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Using a Travel Agent vs Booking Online: What’s Better for Vacations?

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If you can’t decide how to plan your next vacation, you aren’t alone. Many travelers can be torn between booking online or hiring professionals to tailor their trip. 

So, using a travel agent vs booking online. Even the most seasoned travelers have some questions in common:

The answer can be specific, based on you and the trip that you want to take. But don’t worry. We’ve laid it all out for you here so that you don’t need to learn the hard way when making the best decisions for your vacation. 

AspectUsing a Travel AgentBooking Online
ExpertiseProvide expert guidance and personalized recommendationsRelies on self-research and review sites
PlanningHandles all aspects of trip planning and logisticsRequires individual booking of each component
TimeSaves time by handling all arrangementsMore time-consuming to research and book separately
FeesMay charge service fees, but can find dealsNo service fees, but harder to find best deals
SupportAvailable for assistance before, during and after tripLimited support, mostly pre-trip
Special RequestsCan accommodate complex needs and special requestsHarder to coordinate special arrangements
PackagesAccess to exclusive package deals and ratesMore limited package options available

Read on to see the advantages and disadvantages of using a travel agent, booking online, or potentially both.

What Is A Travel Agent?

Travel Agent With Clients

A travel agent is a professional specializing in travel planning for their clients, acting as an expert on accommodation, transportation, excursions, and destinations in general. 

They act as a link or broker between the companies at the destination who provide various vacation products and services and the traveler themself. They may also be known as travel advisors or travel consultants.

Think about it: you don’t always know the best place to stay, the airline routes that can get you there, the trustworthy tour guides who can show you around, and more. A travel agent does and can ensure you get your money’s worth and make all of the arrangements for you.

In return, the travel agent collects fees based on the arrangements made. The bulk of a travel agent’s compensation is paid by the hotels, airlines, and tour providers that the book, but sometimes fees are paid directly by the client.

Nowadays, you can book with an individual travel agent in their office or a travel agency selling packages online. And while there is probably a great travel agent with an office near you, let’s look at just a few of the biggest travel agencies in the US below and their various specialties.

See related: Best Gifts for Travel Agents

American Express Travel

American Express Logo

If you have an Amex card, you probably receive special offers from this travel agency occasionally. American Express Travel has several arms, including the luxurious Fine Hotels + Resorts program and its Global Business Travel program.

Amex has a wide reach worldwide and very strong partnerships with hotels and other operators, often guaranteeing you some of the best services at your destination. It is especially interesting when booking luxurious trips or high-end destinations.

See Related: Best Day to Book Flights

G Adventures

G Adventures Logo

With a huge array of package trips worldwide, G Adventures has a trip for just about anyone. They advertise small groups on each tour, local guides, and a focus on safety.

You can search for trips on their website by continent, age group, type of travel, theme… and even more. With the complexity of travel nowadays, they also have extensive information about the Covid situation and what to expect.

Intrepid Travel

Intrepid Logo

Intrepid is another well-established and worldwide travel agency. You’ll be impressed with exploring destinations by continent and region on their site and seeing all the countries they visit.

Travelers have great things to say about their experiences all over the world with this travel agency and are specifically satisfied with the local guides at the destination. They also offer a good balance of excursions and free time on trips.

Virtuoso

Virtuoso Logo

The Virtuoso agency is a high-end one that caters to luxury travel. An independent travel agent based in your city can also be Virtuoso-affiliated if they meet top standards and have special training.

This travel agency can arrange anywhere from high-end cruise lines to ensure you get the fanciest resort stays with the best service. As a manager at one of these hotels, I know that Virtuoso guests are cared for with extra attention.

Specialized Travel Industry Agencies

Swoop Antarctica Logo

Many smaller travel agencies focus on their niche specialties. These can be especially interesting when you want to go somewhere obscure or require special permission. For example, companies like Swoop Antarctica can take you to the icy continent.

