1. Is using a travel agent cheaper than self-booking through money saving search engines like Priceline?
Often, yes. Travel agents can save lots of money, even for the most seasoned adventurers.
“Search engines like Expedia and Priceline.com charge a commission for finding and spitting out the cheapest flights available,” explained my favorite travel agent, Connie Beach. “Many people don’t realize this because the commission fees are built into the ticket and hotel prices shown on screen. Vendors (e.g. hotels) add in commission to the deals we find. Our commissions are often about the same as search engines but we often find lower base prices because we’re trained to find deals and we have access to additional resources.”
2. Do agents charge additional service fees?
Many travel agents only charge a nominal service for booking airline tickets since airlines do not build in commission. However, a few agents do charge research fees. They do this when they research an extensive trip. Travel agents who charge research fees are usually agents who cannot tell whether you’ll book with them or not. These agents typically work in places like shopping malls where customers are more apt to have an agent do the research and then that same customer will walk out with the advice and book things themselves. If an agent is confident you will book through them (so they get paid) then they will likely not charge a fee or they’ll charge a small one. However, it’s best to first ask an agent what they charge before you do any work with them.
3. If I book using a travel agent will my trip be less adventurous? I don’t want a pre-packaged vacation. I want to see things that often go unseen and go where most would never dare go!
Travel agents don’t limit how adventurous your trips are. They help you save on necessary basics like airfare and train-rail passes.
Where you stay, what you eat, and how you spend your time are all things a travel agent can help you with, but they don’t have to. They’ll help you with these aspects as little or as much as you’d like. That said, be honest with what you want your travel agent to help you with. If you just want help with saving money on airfare, say, “I just want help on air-fare.” If you want help with itinerary planning, train tickets and so on, tell the agent that.
4. What resources do travel agents have that allow them to save me more money than if I booked stuff on my own?
Agents have four main resources that the typical traveler does not. Agents…
1) book through deal offering, reputable travel technology companies (like Sabre).
2) have memberships in travel consortiums (like Signature).
3) have access to destination specialists and constant feedback from clients as to what worked and what didn’t.
4) have everyday experience seeking out travel plans to nearly any destination in the world.
Travel Technology Companies, or TTC’s (like Sabre)
Travel technology companies collect data on travel. An example of info they provide includes pricing that comes directly from the airlines themselves. These companies then distribute that info to travel agents to get agents the lowest possible prices and schedules as well as visa information.
Other information TTC’s provide agents are things travelers may never think of — like the most reliable way to access your itineraries from abroad with your smartphone when you don’t have access to Wi-Fi.
Travel Consortiums (like Signature)
Travel consortiums are virtual marketplaces where services (like airlines, trains, and tour guides) compete to give travel agents their best offers. Agents then extend these offers to their clients. It’s like operating on the principle of wholesale. The producers don’t offer deals directly to online individuals because doing so wouldn’t generate enough business for such packages to be worth offering. But travel agents do generate enough business so agents do get offered the best deals to pass on to clients.
Travel agents have access to destination specialists — specialists who know the in-and-outs of a specific country. The specialists have either lived in or frequently visited a place and are knowledgeable about the best ways to get around, the best places to stay, camp, play in drum circles, etc. Destination specialists are selected to provide valuable location information. They must pass strict criteria to hold this position and each country has only about three of them.
Connie Beach has been a destination specialist for Switzerland – she has traveled there eighteen times.
Experience Seeking Out Deals
Travel agents go to school to do what they do, so they’re expert deal-finders.
On a day-to-day basis, travel agents receive updates on travel deals. And chances are, whether you’re going to Cambodia or Cancun, they’ve helped other people get to where you want to go and are already up on the options.
5. What other detailed information can travel agents provide that I might have trouble finding on my own?
T.A.’s can provide information on what insurance to purchase before going abroad. They can also tell you which aspects of your trip are wisest to insure. There is trip insurance that covers both health insurance and cancellation fees. Agents are familiar with what the insurance packages include and can give you advice on what you’d want to buy and how much you would spend. The insurance that suits you best will depend on what type of trip you’re planning.
Mobile phone plans
Agents can give advice on whether you should buy an international cell phone, use calling cards (old school!) or contact your phone provider to activate your smart phone so that it will work abroad.
Money exchange & Debit or Credit Card use
Agents are usually knowledgeable about the best way to do money exchange abroad. There are things you need to tell your bank before leaving the country so that credit or debit cards will work where you’re going. Agents can tell you all about that.
Also, T.A.’s know about deals on train passes, museum passes and other ways of getting around in many countries.
6. What should I talk about with my agent so that they know exactly what I’m looking for?
Let your travel agent get to know you, and let them know what you like.
“Travel Agents act as interviewers,” Beach tells me. “We ask lots of questions to hone in on exactly what are clients our looking for. At least once a week someone will come into my office and say ‘I want to take a trip. I have two weeks. I have no idea where to go.’ That’s when we ask things like: Do you want beaches or mountains? Do you want somewhere warm? Do you want five star hotels or campgrounds? And it goes on from there until you really narrow in on what a person wants.”
7. What services are travel agents unable to help me with?
Booking Hostels and foreign B&B’s.
Experienced agents will probably be able to give good advice on where to find specific info about hostels and B&B’s, but they can’t get you deals at them, and they don’t work with them. You will have to book these stays on your own.
For most adventurers, this is HUGE. It’s likely you’ll have interest in staying at either a hostel or a Bed and Breakfast, especially if you’re looking to save money.
A little known fact is that in most foreign countries (especially in Europe), Bed and Breakfasts tend to be cheaper than hotels and motels. In the U.S., it’s the other way around. B&B’s in the states tend to be specialty accommodations, and they’re pricey.
8. Are all travel agents the same?
No, not all travel agents are the same. Some specialize in get-away vacations and can tell you the best deals at Disney and Club-Med. Others can tell you how to get to the Arctic Circle. Ask your travel agent what types of trips they typically plan. Tell them about the trip you have in mind and ask how they can help with it. Ask what type of trips they go on. It is probably best to pair up with agents who either have similar interests as you or who have planned adventurous travel in the past. If your agent doesn’t know much about traveling to the region of your interest or if they don’t specialize in your type of travel, don’t hesitate to politely ask them if they know of someone who fits the criteria.
9. Do you know of a good travel agent?
Yes, Connie Beach is my absolute favorite travel agent. I had no idea travel agents were such a wonderful resource until a fellow world traveler introduced me to her. She’s been to over 34 countries herself and has been in the industry for 29 years. She’s based in Huntersville, North Carolina, but can work with clients via telephone or the internet. (She also has no idea I’m writing this article. This is a shameless but unprompted plug for someone who has helped me tremendously.)
For more info on Connie or for more tips on travel, check out my Interview with her: She Gets Paid to Get You Traveling.