Wait. Travel agents still exist? I thought they were the stuff of legend.
Believe it or not, travel agents remain relevant even in today’s world of online booking and free travel guide databases.
Since the dawn of invention, innovations and technological advancements have nullified countless professions, rendering human labor in particular fields redundant. The Internet is no exception. Librarians, print publications, video rental stores, booksellers, music sellers and bike messengers have all felt the winnowing effects of boundless communication.
Common sense would dictate that travel agents are also being phased out by the Internet. There is a superfluity of websites that offer cheap, user-friendly booking services and travel tips. Who doesn’t immediately hop on Expedia or Priceline when making travel plans? Yet surprisingly enough, travel agents have somehow managed to keep afloat despite the invasion of the robot overlords and their swift and total conquest of humanity.
In 2011, travel agents booked $95 billion in travel sales – about a third of the U.S. travel industry. According to the American Society of Travel Agents, agents continue to book 25% of all car rentals, 30% of all hotels, 50% of all flights and 70% of all tours and packages. In 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projected a 10% travel agent employment increase by 2020.
The question becomes, why? Why do people continue using travel agents? What do they have to offer? What can a travel agent do that I can’t do for myself?
The Cost of Using an Agent
First, let’s take a look at the cost of using a travel agent. If you’re considering a travel agent, ask your candidates about pricing up front. That should be obvious. Be forward, and most agents will gladly disclose their fee structure.
Travel agents have a number of ways to make money. Some charge a per-hour rate on time spent planning your trip ($100/hr is pretty standard). Some earn commission on bookings (though they do not earn commission on domestic flights anymore). It is not uncommon for agents to charge a fee for each item planned. You can expect to pay $25-30 for a domestic flight booking and $50-80 to book a vacation at a single destination.
Experts say using a travel agent will cost about as much as booking the trip yourself. Simply put, travel agents are good at tracking down low prices. It’s what they do. Agents sometimes have special relationships with vendors and receive daily travel deals that aren’t always available online. Additionally, vacation packages are often sold with a built-in agent commission. You still have to pay this sum regardless of whether you use an agent or book it yourself.
Any travel agent with the slightest sense of self-preservation will claim their services are practically free when you consider the potential savings. The veracity of this claim is open for debate. For the average traveler, this may very well hold true. But with enough persistence and cunning, web resources like travel auction sites make it possible to score huge savings without the aid of a professional.
The Benefits of Using an Agent
If you consider yourself a modern, web-savvy, and fairly intelligent individual, don’t go to a travel agent expecting huge savings. You might get lucky with a killer vacation package or shave a few bucks off a car rental, but expect to pay about the same price as you would booking everything yourself.
If you assume you’ll pay the same price whether or not you use an agent, why wouldn’t you? For no additional cost, you’ll receive a multitude of worthwhile benefits. First off, you’ll save time – more than you might realize. It’s easy to lose upwards of 30 hours to research, planning, mapping, and booking for a simple vacation. Granted, some people thoroughly enjoy the process. But for busy professionals and otherwise occupied individuals, outsourcing the preliminaries can be a great help. You don’t want to devote hours of your time to researching New York City hotels or Philadelphia taxi services.
Another invaluable benefit agents offer is advice. When selecting a travel agent, try to find one who specializes in your specific destination and has an insider’s knowledge of the area. It is particularly helpful if the agent has actually visited your destination and is familiar with many of its services and entertainment options. You want your agent to be able to help with things like music venues in Memphis or LaGuardia airport parking. The narrower your agent’s focus, the better.
Advice spans the gamut, from dining recommendations to transportation tips to entertainment suggestions. If you’re traveling abroad, a knowledgeable agent can even provide instruction concerning areas like dining etiquette, cultural customs, appropriate dress, weather, safety, vaccinations, and passports and travel visas. Again, seek out an agent who specializes in your destination, who has been there a number of times in the past. Otherwise, you’ll learn nothing you couldn’t get from Google.
The final notable benefit of booking through a travel agent is simplification. If you’re booking group travel, complications and headaches can quickly arise from juggling everyone’s information and credit card numbers. A travel agent can keep the group organized and make sure everyone ends up on the same flight and in the same hotel. Your agent can also help resolve issues you face on your travels. If you miss a flight or lose your luggage, your agent may be better equipped and more experienced to handle the situation.
So is a travel agent worth it? It depends what you value. If money is your main concern, maybe not. But if you want to save time, curtail complexity, and get an insider’s perspective on making the most of your trip, a travel agent might be the difference between a relaxing vacation and another tedious chore.