to purchase a ticket with hotel nights or a car than to purchase the ticket alone, even if travelers don’t plan on using the land arrangement.