If you can’t decide how to go about planning your next vacation, you aren’t alone. Many types of travelers can find themselves torn between booking online or turning to professionals to tailor the trip for them.
So, using a travel agent vs booking online. Even the most seasoned travelers have some questions in common:
Are travel agents legit?
Are travel agents expensive?
And more importantly, are travel agents worth it?
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 it comes to making the best decisions for your vacation.
Read on to see what the advantages and disadvantages are to using a travel agent, booking online, or potentially both.
Table of Contents
- What Is A Travel Agent?
- American Express Travel
- G Adventures
- Intrepid Travel
- Specialized Travel Industry Agencies
- What Does It Mean To Book Online?
- Kayak & Skyscanner
- Scott’s Cheap Flights
- Booking Direct with Airlines and Hotels
- How Is Using A Travel Agent Different From Booking Online?
- Cost Of Using A Travel Agent vs. Booking Online
- Travel Agents Could Save You Time Compared to Booking Online
- Dealing With Problems Via Your Travel Agent
- Perks and Special Treatment Thanks To Your Travel Agent
- How Is Using A Travel Agent Similar To Booking Online?
- You’ll Still Get an E-Ticket and Online Check-In Access
- There’s A Chance of Getting Bumped
- The Hotel Will Always Ask for a Credit Card
- You May Have to Tip
- What’s Better About Using A Travel Agent?
- Travel Agents are Experts
- Travel Agents Can Access Unpublished Fares & Rates
- Hotels May Pay More Attention to You
- What’s Better About Booking Online?
- You Get a Better Deal by Booking Online
- You Can Use Your Points and Miles for Free Travel
- You’ll Get More Control Over Your Vacation
- Who Should Use A Travel Agent?
- Travelers Headed to Unique Destinations
- Travelers Looking for Luxury
- Travelers Who Aren’t Confident in Planning
- Who Should Book Online?
- Travelers Who Have Been to Their Destination
- Travelers Who Want More Say in Their Vacation
- Travelers Good with Using Online Search Tools
What Is A Travel Agent?
A travel agent is a professional who specializes 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 not only make sure you get your money’s worth but also do all of the arranging 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 they book, but there are sometimes fees paid directly by the client.
Nowadays, you can book with an individual travel agent in their office or with a travel agency selling packages online. And while there is probably a great travel agent with an office near you, let’s take a look at just a few of the biggest travel agencies in the US below and their various specialties.
See related: 14 Best Gifts for Travel Agents
American Express Travel
If you have an Amex card, you probably receive special offers from this travel agency from time to time. American Express Travel has several different arms, such as the luxurious Fine Hotels + Resorts program and their Global Business Travel program.
Amex has a far reach around the world and very strong partnerships with hotels and other operators, often guaranteeing you some of the best services at your destination. It is especially interesting, therefore, when booking luxurious trips or high-end destinations.
With a huge array of package trips available all around the world, 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 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 of the countries they go to.
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.
This travel agency can make arrangements anywhere from high-end cruise lines to making sure you get the fanciest resort stays with the best service. I know from being the manager at one of these hotels that Virtuoso guests are cared for with extra attention.
Specialized Travel Industry Agencies
Many smaller travel agencies focus on their individual niche specialties. These can be especially interesting when you want to go somewhere obscure or which requires special permission.
Companies like Swoop Antarctica can take you to the icy continent, for example.
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 technology of the internet has allowed travelers to go about making any of their plans on their own if they prefer.
Gone are the days that 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 themselves 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. To be more specific and explain how you can best use them, let’s take a look at a few of our favorites below.
Kayak & Skyscanner
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 really see what’s cheapest, what’s fastest, and more.
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 individual airline’s website and keep track of all the fares you find.
Beyond flights, both Kayak and Skyscanner can do the same thing in terms of searching for hotels and rental cars. That’s what makes them so popular for travelers looking to book online and save a ton of time and effort.
Scott’s Cheap Flights
Kayak and Skyscanner are awesome, but Scott’s Cheap Flights goes a step further in finding 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) who are constantly searching flight deals from all kinds of origins to all kinds of destinations. When they find a deal that is really impressive and matches your home airport, they will send you an email about it with all the details.
At that point, you can head to Google Flights or the airline’s website to get the tickets. This adds up to be an awesome tool to save you even more time, avoiding a perpetual search to get the best price.
One equivalent for seeing all of your hotel and even rental options at your destination is Booking.com. This search engine conveniently aggregates basically 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 right there 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’; the term used for these types of 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 yourself.
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.
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 all the way to private guided tours, GetYourGuide has you covered when it comes to experiencing the best of a city.