Other off-the-path places like the deserts of Mongolia, the fishing villages of Greenland, the secretive nation of Turkmenistan, and many others all have travel agents who know the in’s and out’s and help visitors get there safely and comfortably. 

What Does It Mean To Book Online?

As opposed to letting a professional do the work, the internet technology has allowed travelers to make any of their plans on their own if they prefer.

Gone are the days when you had no choice but to go down the road and ask an agent to look up flight schedules! Indeed, many travelers prefer booking their flights, hotels, excursions, and other activities directly online with a credit card.

Beyond that, we have access to so much information and online travel guides (like ViaTravelers!) that we can usually get advice and tips on a new place for free.

There are all kinds of tools that one can use to book online. Let’s look at a few of our favorites below to be more specific and explain how to use them best.

Kayak & Skyscanner

Kayak Logo

These are two classics for finding the cheapest flights in the skies. Both Kayak and Skyscanner aggregate nearly all flight options for your origin to your destination in a single search, allowing you to see what’s cheapest, what’s fastest, and more.

Skyscanner Logo

These can be lifesavers for those travelers who prefer to book online instead of using a travel agent. Just think of how long it would take to search each airline’s website and keep track of all the fares you find. 

Beyond flights, Kayak and Skyscanner can do the same when searching for hotels and rental cars. That makes them so popular for travelers looking to book online and save time and effort.

See Related: How to Book the Cheapest One-Way International Flights

Going.com (Formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights)

Going.com Logo

Kayak and Skyscanner are awesome, but Going.com (Formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights) further finds you the cheapest flights without needing a travel agent. And while it is not a booking engine where you can buy your tickets, combining it with one can get you the best deal.

Scott’s is run by a team of travel fanatics (like you and me) constantly searching for flight deals from all kinds of origins to all kinds of destinations. When they find a deal that is impressive and matches your home airport, they will send you an email with all the details.

At that point, you can head to Google Flights or the airline’s website to get the tickets. This tool saves you even more time, avoiding a perpetual search to get the best price.

We’ve done several articles on Scott’s Cheap Flights to show you how it works more specifically, like our Scott’s Cheap Flights Review and our comparison of Scott’s and Dollar Flight Club.

Booking.com

Booking.com Logo

One equivalent for seeing all of your hotels and even rental options at your destination is Booking.com. This search engine conveniently aggregates every accommodation option available and shows you rates, amenities, photos, traveler ratings and reviews, and more.

If you see something you like, you can always book on Booking.com, and you may even be getting a lower price than elsewhere. Being such a giant in this space, Booking.com can sometimes offer lower rates than their competitors at some seriously great hotels. 

Fun fact: technically, Booking.com is considered an ‘online travel agency’, used for third-party websites where you can book hotels and flights.

However, your experience booking online with these websites will be different than using a classic travel agent, so don’t be mistaken. You are still booking online.

Check out our ViaTravelers review of Booking.com for a deeper look at how to use it and whether it’s a safe reservation site.

See Related: How to Maximize Booking.com Genius Levels Loyalty Program

GetYourGuide

GetYourGuide Logo

Once your flights and accommodation are all set, you’ll need a way to find tours, activities, and excursions online. This is where awesome websites like GetYourGuide come in. 

Offering anything from just standard entry tickets to private guided tours, GetYourGuide has you covered when it comes to experiencing the best of a city. Head to their website and enter your destination; you’ll see all they offer when you arrive.

Whether it’s walking tours around the city or kayak expeditions along the coast, you will be hooked up with a local guide who knows the place and who you can trust. It’s a great tool for booking your vacation online and maximizing your experience on the ground.

Booking Direct with Airlines and Hotels

While the search mentioned above engines are wonderful tools, sometimes it’s worth heading directly to the source to make your reservation. Hotels and airlines ultimately prefer that you book directly with them on their websites and may offer the same price.

This is especially true for hotels, and I recommend it most when considering chain hotels with loyalty programs. If you’ve read my other articles, you know I am strongly loyal to groups like Marriott, Hilton, IHG, and Hyatt simply because the more I stay, the more points and status I earn. I can also always expect a good and consistent product.

