Even though you can do for yourself almost anything travel agencies can
do for you, there are still reasons to use one. A good travel agent who
has firsthand experience of many destinations can be an invaluable source
of information on when and where to go, how to get there, where to stay,
what to doand what to avoid.
Since many types of travel-related commissions have dried up, travel agencies
now charge fees for most services, so using an agent usually costs more
than booking on your own. The best approach is to use an agency as a consultant
rather than as a booking service.
Although most of the agencies that have survived the online relocation
of the travel marketplace have done so by offering superior advice and
service, some arent worth the money or the trouble. Our ratings of area
agencies will help you find an agency you can count on. Also look for agents
who are Certified Travel Associates by The Travel Institute. Certified
agents have completed coursework, passed an exam, and fulfilled continuing
education requirements. On the other hand, lousy agents still can do coursework,
and many very good agents never bother to seek certification. There are
many other travel agent certification programs, but many of them dont
Work with an agent who has specialized knowledge of your destination. The
agent should have recently visited the area, or at least have considerable
experience booking trips for other clients there.
In addition to advice, your agent should be able to find the best deals
and should not be biased in favor of travel suppliers that pay higher commissions.
Be concerned if an agent keeps steering you to one chain or supplier.
Of course, another aspect of price is an agents own fees.
Pay by credit card. If you have a problem you can protest the charge with
your credit card company.
Whoever wrote Its a Small World, (After All) must have had more than
two weeks of vacation time a year. Where to go? How to get there? Where
If you have the time, you can sort through articles and guidebooks and
spend hours scouring websites to book the perfect vacation on your own.
Some people actually enjoy the vacation-planning processbut not everyone.
If the idea of putting in hour upon hour planning your trip seems too much
like toiling at the job you want to get away from, consider using a travel
agent. While it seems like nobody uses travel agents anymore, knowledgeable
agents can provide useful services. There arent as many agencies now as
before the Internet Age, but many of those still standing have survived
by offering superior service and sharing their expertise.
Good travel agents can save you a lot of legworkperforming research, searching,
pricing, and bookingbut they can also provide other benefits.
If you use a travel agent who has visited your destination, you benefit
from his or her firsthand experience and local contacts. You can find out
from someone you trust whether activities really are as much fun as they
sound, if a hotel is as opulent as the brochures claim, which tour guides
know their stuff, where (and where not) to eat, how to avoid the tourist
traps (and hordes of tourists), and lots of other information.
A good agent should also be aware ofand have access tospecial money-saving
deals and promotions. The agent can alert you to current security warnings,
obtain visas and other needed travel documents, and help with other practical
details. If you will be traveling with others, an agent can coordinate
arrangements for the entire group. If you have special needs (disability,
diet) or special interests (ecotourism, antiquing, golf), an agents expertise
is especially valuable. And if anything goes wrong, a good agent can be
a central source of help and leverage. By using a travel agency to book
tours, charter flights, and other services that sometimes dont go according
to schedule, you get a responsible party to handle your complaints and
go to bat for you to make things right.
The travel business and the role of travel agencies have changed dramatically
in the last 10 years.
Airlines used to pay travel agencies a commissiontypically 10 percent
of the ticket priceon the airline tickets they sold. Agencies could survive
solely on airline ticket sales.
Pre-Internet Age, if you wanted to find out airfares and hotel rates and
availability from a variety of providers, you could either call every one
of them yourselfor contact a travel agency, which could access all the
information using fancy software.
Its all different now. Except for corporate travel, airlines pay no commissions.
And consumers can shop till they drop on the Internet, checking price and
availability of multiple airlines, hotels, and other providers at a single
Agencies still receive commissions on hotel bookings (typically five to
10 percent, although only about half of hotels pay them), cruises (10 percent
or more), car rentals (two to five percent), and tour-operator packages
(10 percent or more).
To compensate for lost commissions, travel agencies charge customers fees
for each servicetypically $30 to $50 to book a domestic flight, $30 to
$100 for an international flight, $0 to $100 for a cruise, and about $100
per hour for research and planning advice. Fees often depend on how much
the agency can make from commissions. For instance, buy a trip with a tour
operator that pays a 10 percent commission and the agent might not charge
any fee. But for an overseas trip including flights, stays at multiple
hotels, train passes or car rental, fees can be $300 or more. Also keep
in mind that many travel agencies are now staffed by independent contractors
who set their own fees.
