How to find the best travel agent for your next vacation

An anniversary cruise down the Nile. A relaxing getaway to an all-inclusive resort. An eye-opening trek through Nepal or Peru. As anyone who sat on a packed flight this summer (or waited for hours in a crowded airport) could tell you, travel is bouncing back. Some vacations require more planning and coordination than others. Technology – hotel-booking sites, travel blogs, price-comparison tools – can help nearly anyone schedule a journey, but sometimes, you need knowledge, savvy, and experience to help navigate the great unknown.

Even though you can DIY almost anything a travel agency can do, there are still reasons to use one.

Good travel agents can save you a lot of legwork – performing research, comparing pricing, and doing the actual booking – but they also provide other benefits.

If you use a travel agent who has visited your destination, you reap the rewards of their firsthand experience and local contacts. Good agents can also provide insider information on more than just airfare and lodging. They should be able to advise on other matters, including frequent flier programs, visa requirements, areas dangerous due to political instability, great places to eat, things to see, and much more.

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Good agents may also have access to money-saving deals and promotions. The agent can alert you to current security warnings, obtain visas and other essential travel documents, and help with other details. If you will be traveling with others, an agent can coordinate arrangements for the entire group. If you have special needs or special interests, an agent’s expertise is especially valuable. And if anything goes wrong, a good agent can be a central source of help and leverage.

Since many types of trip-related commissions have dried up, travel agencies now charge fees for most services, so using an agent usually costs more than booking on your own.

When airlines paid travel agencies a commission on the tickets they sold – typically 10% of the fare – agencies could survive solely on airline ticket sales. Agencies still receive commissions on hotel bookings (typically 5% to 10%, although only about half of hotels pay them), cruises (10% or more), car rentals (2% to 5%), and tour-operator packages (10 % or more).

To compensate for lost commissions, travel agencies charge customers fees for each service – typically $ 30 to $ 50 to book a domestic flight, $ 30 to $ 100 for an international flight, $ 0 to $ 150 for a cruise, and $ 75 to $ 150 per hour for research and planning advice. Fees often depend on how much the agency can make from commissions. For instance, buy a trip with a tour operator that pays a 10% commission, and the agent might not charge any fee. But for an overseas trip that includes flights, stays at multiple hotels, rail passes, or car rental, fees can be $ 300 or more.

Your first question for prospective agencies should be whether they have staffers who specialize in where you want to go. You’ll likely find that some agents focus on cruises vs. Europe vs. South America vs. seeing Disney theme parks efficiently. You want to work with an agent who has recently visited your destination, or at least has on-site expert contacts and books several trips a month there.

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Especially if you’re booking with a tour operator, a cruise, vacation package, or other trip that involves bundled services, ask three or four different agencies for proposals. You’ll likely see big differences in costs, even for similar itineraries, lodging, and other services.

A good agent will stay on top of details and keep closely in touch until your plans are firmly set. If agents do not know the answers to all your questions, they should at least know where to find them. If an agent is slow to respond, proposes flights that fail to satisfy your travel constraints, inaccurately describes destinations, or misses other details, consider making a change.

In general, you want an agent who uses various cost-saving tactics, including shopping for third-party discount airfares, locating hotels or resorts offering special promotions, and negotiating the best prices with cruise lines.

Unfortunately, this is an area where there can be substantial variability. Because agencies get higher – or more reliably paid – commissions from some travel suppliers than from others, the industry is rife with conflicts of interest. Agents you hire should look out for your best interests by selecting the best options and seeking ways to save you money, but don’t assume that all will do so.

Perform at least some research on your own. Knowing the basics – including information about available deals – will help you determine whether you’re working with an incompetent or lazy agent.

Let your agent know that you sometimes check other options, so they don’t become complacent. Beware of suppliers neither you nor your agent has heard of. They may have significant strings attached. Pay by credit card. If you have a problem, you can dispute the charge.

Even if you regularly rely on one agent, consider using a different one for trips that require special knowledge. Know, too, that you don’t have to use an agency that’s located in your city. You might consider using an agent based in the place you are traveling to, as well; you’ll often get a better deal and better insider knowledge.

Delaware Valley Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. We are supported by consumers and take no money from the service providers we evaluate. You can access Checkbook’s unbiased ratings of local travel agents until Oct. 5 at Checkbook.org/Inquirer/Agents.

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