The same goes for airlines whether it’s United, Delta, American, or basically any other airline. While you may not notice any difference in service with the airlines, you generally only earn frequent flier miles when booking directly. 

See Related: Best Rental Car Search Engines

How Is Using A Travel Agent Different From Booking Online?

Couple Using a Laptop

Using a travel agency is quite different than doing it yourself online. Besides the actual process and experience of planning your trip, you could also end up with an entirely different experience. That’s not necessarily bad, so let’s break it down below.

Cost Of Using A Travel Agent vs. Booking Online

First of all, know that a travel agent could potentially cost extra. While travel agencies generally make most of their revenue from the other side of the transaction, taking a commission from hotels and airlines, you can pay a fee for their services.

This is in contrast to booking online, which generally doesn’t involve any added-on transaction fees. You pay what you see in fares or rates and not for any travel advice.

Price is a big factor in planning your trip, so be sure to ask any travel agent upfront what the cost will be to you as their client.

You’ll find that, in many cases, it can be zero, but it’s better to be sure you are getting the best value.

Travel Agents Could Save You Time Compared to Booking Online

If you’re like me, you spend a ton of time researching your destination and fine-tuning your plan to make your vacation as flawless as possible.

But there is so much information to dig through online, especially for a new destination, to ensure you get a good deal and book with a trustworthy company.

Travel agencies take that responsibility from you and save you time. As long as you are booking with a reputable agent experienced in your destination, you can be sure they are an expert.

In the same way, you can have a high level of confidence that you won’t be left sleeping on a bench when you get there, and you won’t be riding a scary bus with no AC on your tour. Your travel agent should know who to trust and who does what best, setting you up for a great trip.

Dealing With Problems Via Your Travel Agent

If things go wrong, you have an extra ally to make things right in your travel agent. You are their client, and their job is to please you, so if something is not to your standards or you believe you aren’t getting the service you paid for, they should be a quick phone call or email away to help fix that.

I remember being on my first trip to Barcelona, which a travel agent booked. We arrived at the hotel, which was completely below our expectations: no air-conditioning, non-functioning wifi, and a generally unwelcoming atmosphere.

A call back to the travel agent had us in a taxi to a new property in under an hour for no charge. It was such a relief!

During my career behind the front desk at various hotels, I was on the receiving end of many of those calls. Believe me when I tell you that hotels are eager to please travel agents and will always try to make things right for those guests.

Perks and Special Treatment Thanks To Your Travel Agent

On the more positive side, using a travel agent can score upgrades and amenities for free. As I said, hotels want to please guests of travel agents so that travel agents continue booking their hotels.

\Your travel agent wants to please you so that you keep booking with them. It’s one major difference to booking online.

You’ll often find a welcome dessert or bottle of wine with a card from your travel agent in your hotel room. Furthermore, hotels often prioritize travel agency guests for free upgrades or early check-ins.

Besides that, travel agents can often access lower rates than the general public. So, you could be paying less, getting better service, and free things; all while doing less work.

How Is Using A Travel Agent Similar To Booking Online?

Despite the differences, booking your vacation online can often yield results similar to those of using a travel agent. Ultimately, both travel agents and independent travelers can access the same things to book.

You’ll Still Get an E-Ticket and Online Check-In Access 

Despite having access to unpublished fares and behind-the-scenes systems for airline ticket booking, the process will still end with a confirmation number when booking with a travel agent.

Whether you book online or not, you’ll still be in front of the computer 24 hours before the flight, ready to punch that code in and get boarding passes.

See Related: Ways to Book the Cheapest First Class Flights

There’s A Chance of Getting Bumped

Those who have experienced this dread reading those words: the unfortunate ‘bump’, or being denied boarding. It’s when an airline oversells a flight and has to decide that one or more passengers won’t be getting on it.