Paying a fee represents a big hurdle to many consumers. Why pay someone
to do what you can do on your own? In fact, the fees should not be your
main consideration. What matters is whether an agency will really help
you. The travel agency business has evolved: To attract clients, travel
agencies must now provide expertise as travel consultants.
Even when travel agency services were no-fee, there were other types of
costs. You had to spend time talking with your agent, and you had to do
it during the agents working hoursnot at 10 oclock at night or on a
Sunday afternoon while you watched a ballgame. More important, an inept
agent could cost you hundreds of dollars by making bad choices. What matters
today is what has always mattered: choosing an agent who has the expertise
you need, finds out what you want, and works hard to get it.
To help you find a travel agency that will work for you, our Ratings Tables report ratings of area companies from surveys of area consumers
(primarily CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers). For agencies that
received 10 or more ratings, the table shows the percent of surveyed customers
who rated each agency superior (as opposed to inferior or adequate)
on several questions: advice on options and costs, doing service properly,
pleasantness, letting you know cost early, completing service promptly,
and overall performance (click here
for further discussion of our customer survey and other research methods).
Several agencies received very high ratings, with customers submitting
feedback such as
She had lots of great suggestions and knew the answer to every question
or concern I had. She made sure that the trip I chose was the perfect one
Planned the trip of a lifetime to Africa for my family. They really thought
of everything and the trip was just wonderful.
Will tirelessly search for the best places, best rates, and do so again
and again without a sigh or a complaint.
An excellent agent who recommends hotels/activities based on her own experiences
staying there. Also able to get good prices for vacation packages.
Excellent experience... Handled a big wedding party with efficiency and
ease. Very communicative and the follow-up was terrific. We were completely
relaxed about our plans.
But the ratings and feedback suggest that other agencies may be more trouble
and cost than theyre worth
Went to [them] to plan 25th wedding anniversary trip to Hawaii. After
spending one hour with agency director discussing our interests, two weeks
later we received basic brochures we could have picked up anywhere. Total
waste of our time.
I dont think any of them have ever traveled. Its really a do-it-yourself
operation with the staff useful only to hand out pamphlets.
I found my own flight for several of us and the guy still made a mess
of it. The worst travel service Ive encountered...
Called four months prior to trip. Our name was given to agent that specialized
in that area. Left several calls over eight-week period. Only one brief
conversation with agent. Three weeks before trip I contacted another agent.
I asked for some options regarding cruises; agent promised to call back
the next day after doing research. When I talked to her the next day, it
was clear she had only done a cursory search of one cruise line. If she
had said that she hadnt had enough time to do the research, that would
have been fine and I would have given her more time, but she tried to push
the one cruise she found.
For firms that were evaluated in our last full, published article, our
Ratings Tables also show tallies of complaints we gathered from the
Better Business Bureau (BBB) for a recent three-year period. We checked
for complaints on file against the companies listed on our Ratings Tables
with the Consumer Protection Division of the Office of the Attorney General,
but no complaints were filed against the companies during the two-year
period we searched.
You can check current BBB complaint information on any company by visiting
www.bbb.org or by phoning 312-832-0500. You can check current customer
survey ratings by clicking on the companys name on our Ratings Tables
and, in the details under the listing, clicking a link to the BBBs most
recent report on complaints about the company.
When using the complaint information, keep in mind that complaints are
not always justified; sometimes customers are unreasonable. Remember that
we didnt have a measure of business volume; large agencies are more likely
to incur complaints simply because they serve more customers. Also be aware
that some companies may be at greater risk of incurring complaints than
others because of the specific types of business they do.
Getting Good Advice
Your first question for prospective agencies should be whether or not they
have agents who specialize in your destination. If an agency admits to
relatively little experience with your destination, award them points for
honestyand go somewhere else. You want to work with an agent who has recently
visited your destination, or at least has onsite expert contacts and books
several trips a month there for other clients.
Good agents can also provide insider information on other mattersfrequent
flier programs, visa requirements, areas dangerous due to political instability,
and much more.
One indication that an agent has a solid base of knowledge is qualification
by The Travel Institute as a Certified Travel Associate (CTA). To become
a CTA, an agent must have 18 months experience in the industry, complete
a CTA educational program, pass an exam, and meet continuing education
requirements. On one hand, because certification requires a substantial
amount of time and effort, it does indicate an agent takes the work seriously.
But many experienced, knowledgeable agents never bother to get certified,
and certification says nothing about whether an agent will be diligent
and helpful. Nonetheless, it wouldnt hurt to ask any agency you are considering
if it employs CTAs who can handle your work.
