Thursday, September 6, 2007

When to Deal with a Travel Agent

My boss and I got into a conversation a few days ago about travel agents: their role in the twenty-first century travel market, when it makes sense to work with them, and when they can make life more difficult for you as a traveler. Since we agreed on just about every point, I'd like to share with you some of our conclusions. (For those who don't know, a travel agent is a professional who handles your travel plans for you.)

In the days before deregulation and continuing up through the early 1990s, travel agents were a big help in booking airline tickets. They had access to special fares that most consumers couldn't get, understood complex ticketing processes that left most customers scratching their heads, and could fix problems en route for travelers who encountered problems. During most of this time, travel agents made their money primarily from commissions paid by the airlines and other travel companies; if it's free, why not use an agent, right?

Well, a lot of that changed with the emergence of the Internet. Over time, airlines in particular began offering the best fare deals from their own Web sites to compete with fare-comparison sites like Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity. They also got embroiled in intense competition with one another, especially as low-cost carriers emerged to challenge the legacy carriers. With each fare cut, the commissions paid to travel agents got smaller. Eventually, they disappeared entirely.

Under the current model, travel agents who book airline tickets for you make little or nothing from the airlines. They get their money from you, in the form of service fees. At the same time, booking your own airline tickets has gotten super-easy (again, thanks to the Internet). Under those conditions, why would you use an agent?

But maybe you're lazy, and you prefer to have someone else do the work for you. Fair enough. So here's another downside, which applies not only to travel agents but also to any time when you book fares through a third party rather than directly with the airline: only the company that sold you the tickets can change them. Need to reschedule a flight? You'll have to call your travel agent, or Expedia, or whoever; the airline won't help you directly. That's a big downside.

Does that mean travel agents are useless? No. There's one area where working with a travel agent can still make your life quite a bit easier, and that's when you're booking a cruise. Unlike airfares, cruise fares and arrangements remain extremely complicated. Prices vary widely, and there are plenty of special incentives that a travel agent can offer that you may not be able to get for yourself (or at least, not without spending huge amounts of time and effort on it). And unlike airlines, cruise lines continue to pay travel agents for their efforts.

Bottom line: when it comes to air, rail, or bus travel, make your own reservations on the Internet, but go to a travel agent when you want to take a cruise.

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