Booking online or with a travel agent doesn’t necessarily give you an advantage on the priority list when a flight is overbooked. Of course, the airline will always start by asking for volunteers.

Consider these offers carefully because they often come with flight vouchers or cash as a “thank you.”

The Hotel Will Always Ask for a Credit Card

Whether you book directly on the hotel’s website, online with booking.com or a similar site, or with a travel agent, you should always be prepared to put down a credit card in your name at check-in, along with a pre-authorization of a small amount of cash.

This will be true whether you pre-pay for the room or not and will still be the case even if your travel agent pre-pays the room and meals. The hotel needs a guarantee that you will be able to pay for things such as charges to your room and other unexpected fees.

You May Have to Tip

People love booking with travel agents for the hands-off experience but don’t expect to stay too hands-off. Especially within the US, but also at some foreign destinations, tips are expected when dining, taking taxis or shuttles, and in other situations.

In very few circumstances, a travel agent will send gratuities to the service provider in advance. But this is uncommon and should be made very clear to you. Therefore, whether booking online or with a travel agency, you should still carry some cash.

What’s Better About Using A Travel Agent?

Handshake

After reading this point, you may already have some ideas about the pros of using a travel agent. The truth is that booking with a travel agent is not an outdated idea and can be a great choice for many reasons.

Travel Agents are Experts

Remember that it is the travel agent’s full-time job to ensure their clients’ vacations are unforgettable and flawless.

Whether it’s a classic travel agent working with you in-person or a big agency with a website to book your trip, they want to be as knowledgeable as possible.

If you go to a common destination where the options are overwhelming, like Hawaii or Paris, the travel agency will know where to send you and who to work with.

If you are headed somewhere exotic and less traveled, information can be scant, and trustworthy vendors can be hard to find, but your travel agent has already researched and learned by doing.

This is why it can be a great choice to use a travel agent to get the best trip possible, especially if you are a traveler less confident in your abilities to sift through reviews and ratings online.

Travel Agents Can Access Unpublished Fares & Rates

While we said above that there could be a cost associated with a travel agent, the truth is that you can often find yourself paying less in the end. That’s why it’s important to run the numbers carefully before writing the option off.

Travel agencies can access behind-the-scenes airline systems, which show them the last seats to be sold and even lower fares than the public can see. As for hotels, they can book with travel agent rates, which could be lower, provide more perks and amenities, or have other advantages.

Hotels May Pay More Attention to You

I told you above about my experience working in hotel management and how we treated travel agent guests. Two examples that come to mind were American Express Fine Hotels + Resorts guests and Virtuoso guests, who always received special attention.

These guests were prioritized for free upgrades, early check-in, and late check-out. They also received special welcome amenities.

Why? Because these travel agencies bring a lot of high-paying business, we want to keep the guests happy and the agency happy for continuing relationships.

This may not be the experience for every guest using any travel agent, but the general concept should be consistent. Besides, if it’s not the hotel that sends you gifts, it could be the travel agent who arranges one to say “thank you” for being their client.

What’s Better About Booking Online?

There are many advantages to forgoing the professional travel planner and doing it yourself online, which has become much more feasible for travelers in this age. If you don’t mind putting in the effort, you can create an amazing trip yourself.

You Get a Better Deal by Booking Online

I don’t mean to confuse you by telling you both methods could save you money, but it’s true! It all depends on your situation and vacation and which option is cheaper.

Yes, we said that travel agents have access to unpublished fares and rates, but thanks to today’s technology, airlines and hotels are often ready to offer crazy deals online at any given moment.

The reason is that by luring the traveler away from the travel agent, they don’t have to pay a commission and make more money. This is why you will see hotels so eager to match any other rate you find and the lowest price guarantees. It’s also why airlines run flash sales and marketing campaigns.

There is one more reason that booking online can save you money compared to a travel agent, and that’s because of low-cost providers.

Budget airlines like Spirit and Frontier and budget hotels like hostels or cheap Airbnb are generally not part of a travel agent’s portfolio, leaving the cheapest possible vendors outside their trips.

