When to Use a Travel Agent
Strongly consider using a travel agent instead of doing it yourself in the following cases:
Getting 25 people on the same plane with seats together at an affordable price is no job for a dilettante. Call a travel agent immediately when traveling with a large group. Be firm and clear in your instructions on your budget, time and date restrictions, and other requirements.
I consider family travel just a smaller subset of a group trip -- we want sensible flight times, the fewest connections and shortest overall travel time possible, seats together throughout, hotel rooms with enough sleeping space, a car that can accept a child's seat, etc. A good travel agent understands all of this intuitively, and can save you the headaches of sorting through all of this yourself.
When looking for a package deal.
There are so many package deals out there, at hotels you've never heard of, with itineraries so vague you're not sure what country you're visiting, that you probably need some assistance. (See Are Vacation Packages a Good Deal? for more help.)
When you fly frequently.
When you fly frequently, and especially when it's SEM (Someone Else's Money), having a good travel agent can be essential. No hours on hold, no endless Web surfing, no hassles; just a quick phone call, and your e-tickets arrive in your inbox.
When traveling to an exotic locale or new "resort" area.
I once took a trip to a new resort that hadn't completed its plumbing installation, overlooked a beach at an oil drilling site and was plagued with thefts. I rented a car and disappeared for the rest of the trip, swallowing the cost of the hotel.
A good travel agent has an ear to the ground and will know whether a new hotel in an exotic location is safe and ready to welcome travelers. Many travel agents routinely visit hot new locations (often on the tab of the resort -- see Potential Conflicts of Interest below).
Additionally, if any components of your itinerary collapse, your travel agent is accountable to help try to set things right. If you made all your reservations yourself, you're up the creek without the proverbial paddle.
When you don't have time.
You might save a few dollars in fees, while you lose two hours in research. What is your time worth? Travel agents earn their keep by doing work you don't have time to do.
When you have all the time in the world.
If you have a relationship with your travel agent, you can ask them to keep an eye out for good deals to your favorite locations. Sure, email notification services can do the same, but your travel agent might catch something a "bot" might not.
When you have the itinerary from H-E-Double Hockey Sticks.
If you have a particularly sticky itinerary -- one with stopovers, rented cars in every city, several hotels and the like -- you might want to get a pro on the job.
When you have a great travel agent.
If you've found the world's best travel agent right in your neighborhood, throw her all your business. You won't do better anywhere else. She can see everything the booking engines can see, and sometimes more. She'll make a living, you'll become a preferred customer and the world will be a better place. (Well, maybe not, but we can try.)
When to Do It Yourself
I do believe there are times when you can just make your bookings yourself:
If you're booking a simple roundtrip flight, you can probably do it yourself online with your preferred airline. This way, there's no third party to consult if you have to make quick, simple decisions about departure times, prices or other factors. You make a few clicks and it's done. No travel agent is going to make this process simpler or likely even cheaper.
When you're working on word of mouth, or with Mom and Pop operations.
Many small hotels, B&B's, local car rental joints or similar outfits don't register on the average travel agent's radar screen. When a friend tells you about this great and affordable little cabin that you can get by calling the local bait shop, make the call yourself.
What to Ask a Travel Agent
A good travel agent will answer the following questions honestly and without resistance.
Do you apply a surcharge to my purchase? How big is it?
I think it is unfortunate that travel agents have been forced to apply a surcharge to get paid for the valuable work they do. And usually they're worth the small fee. I have no sympathy, however, for agents and agencies that institute a surcharge and don't tell their customers until after the fact.
Does the price quote include all taxes and other charges?
The odd travel agent will quote you the base price on a flight or hotel stay; then when you try to pay, it's much higher. Even online booking engines quote final prices; expect your travel agent to do so as well.
What about incentive programs?
Are agents getting paid to steer you to a specific airline, cruise company, hotel or car rental agency? You want to know.
Are there airlines that do not appear in their computers?
Some airlines are more equal than others. Some airlines, such as Southwest and other smaller discounters, may not participate in the central reservations system. Good agents will know to check those airlines' sites when appropriate.
Do they routinely work with vacation package companies?
The truly creative agent might not just offer you an airfare, but might find a vacation package that could even come in cheaper than the flight.
Potential Conflicts of Interest
An agent who is paid to find the best airfare, but is simultaneously paid by airlines to steer customers to their flights, encounters a clear conflict of interest. While most agents should be assumed honest, you want to know about these arrangements, as the agent is put in a tough position of saving you a few bucks or making a few more bucks for himself.
It's a conflict of interest, a little like when a real estate agent represents both the buyer and the seller. Whose interests are they protecting? Besides their own, of course. Please understand that I'm not attacking travel agents' right to make a living. But when an agent sells out the customer on the other end of the phone to the airline on the other end of an incentive program, we have a problem.
Often called "fam" trips, these are partly educational trips for travel agents and partly favors from travel companies, who often expect to be "paid back" with sales to that destination. Probably a necessary evil, but when someone recommends a new locale she's just visited and loved, remember that she didn't pay as much as you will to visit there. Again, ask the tough questions.
An "override" refers to an incentive program where agents are rewarded, in commission increase or other perks, when they sell a minimum number or dollar amount of reservations for a particular airline, hotel, car rental company, cruise line or the like. The temptation to steer passengers to that company can be overwhelming, even if it's not entirely in the best interests of the traveler.
Overrides are primarily an issue at large companies; your average local company can't get anywhere near the numbers required for most overrides.
I'm not slamming agents by highlighting these issues; remember, one just saved me $2,000. I'm merely reinforcing my eternal credo: Caveat emptor (let the buyer beware). Do your homework to find that "Good Travel Agent," and you won't regret it.