With the advent of discount travel and portals like Orbitz and CheapTickets, I figured travel agents were all but obsolete for the thrifty vacationer. It turns out I was wrong. According to the market research firm PhoCusWright, travel agents, otherwise known as travel consultants or travel advisers, accounted for $95 billion in 2011 travel sales — nearly a third of the U.S. travel market.
"We save clients money in numerous ways," says International Travel Management founder John Clifford, a veteran travel consultant based in San Diego. "It is not always hard-dollar savings. Travel consultants often have personal relationships with hotel managers and firsthand knowledge about a destination. These can translate into richer travel experiences, time saved and upgrades. A lot of customers fixate on price, but time is irreplaceable."
But back to the price. Many people assume that Internet travel sites search all airlines, but that is not so. Small discount carriers like Southwest do not participate in those sites, and many thrifty carriers in Europe and other international destinations are usually unknown to most U.S. travelers — but not to agents.
When it comes to hotels, expect an agent to nab you 5 percent to 30 percent off the lowest rate you could find online, Clifford says. Plus, agents often have their finger on the pulse of smaller inns and newly opened properties that Hotels.com may not list. But the real benefit is that "we can call the hotel manager whom we may know personally and ask for an upgrade or other perks," Clifford says.
Don't just take Clifford's word for it. Earlier this year, the New York Times compared airline prices from major Internet travel sites. Time and again, the human being's price beat Travelocity, Kayak and others. In some cases, the travel agent kicked the computer's butt. For example, the four-legged New York-to-China flight that Expedia priced at $1,724 was snagged for $1,369 by an agency. Clifford says to expect to pay fees of about $40 per domestic ticket and more for an international booking.
If that's not enough to convince you of these professionals' merits, another huge plus is that these folks are people who can understand what other people like and help travelers create memorable vacations rather than just string together a package that includes cheap coach seats, a few nights at a Marriott and a midsize sedan.
Andrew Schrage heads the personal finance site Money Crashers and recently paid a travel agent in Hong Kong $50 to overhaul his travel plans to the mountain province of Zhangjiajie, home of the famous craggy landscapes. Schrage had planned to fly to the small city and spend a week in the area. He's glad he listened to the travel professional who persuaded him to instead spend the week taking a high-speed train, a slow boat and a bus to reach the destination — all the while enjoying some of the most beautiful and unusual scenes in the world. "Not only did the slow route save me $800 in travel fees, but if I had taken that plane, I would have missed out on one of the best cultural and historic experiences that I didn't even know about," says Schrage, who lives in Chicago. A highlight: "Bus views of the rice terraces that stack the mountains like staircases. That doesn't exist anywhere else in the world."
Jodi Helmer, a Charlotte, N.C., travel writer, got hooked on the value of an agent five years ago when shopping online for a trip to Argentina overwhelmed her and a friend. Exasperated, they went with an agent. "Initially, she wasn't able to get a better deal on airfare, but she did make the whole process easier," Helmer says. "The biggest benefit came after our flights were booked."
The agent continued to monitor fares, and when the price of the flight dropped from $1,500 to $800, she negotiated a refund. "When I got home there was a $700 check waiting for me, which covered a portion of the credit card charges I accumulated in Argentina," Helmer says.
From then on, she has used the same agent to book both international and domestic flights and pays just $10 for the service. However, there is one con. "It's hard to let someone else take control," Helmer says. "I can't help but wonder if I could have found a better deal. But each time that thought pops into my head, I remember when she saved me $700."