Booking online gives you access to any airline or accommodation, whether high-end or low-cost. 

You Can Use Your Points and Miles for Free Travel

While a professional might be willing to work with you to redeem your hard-earned points and miles, most travel agents often can’t or won’t. The reason is that they will be giving up their commission on what you would pay in cash.

By booking online, you can get reward tickets or stays and ensure you find the best uses for your points and miles. This can be a seriously lucrative strategy when you consider the credit card bonuses that can be had nowadays.

For hotels, you can use programs like Marriott and Hilton, which give you a free fifth night when you book four consecutive nights on points. IHG does the same thing with the fourth night when you book three.

You’ll Get More Control Over Your Vacation

A travel agent’s job is definitely to work for you and make sure you get an awesome vacation, but the truth is they aren’t inside your head and don’t know exactly how you like to travel. But you do, and planning everything yourself can reflect that difference.

Do you prefer to have your days packed with sightseeing and touring? Or do you like a lower-speed stay with long days lounging by the pool and sleeping late?

Plan everything you like when you book online to have the right balance for your vacation. You might also be able to plan more flexibility for your trip if you aren’t sure how you want it to go.

When a travel agent books your arrangements, it may be more difficult to make changes along the way if you feel like it. Booking online can allow you to do so as you go or just book flexible things to give you that freedom.

Who Should Use A Travel Agent?

For certain travelers or vacations, it would be wise to choose a travel agent over booking online. Sometimes, an expert should be involved in making the trip exceptional.

Travelers Headed to Unique Destinations

If you’re looking to book something like an African safari, a ride on the trans-Siberian railway, an adventure to Antarctica, or something similar, it’s a great idea to use a travel agent and especially one that specializes in your destination.

Not only can it be difficult to know where to start with this type of travel, but you need to be sure that you will be safe and comfortable. The best travel advisors have expert advice on that.

Travelers Looking for Luxury

The most discerning traveler often books with a travel agent for several reasons. First, they may not want to go through the trouble planning the trip themselves, so hire someone to take care of that.

But even travelers who wouldn’t have minded anyway trust a travel agent to find the most luxurious airline seats, resort rooms, and private arrangements. A travel agent can ensure that your only vacation responsibility is to relax.

Travelers Who Aren’t Confident in Planning

Not everyone is fluent in Kayak and Booking.com and feels comfortable making their plans. After all, one mistake in dates or cities can cost you serious time, money, and vacation relaxation.

In that case, a travel agent is a good investment. You can be sure that your trip will be meticulously reviewed, and if there is a problem, you will have someone to fall back on to help fix it. The best travel experts will recommend the right travel insurance as well.

Who Should Book Online?

On the other hand, it makes a lot more sense to book online in certain situations. Remember that you can find all the same airlines, hotels, and activities as travel consultants and, therefore, make an amazing trip alone.

Travelers Who Have Been to Their Destination

When planning your yearly summer trip to Cabo or heading home for the holidays, you are probably familiar enough to handle it and book online. 

Not needing to do extended research for your trip saves time. You may already know your favorite hotels or at least your favorite areas. In that case, it’s as simple as finding the right price and making it happen.

Travelers Who Want More Say in Their Vacation

A travel agent’s job is to tailor your trip to your liking, but that’s not always how it works. Especially with the rise of travel agencies moving to vacation packages, you can end up on a schedule made by someone else before you are interested.

To have more flexibility in your vacation days, you can book online and spend them exactly as you please. Lie by the pool, see the sights, or decide as you go.

Travelers Good with Using Online Search Tools

In contrast with those who are hesitant about using online travel tools, many of us who are moderately tech-savvy actually enjoy it. Yes, I spend my free time on Google Flights to find crazy deals, but who doesn’t…right?

Those of us who have explored every corner of Kayak and Booking.com should have no problem booking online and avoiding a travel advisor unless you fall into the category of a luxury traveler or have a unique destination.

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