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Travel Agencies (From CHECKBOOK, Spring/Summer 2015)
Go to Ratings of 29 Chicago Area Travel Agencies
Travel Agents


Even though you can do for yourself almost anything a travel agency can do for you, there are still reasons to use one. A good travel agent who has firsthand experience with many destinations can be an invaluable source of information on when and where to go, how to get there, where to stay, what to do—and what to avoid. 

But 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 view your transaction with an agency as paying for expert consultation, rather than using it simply 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 aren’t worth your money or your time. Our ratings of area agencies will help you find an agency you can count on. Also look for an agent credentialed as a Certified Travel Associate (CTA) by The Travel Institute. CTAs 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 seek certification. There are other travel agent certification programs, but many of them don’t mean much. 

Work with an agent who possesses 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 agent’s own fees. 

Pay by credit card. If you have a problem you can protest the charge with your credit card company. 

Some people actually enjoy the vacation-planning process—but not everyone. If putting in hour upon hour at a computer plugging in destinations, trying to figure out the best time to travel, reading articles and reviews, choosing from myriad hotel properties, and sorting through way too many price comparison websites is too much like the job you want to get away from, consider using a travel agency. While fewer people use travel agents these days, knowledgeable agents can still provide useful services. There aren’t 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. 

What Can They Do for You? 

Good travel agents can save you a lot of legwork—performing research, searching the Internet, pricing, and booking—but they 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 tourist hordes), and lots of other information. 

Good agents are also aware of—and have access to—special money-saving deals and promotions. The agent can alert you to current security warnings, obtain visas and other essential 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 agent’s 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 may not go according to plan, you get a responsible party to handle your complaints and help make things right. 

Why Pay Booking Fees? 

The travel business and the role of travel agencies have changed dramatically in the last 10 years. 

Airlines used to pay travel agencies a commission—typically 10 percent of the ticket price—on the 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 either had to call them all yourself or contact a travel agency, which could access all the information using fancy software. 

It’s all different now. Except for corporate travel, airlines pay no commissions. And consumers can shop till they drop on the Internet, checking prices and availability of multiple airlines, hotels, and other providers at a single website. 

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 service—typically $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, rail 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, they imposed other types of costs. You had to spend time communicating with your agent, and you had to do it during the agent’s working hours—which might not include 10 o’clock at night or Sunday afternoon while you watched a ballgame. More important, an inept agent’s bad choices could cost you hundreds of dollars. What matters today is what has always mattered: choosing an agent who has the expertise to find out what you want and works hard to get it for you. 

Looking for a Special Agent? 

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 quality” (click here for further discussion of our customer survey and other research methods). 

As you can see, several agencies received very high ratings. But the ratings for some agencies indicate they may be more trouble and cost than they’re worth. 

For firms that were evaluated in our last full, published article, our Ratings Tables also show counts of complaints we gathered from the Better Business Bureau (BBB) for a recent three-year period. We also checked for complaints on file with local government consumer offices, but none of the companies listed on our Ratings Tables received complaints with any of those agencies during the two-year period we checked. 

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 honesty—and take your business 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. 

Good agents can also provide insider information on other matters—frequent 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 that an agent takes the work seriously. On the other hand, lousy agents still can do coursework, and many very good agents never seek certification. Also, certification says nothing about whether an agent will be diligent and helpful. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t 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 professionals—and that many may not mean much because certification requires little effort. 

Getting Prompt, Courteous, and Reliable Service 

You’re excited about a trip; you don’t want to wait days or weeks to get information from your agent. If your trip is close at hand, you don’t want to miss out on a good fare, a good seat, a good hotel room, or other opportunities because your agent acts slowly, doesn’t act at all, or makes a mistake. You especially don’t 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 will help you find a reliable agency, but you’ll 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 provides undivided attention. It’s not easy for agents to pay attention to you while juggling calls and emails from impatient clients along with responses from hotels and other travel service suppliers—but some agents handle it a lot better than others. 

Naturally, pleasantness is another consideration; it’s 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” will help you identify agents who will work hard to get you good prices. 

Unfortunately, this is an area where there can be 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 service—sometimes more than $1,000 on international flights and hundreds of dollars for a few days at the same hotel. 

Your agent should not be biased toward suppliers that favor them. Agencies may get higher—or more reliably paid—commissions from some travel suppliers than from others. Unless you’ve expressed a preference for a particular hotel chain, be concerned if your agent keeps steering you to one chain or supplier. 

Your agent should help you find the best airfares and hotels—including smaller hotels and bed and breakfasts. Because tracking down the best airfares and hotel vacancies can take a lot of time and energy, 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 promotions. 

Of course, one aspect of price is an agent’s 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 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 you’ll 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. 3 

Extra Advice:
Tips for Working with a Travel Agent 

Here are some pointers for getting the most out of any agency— 

  • Unless you really can’t stand it, perform at least some research on your own. Knowing the basics—including information about available deals—will help you determine if you’re dealing with an incompetent or lazy agent. 
  • Shop on your own if your flight requirements are complex. 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 won’t want to do an agent any favors unless he or she acknowledges them by dropping their fees.) Giving an easy commission to an agent should build goodwill that might result in lower fees later on, when you actually need the agent’s expertise. In some situations, of course, booking through an agent may not be a good idea—for example, if you can qualify directly for a hotel rate that isn’t 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 you’re 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 doesn’t become complacent. 
  • Beware of low-priced suppliers neither you nor your agent has 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. 

Extra Advice:
Don’t Miss Out on Our Tips on Saving on Travel 

A good travel agent can be a valuable consultant in deciding where to go, when to go there, and what to do once you arrive. But because agencies charge fees for most services, doing your own booking legwork is likely to save you money—if you do it right. Here are several CHECKBOOK articles that include money-saving tips, resources, and helpful websites. 

Go to Ratings of 29 Chicago Area Travel Agencies Back to top