Head to their website and just enter your destination, and you’ll see all they have to offer when you get there.
Whether it’s walking tours around the city to 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 above-mentioned search engines are wonderful tools, sometimes it’s worth it to head 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 would recommend it most when considering chain hotels with loyalty programs.
If you’ve read my other articles, you know that 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. While you may not really notice any difference in service with the airlines, you generally only earn frequent flier miles when booking direct.
How Is Using A Travel Agent Different From Booking Online?
Making use of a travel agency is a quite different process 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 on the trip. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though – 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, there can be a fee which you pay for their services.
This is in contrast to booking online, which generally doesn’t involve any sort of added-on transaction fees. You simply pay what you see in fares or rates and not for any travel advice.
Price is obviously 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 out there to dig through online, especially for a new destination, to be sure you are getting a good deal and booking with a trustworthy company.
Travel agencies take that responsibility from you, and in turn, save you a bunch of time. As long as you are booking with a reputable agent who is experienced in your destination, you can be sure that 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
In case things do 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 that 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 was booked with a travel agent. We arrived at the hotel, and it 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!
And 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 you upgrades and amenities for no cost to you.
As I said, hotels want to please guests of travel agents so that travel agents continue booking their hotel; and 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 give priority to travel agency guests for things like free upgrades or early check-ins.
Besides that, travel agents can often access lower rates than the general public anyway. So, you could potentially 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 above differences, booking your vacation online can often yield very similar results to using a travel agent. In the end, both travel agents and independent travelers can access the same things to book, after all.
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 in a confirmation number when booking with a travel agent.
Whether you book online or not, you’ll still find yourself 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 with asking for volunteers.
In fact, you should 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 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 it should be made very clear to you. Therefore, whether booking online or with a travel agency, you should still carry a bit of cash.
What’s Better About Using A Travel Agent?
After reading to this point, you may already have some ideas about what the pros are when it comes to 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
Keep in mind that it is the travel agent’s full-time job to make sure their clients’ vacations are unforgettable and as flawless as possible.
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 for that reason.
If you are going to a common destination where the options are overwhelming, like Hawaii or Paris, the travel agency will know just where to send you and who to work with.
If you are headed to somewhere exotic and less-traveled, information can be scant and trustworthy vendors can be hard to find; but your travel agent has already done the research 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 specific examples that come to mind were American Express Fine Hotels + Resorts guests, and Virtuoso guests, who were always to receive special attention.
These guests were prioritized for free upgrades, early check-in, and late check-out. They also received special welcome amenities.
Because these travel agencies bring a lot of high-paying business and we want to keep the guest happy and therefore the agency happy for continuing relationships.
Now, 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 to travelers in this age. If you don’t mind putting in the effort, you can put together an amazing trip all by yourself.
You Get a Better Deal by Booking Online
Alright, I don’t mean to confuse you by telling you that both methods could save you money, but it’s the truth! It all depends on your situation and your vacation as to 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: by luring the traveler away from the travel agent, they don’t have to pay a commission and therefore make more money.
This is why you will see hotels so eager to ‘match’ any other rate that you find, and ‘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’s are generally not part of a travel agent’s portfolio, leaving the cheapest possible vendors outside of their trips.
Booking online gives you access to any airline or accommodation you can find, 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 on redeeming 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 make sure you find the best uses of 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 take advantage of programs like at Marriott and Hilton which give you the fifth night completely free 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 in late?
Plan everything to your liking when you book online so that you have the right balance for your vacation.
You might also be able to plan more flexibility for your trip if you aren’t quite 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?
At the end of the day, certain travelers or certain types of vacations 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 are going to 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 of all, they may not want to go through the trouble of planning the trip themselves, and therefore hire someone to take care of that.
But even for travelers who wouldn’t have minded anyway, they trust a travel agent to find the most luxurious airline seats, resort rooms, and private arrangements for their trip. A travel agent can make sure that your only responsibility on the vacation is to relax.
Travelers Who Aren’t Confident in Planning
Not everyone is fluent in Kayak and Booking.com and feels comfortable making their own plans. After all, one mistake in dates or cities can cost you some 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 can therefore make an amazing trip on your own.
Travelers Who Have Been to Their Destination
When you are looking to put together your yearly summer trip to Cabo or just headed home for the holidays, you are probably familiar enough to handle it yourself and book online.
Not needing to do extended research for your trip saves a ton of time. You may already know your favorite hotels or at least 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 exactly to your liking, but that’s not always the way 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 were interested.
To have a bit 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 just 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 trying 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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