Although the CTA program appears to be a well-conceived, well-managed effort,
be aware that there are many other certification programs for travel professionalsand
that many may not mean much because becoming certified requires little
Getting Prompt, Courteous, and Reliable Service
Youre excited about a trip; you dont want to wait days or weeks to get
information from your agent. If your trip is close at hand, you dont want
to miss out on a good fare, a good seat, a good hotel room, or other opportunities
because your agent acts slowly, doesnt act at all, or makes a mistake.
You especially dont want to discover a booking error when you are in a
strange land 10,000 miles from home.
The customer survey scores on doing service properly on our Ratings Tables should offer some help in finding a reliable agency, but youll
quickly form your own opinions by working with an agent. A good agent will
stay on top of every detail and keep closely in touch until your plans
are firmly set. If an agent does not know the answers to all your questions,
he or she should know where to find them. If an agent is slow to respond,
proposes flights that fail to satisfy your travel constraints, inaccurately
describes destinations, or misses other details, consider making a change.
You will quickly ascertain whether your agent can give you undivided attention.
Its not easy for agents to pay attention to you while juggling calls and
emails from impatient clients and responses from hotels and other travel
service suppliersbut some agents handle it a lot better than others.
Naturally, pleasantness is another consideration; its the measure on which
agencies generally scored highest on our customer surveys. But as our Ratings Tables reveal, this factor varies considerably from agency to agency.
Getting the Right Price
The scores on our Ratings Tables for advice on options and costs
should help you identify agents willing to work hard to get you good prices.
Unfortunately, this is an area where there is sometimes substantial variability.
When we have tested agencies, we sometimes found very little agency-to-agency
price variation and very little difference between the prices the agencies
found and the best prices we found on the Web or received directly from
airlines and hotels. But we occasionally found big differences for exactly
the same flight, hotel stay, or other servicesometimes more than $1,000
on international flights and hundreds of dollars for a few days at the
Your agent should not be biased toward suppliers that favor them. Agencies
may get higheror more reliably paidcommissions from some travel suppliers
than from others. Unless youve expressed a preference for a particular
hotel chain, be concerned if your agent keeps steering you to one chain
Your agent should help you find the best airfares and hotelsincluding
smaller hotels and bed and breakfasts. Tracking down the best airfares
and hotel vacancies can take a lot of time and energy, so some agents let
customers do this kind of heavy lifting themselves.
In general, you want an agent who uses various cost-saving tactics, including
shopping for consolidator airfares, and who locates hotels offering special
Of course, one aspect of price is an agents own fees. Find out in advance
the amount of fees, and press for details. For example, if it costs $35
to book an airplane ticket, find out whether that covers the complete trip,
including several stopovers, and if the per-passenger fee is less for booking
multiple fliers on the same itinerary. Also, because many agencies charge
$100 an hour or more for research, make sure you understand when youll
be charged the hourly rate rather than a fee for each service.
If you own a business and book your own travel, or travel often, consider
opening a corporate/business account with an agency. Because airlines do
pay commissions for corporate travel, the fee structure with travel agencies
is much different than for individual consumers. Many agencies charge no
fees to business clients.
Here are some pointers for getting the most out of any agency you hire
Unless you really cant stand doing so, do at least some research on your
own. Knowing the basicsincluding information about readily available dealswill
help you determine if youre dealing with an incompetent or lazy agent.
Shop on your own if your flight requirements are complex and you dont
qualify for low-priced excursion or advance-purchase fares. Shopping may
also turn up package deals agents may not be aware of.
If you know exactly what flight, hotel, cruise, or other services you want,
and if the service provider pays commissions, consider doing your agent
a favor by letting him or her book the trip. (Obviously, you wont want
to do an agent any favors unless he or she acknowledges the favor by dropping
any booking fees.) Giving an easy commission to an agent should build good
will that might result in lower fees for you later on, when you actually
need the agents expertise. In some situations, of course, booking through
an agent may not be a good ideafor example, if you can qualify directly
for a hotel rate that isnt available if booked through an agent.
Even if you regularly rely on one agent, consider using a different agent
for trips that require special expertise. For example, if youre going
to China and your regular agency has little expertise on areas you plan
to visit, contact an agency that knows the territory.
Let your agent know that you sometimes check other options, so the agent
doesnt become complacent.
Beware of low-priced suppliers neither you nor your agent have heard of.
They may be scams or have significant strings attached.
Pay by credit card. If you have a problem you can protest the charge with
your credit card company.