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 doand 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 arent 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 dont
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 agents 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 processbut 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 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
the Internet, pricing, and bookingbut 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 ofand have access tospecial 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 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 may not go according to
plan, you get a responsible party to handle your complaints and help make
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 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.
Its 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
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, 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 agents working hourswhich might not include 10
oclock at night or Sunday afternoon while you watched a ballgame. More
important, an inept agents 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.
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 theyre
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
honestyand 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 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 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 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 certification requires little effort.
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 will help you find 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 provides undivided attention.
Its 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 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
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 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. 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
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 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. 3
Here are some pointers for getting the most out of any agency
Unless you really cant stand it, perform at least some research on your
own. Knowing the basicsincluding information about available dealswill
help you determine if youre 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 wont 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 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 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.
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 moneyif you do it right. Here are several CHECKBOOK articles
that include money-saving tips, resources, and helpful websites.