Travel Agent vs. Online Booking
In this modern world of smartphones and online everything, it only makes sense that we turn more and more toward online resources for our travel booking needs; it should be cheaper, one would think, to cut out the middleman and book directly at the source. And even without the human middleman, it still seems as if booking hotels and airfare through an online travel site, such as Orbitz or Expedia, would be more economical than a live agent.
Booking flights directly from the airline, or by researching fares via a fare search aggregator, such as Kayak, might be the cheapest way to find a ticket from Point A to Point B. Likewise, rooms might be cheaper to find online, especially with the more recent phenomenon of last-minute room booking apps, such as Hotel Tonight. Plus, the visibility that the internet has given us as consumers has surely helped prices for travel to come down.
While this can be true, it is not always the case that booking yourself is the best/least-expensive option. There are many times when an actual travel agent will be the better way to go. Below are some areas where human agents come out stronger than their modern, computerized, online counterparts. Keep in mind that there are good travel agents, and then there are bad ones, the kind that will only use the same tools you might use and then charge you a commission. The reasons below list how a good, reputable travel agent can be better.
The foremost reason that travel agents are still around and won’t go the way of the dinosaur anytime soon is for the simple fact that they know more than you. These guys do it for a living, and they are familiar with the best routing options and nearby airports when it comes to booking flights, the cheapest hotels that is still within a reasonable distance from the city center, and package deals that you may be unaware of. Take flights, for example. Let’s say you live in Barcelona and want to fly to New York. Well, a travel agent will undoubtedly know the several airports around both cities to widen the search, and will also be able to use their knowledge of the various airlines and flights to find a path outside of just Point A to Point B, if you allow them to do so. Maybe there are fares that are on sale from Barcelona to Miami, which you wouldn’t know about, and then a quick flight from Miami to New York City to finish it off. This is something that most people would never think of doing, and frankly, most people don’t have the time to spend checking every possible city combination.
While most travel sites say that they offer discounts if booking two or more services together, such as a room and a flight, or an activity with a cruise, travel agents may be able to have discounts that are not on the table at the big websites. Typically, an airline website that offers a room with a flight usually benefits somehow from the pairing. The hotels, while they really might be a bargain if you were to compare it to booking it separately, usually are more expensive options to begin with, allowing the airline to make a better commission from selling it. A good travel agent should be able to look at any hotel that meets your prerequisites and build a package with it. Also, a travel agency sometimes can look into unconventional discounts, such as perhaps a discount offered by the city’s tourism board, something that websites will almost never consider. Finally, a travel agent will be able to add even the smallest details to your trip, such as a knowledgeable local tour guide.
One of the perks of using a human agent is for the little details that can really make your trip much better. A travel agent may be able to secure hard-to-get reservations at top restaurants, for example. An agent may have connections through sending a specific place business and customers over the years, and a favor just might be owed, in which case you could benefit. Agents may also have special connections that can allow you to take an after-hours tour of a hot attraction, or perhaps get tickets to a popular play or concert that are sold-out to the general public. One area where travel agents shine is their ability to somehow always get some kind of hotel room upgrade, a perk that is hard to come by if the room is booked online.
There are going to be times when shit just happens. Maybe a storm grounds your flight, or a hotel oversold their rooms. Agents can sometimes use a combination of their influence, clout, and knowledge to lessen the impact that something uncalled-for takes on your trip. Think of this: you are in a foreign country, and your flight back home is cancelled. Booking it yourself will leave you with the same fate as most of your other fellow passengers (standing in a long line, waiting on hold, numerous expensive international calls, etc.). One call to your travel agent will at least give you the peace of mind that it is being taken care of, and they may be able to pull strings that the other passengers won’t have access to, perhaps getting you home faster than them.
Mix & Match
There doesn’t seem to exist yet an online travel booking site with a search algorithm advanced enough to take multiple airlines into consideration when booking a flight. Let’s say you have a flight plan that makes it necessary for you to make one or more connections, such as from Milan, Italy to Chengdu, China. Since there are no direct flights on that route, most websites might list as their cheapest itinerary an Air China flight with a connection in Shanghai, when an agent may be able to use Aeroflot to get you to somewhere in China, and then use a local shuttle flight to Chengdu (two totally unaffiliated airline companies), cheaper in cost while still the same amount of connections.
Having a travel agent doing the work for you obviously reduces the stress that is associated with planning a trip. While it may be fun in the beginning, constant searching for better deals will sooner or later lead to anxiety and a bad taste in your mouth. Sometimes, this stressing over a trip as you are planning can even leave you regretting your trip entirely.
One way that travel agents can trump booking yourself is because of reviews. There are a gazillion review sites, nowadays, and they seem to be getting to the point where they cannot be trusted completely. In the case of restaurants and hotels, especially the smaller, boutique variety, it is not unheard of for a proprietor to bolster their establishment’s standing by creating various accounts and touting their brand. This leads to consumer distrust, and I know that I already pay little heed to these ratings. On the opposite side of things, airlines who are getting reviewed seem to only get the short end of the stick. Passengers will much more likely take the time to write about the flight or experience if something went awry; few will spend time to praise an airline, since a perfect flying experience is just expected. This leads to innumerable bad references in comparison to good ones.
In the end, pricing is usually the ultimate determining factor of where you book. Though travel agents have to make a living, and thus charge some sort of commission, often times, they can still beat the prices you will find online yourself. You can look yourself first, tell them the cheapest cost you see for a trip, and tell them to try to beat it. They will usually come back to you with a better deal, or perhaps one slightly more expensive or the same in price but with more luxuries.
Not everyone needs a travel agent. Some people enjoy the challenge of looking themselves, using the search as part of the wonder of the upcoming travel plans. A simple weekend trip across the country to visit a family member probably shouldn’t call for an agent in the picture. However, as a trip becomes more complicated, with longer stays, multiple destinations, and other finer details, a reputable travel agent can really come in handy. Homework and due diligence should always be carried out yourself; you should at least always gauge the final cost of a trip by doing some preliminary flight and room searches. Take the best itinerary to your agent, and tell them to beat it. Chances are, you will receive a reply significantly better on your pocket and your mind.