As airlines make ticketing more complex, travel agents make a comeback with insider bargains and tips

by Charlie Leocha on February 23, 2012

Once upon a time, the word from the online travel agencies and the emerging Internet world was “disintermediation” — getting rid of the middle man in the travel booking process. Thought, back in the mid-90s and early-2000s, was that travel agents would fade away. Online booking would render them useless. But, that’s not what happened. Travel agent bookings are up year over year.

Why? ConsumerTraveler.com has long provided a travel agents point of view among our posts. Years ago, I predicted that travel agents would come back into vogue as the booking process became more complex. And so it has.

Others in the media are finally waking up to the fact that the Internet, combined with the plethora of new fees and options, may be making booking travel more complex that the “good old days.” Plus, just as in the past, travel providers all negotiate different deals and create different packages for consumers.

Booking a flight is not simply a question of opening a website and seeing all the possible permutations of prices and available options. Online travel agents (OTAs) compete with each other offering different deals, different negotiated fares, different suppliers and different purchasing options. Expedia deals are different from Orbitz deals. Priceline quotes different prices than Travelocity. Smaller websites such as easyclicktravel.com, eurocheapo.com and hostelbookers.com often have hotel rooms at bargain prices that can’t be found on hotel sites or the major OTAs.

Often, travel agents can access all of these different rates and fares. The time they save can easily make up for their booking charges.

Personally, my experience with travel agents has been a mixed bag. At times, travel agents can sometimes find rooms in a hotel that says, “Sold Out” on their website. At times, they suggest events at destinations that were off my radar screen. On the other hand, I have worked with agents that simply take orders for flights without ever offering suggestions to save money by changing airlines or shifting flight times a bit. Others, disappointingly, seem to only know how to book chain hotels, missing bargains that abound, especially in Europe.

Let’s face it. When dealing with simple point-to-point travel, travel agents may not be a big value-added. But, when planning a more complex trip and if disaster strikes or the weather changes, travel agents earn their money.

CNN covered a story about travelers involved in the Costa Concordia disaster. These travelers, who had worked through a travel agent, had help getting south to Rome, into the embassy for new passports and out of Italy. Having a travel agent made it much easier.

Like many travelers, Beach usually books his own flights when he’s taking a simple business trip within the United States. But he turns to his travel agent when his plans get more complicated or he’s leaving the country or when there’s trouble.

Forbes Magazine in a series of articles about travel agents adds an almost travel superstar aura to travel agents.

…the bottom line is that they know more than you do, they are better connected than you, they have access to benefits you can’t get otherwise, they can often beat any other prices available (even online, yes), and after you have planned everything, they provide a safety net during your trip that you simply won’t get by booking yourself or buying insurance. Having a top travel agent can also make you an instant VIP – free room upgrades, hard to get restaurant reservations, cutting lines, access to otherwise closed stores and exhibits, private guides, and cheaper – often much cheaper – premium airfares.

The Frugal Traveler in the New York Times added more love letters for travel agents on Valentine’s Day. The author found that travel agents managed to beat prices provided by OTAs.

Nearly every time, travel agents bested the Internet big boys on both price (the objective part of the test) and service (what you might call the essay question). In other words, the agents suggested alternate routes, gave advice on visas and just generally acted, well, more human than their computer counterparts.

One point to remember, that none of these articles seemed to take into account, is that OTAs are travel agents as well. Most of them have toll-free numbers that can be used to contact an agent directly rather than going through the booking process strictly online. Sometimes, that human touchpoint allows uncertain travelers a lifeline for most complex decisions.

But, with airlines making the booking process more and more complex; with agencies negotiating varied packages; with travel agents enjoying special relationships with cruise lines, airlines, rental car companies and hotels; dealing with a talented travel agent that knows your preferences and travel proclivities can be an attractive proposition.

The trick is finding a good one.


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  • Mapsmith

    Another selection that is missing on your poll,

    ” I don’t use a local travel Agent because where I live there are no Local Agents.”

    Or like my situation.  In a community of over 1 million people, there are three Travel Agencies.  One has the contract for the University, One is exclusively Cruises and the Other is someone who works out of their Kitchen.

    So, I really do not have a choice.

    Additionally, there apparently is not currently a Travel Agent training program offered.  I have an employee that was taking a course from a school in the Greater NYC area.  That school closed down because they could not get any of their graduates jobs in the Travel Industry other than the “Works out of the Kitchen” type of Travel Agency.

  • DaveB

    The last time I used a travel agent I paid $78.00 more for the same flights I had picked out on line. Also if I would have bought their special pricing deal on the hotel I would have paid about an extra 20%.
    I”ve only booke vacations through a trave agent and handfull of times and only once I felt I got a good deal.
    Just because a person is a travel agent, it doesn’t necessarily mean they know how to book travel any better than I can. There are good ones out there but they are hard to find, at least near where I live.

  • Janice

    I hear you, a lot of brick and mortar agencies have closed.  And yes, there are some lousy agents out there. But with e ticketing and email it’s not hard to work with an agent in another town. 

  • Anonymous

    I would agrue the comment that OTA are travel agents.  OTA have portals and i if you happen to have to callt them, they are order takers and don’t know the true ins and out of the industry.  In any industry there are good and knowledgeable workers and there are those that should be working in the business.  There may be fewer brick and mortar agencies, but there are just as many agents out there as I have ever seen.  Homebaseing is very easy in ese days so many don’t have an office front.

  • Janice

     agree on OTAs.  And not the same thing when you have a problem to call someone at a call center who’s never heard of you, compared to an agent you deal with regularly.   (Better than nothing, admittedly.) Also, Bodega3 is right on the order taking and many are tightly scripted as to what they can and can’t offer.

  • Anonymous

     Is there anything wrong with a travel agent who “works out of the kitchen”?

    I have heard of some top notch “semi retired” agents who work from their home? How is this any different from a bank or financial enterprise employee who is required to work from home (like many Bank of America employees in Charlotte) ?

    A travel agent needs SKILL and a computer. With Wifi I can book your tickets using my laptop from almost anywhere (even from my kitchen).

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