Whenever I book a trip these days—usually to see my brother in California or to take a European vacation with friends—I find my flight and accommodations online through discount sites like Expedia or Hotwire. But on a recent drive, I noticed a travel agency out of my passenger-side window. I wondered: how can travel agents maintain any kind of business in the age of online travel arrangements? Hasn’t the Internet made them obsolete? After doing a little investigating, I found that actually, I should probably use a travel agent to book my trips more often.
A Technology Edge with a Side of Expertise
The more I read about the travel industry and what agents really do, the more I began to realize that those discount sites may be more flash than substance. Even though they seem like they’re getting you the cheapest deal out there, you’ll probably have better luck going through an agent instead (fees and all). That’s because good agents build strong working relationships with travel suppliers and have access to even stronger computer-reservation technology than online discount sites, ensuring that you get the best value for your trip.
Remember, too, that travel agents have years of expertise in their field. What would take me hours to coordinate takes them a lot less time. And they have the inside scoop on early-booking discounts, special fares, hotel deals, and travel advisories.
A good travel agent is also an advocate. These men and women are professionals who belong to the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), which has a long-standing record of fighting for consumer rights and requires its member travel agents to adhere to a strict code of ethics. That measure of security is nice to have when you need to cancel a romantic trip for two with your boyfriend because you’ve broken up with him, as I did once. I booked the trip on Expedia, and because I added my ex’s name to the plane and hotel reservations (even though I was using my credit card), the site wouldn’t give me a refund without his consent. Maybe if I had gone through a travel agent, he or she would have advised me better from the outset.
You Don’t Need to Look Far and Wide
A solid relationship with a travel agent is a great thing to have, but where do you find one these days? You can search for one in your area through the ASTA Web site to ensure that the person you’ll be doing business with is a reputable professional. You can also ask friends and family members who may have used travel agents in the past if they have anyone they’d recommend.
Keep in mind that a good agent will want to build a long-term relationship with you as a client, not just make one sale. He or she should be asking you questions about your individual needs and lifestyle when you meet, as a way of making the best travel plans for you. After all, everyone is different. Whereas some find sitting on a beach relaxing, I find it boring and would much rather be zipping around a city, seeing the sights. I want my travel agent to understand that when he or she is making plans for me.
Just One Click, and You’re There
There are some situations in which using a discount travel site instead of a travel agent may be appropriate: when you’re booking a quick flight, maybe to see relatives or to conduct business out of town for one or two nights, for example. After all, discount sites are convenient and cheap; just a few clicks, and in five minutes you can have a complete package with a flight, a hotel room, and even a rental car all ready for you. While they’re not the best sites to use for places you’ve never been before—it’s hard to tell where, exactly, those hotels are, and you don’t want to end up in a shady part of town—they’re a great tool for savvy travelers who just need to book quick trips.
Travel Agents in the Internet Age
Sites like Expedia and Hotwire do have their uses, but for most travel bookings, travel agents really are the way to go if you want discount rates, security, and integrity. Choose an agent who belongs to the ASTA to ensure that he or she adheres to the highest standards of the profession—and start packing!