When to Use a Travel Agent

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When was the last time you used a travel agent? No doubt sometime before the emergence of online booking engines, which allow travelers to make their own plane and hotel reservations online without resorting to the sometimes costly services of a travel agent. Are the agents feeling the pinch? Yes, but the news isn’t all bad. While “virtual” travel agents are making “store-front” agents obsolete, there are still plenty of reasons why some travelers prefer a real, live travel agent to the electronic variety. Here are a few of them:

If you’re going on a cruise
Although many cruise lines are trying to use booking engines, most cruises are still booked by travel agents because having a knowledgeable agent can be a godsend. A good agent will not only get you a decent price but also make sure you get the right state room on the right boat.

If you’re in search of comprehensive service
Online agents can turn up discounts on air tickets but many booking engines don’t search prices on budget airlines like JetBlue, Southwest, or small foreign carriers. A good travel agent will go the extra mile to find a discount. Additionally, many travel agents have deals with consolidators (companies that offer reduced fares, but not to the public), and the savings can more than make up for agent surcharges.

07_call operator7.jpgIf you’re looking for air passes and around-the-world fares
Most airlines sell air passes (such as Cathay Pacific and Malaysia Airlines) only through travel agents. The agents will charge you a fee for what they know, but they can also help you work out complex itineraries. Agents who specialize in nothing but around-the-world fares can usually get you a better deal, or at least help you pick the right routes to maximize your travel value.

If you are a specific-needs traveler
Many store-front travel agents specialize in types of travelers—senior citizens, gays and lesbians, naturists, or people with mobility issues. A resourceful travel agent can easily hook you up with like-minded individuals. Travel agents also have areas of expertise—cruises, luxury travel, safaris, etc., and their insights can be invaluable.

If you’re planning a long, complex, multi-country trip
A trip of three weeks or longer to several countries requires all sorts of airline, hotel and car reservations. Many travelers find it easier to leave these details to an expert who can advise you on the nuances of making reservations in your destinations. You could make these arrangements yourself online, it’s true, but will the search engine be able to answer that pressing question about the distance between the train station and your hotel?

07_call operator8.jpgIf you have complicated requests
Many travelers use travel agents to avoid the possibility of aggravation. If you need a specific room at the Omni Royal in New Orleans—and that room only—a travel agent will have more success getting it for you than you would. Why? Because hotel proprietors know that travel agents are in the position to recommend or not recommend a particular hotel to travelers, and that makes them a powerful ally.

If you are traveling to a “difficult” country
It’s best to use a travel agent if you’re planning a trip to India, Egypt, China, or any place that might be considered challenging? A well-connected travel agent can help you make reservations and set up a single payment for your trip instead of having to make arrangements with individual hotels and airlines (some of which are not set up to allow direct bookings or international payment by credit card). For travel to countries where obtaining a visa can be a trying experience (especially Russia), a knowledgeable travel agent can save you lots of headaches.

If you’re going to a country not popular with American tourists
Believe it or not there are places on earth that have yet to be discovered by American tourists. Like the Canary Islands or Portugal’s Algarve or Ibiza. Traveling to such places will require a travel agent because chances are you won’t be able to reach your desired destination directly from the U.S. You can reach many “undiscovered” European locations via cheap, charter discount flights on foreign airlines like Ryan Air and EasyJet. There are also many charter packages from the UK to places like Croatia, Egypt, and Malta, among other destinations, and they’re often cheaper than the cheapest budget flight booked on your own because they include hotels and airport transfers.

07_call operator5.jpgIf you need a miracle
What do you do when your flight out of Buffalo has been canceled, leaving you stranded? Don’t bother calling the airline. Your agent can have you rebooked and on the next available flight, sometimes within the hour. Many travel agents will go above and beyond the call of duty, making medical referrals if you get sick or even wiring cash if you get robbed or have maxed out your credit card.

If you’re uncomfortable using the Internet
Many people don’t have the computer skills to research fares and make reservations online. If you don’t feel you have the technical dexterity to do it all yourself, turn to a travel agent. There’s nothing wrong with asking a professional for help and advice.

Chris Culwell