The pros and cons of travel agents in the internet age
The recent collapse of Thomas Cook Group, the massive U.K. travel agency that for more than a century organized European vacations, left 150,000 travelers stranded. The United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority and others had to come to their rescue. For Brits on a dream holiday, it was a nightmare.
Warnings of Thomas Cook’s woes have been kicking around the industry for years. Changing weather patterns, like summer heat waves in the British Isles and Scandinavia, had reportedly affected their bottom line, and the rise of DIY travel sites and apps like Expedia, Hopper, and Trip Advisor may have been the nail in the coffin. But if the agency’s demise wasn’t a total shock, the speed of its implosion was.
So with all the technology available to book your own Caribbean cruise or London pub crawl, should you even bother with travel agents anymore? Or are they—like video stores, paper maps, and rotary phones—a relic of the pre-internet age? I dug into this question and found that the answer is a solid…it depends.
The digital competition
If you’ve used online tools for booking travel, then you know how sophisticated they’ve become. Hopper and HotelTonight, for example, continue to encroach on travel agents’ traditional territory. Hopper provides guidance for when to buy flights by comparing countless airfares and hotel prices to a historical database, and predicting when rates will be the lowest. It even proposes alternate destinations based on your preferences—just like a travel agent would. Meanwhile, HotelTonight compiles day-of deals from hotels in 1,700 cities worldwide. The app caters mainly to last-minute travelers who need help when travel agents have punched out for the day. For many wanderers, tools like these—plus travel advice from friends and family—are all you need to book an unforgettable vacation.
A personal touch
On the other hand, travel agents still provide a level of personalization that digital platforms simply can’t. Despite how easy they are to use and how advanced they’ve become, apps can’t fully replace a real live human whose job it is to not just book your travel, but make sure the experience goes smoothly.
One reason: online data overload. “The first thing a travel seeker does is go to the internet and search their preferred destination,” said Lyla Rodriguez, owner of Sea Forever Vacations. “What happens next? Hundreds of websites, blogs, and ads come up and this can be extremely overwhelming.” Today’s travel agents (many of whom call themselves “travel advisors”) can cut through the noise and curate the trip just for you. For many millennials who crave experiences off the beaten path, this is huge.
How do agents do it? They have relationships with guides and local hosts, and, in many cases, make it their business to experience these destinations in person. Quiana Thomas, owner of Girls Getaway Vacations, has been to 80% of the properties she recommends. “I have firsthand knowledge of what everything feels like and tastes like, and if you are getting the true value for your buck,” Thomas said.
Even more crucial: They make it a point to “get” you and what you really want. “By knowing your client, you are making sure their getaway is memorable. Just booking via a site or app will not provide you with that level of personalization,” Thomas said.
Some agents will even be with you every step of the way—literally. Thomas often accompanies her clients on trips like “Mom-cations” to a spa in Arizona and “Family & Friends” trips to Universal Orlando.
A time-saver—for a price
One thing is for sure: Using a travel agent will save you time.
“[Agents] have all the necessary tools to seamlessly piece together the trip of your dreams,” Rodriguez said, “which can be difficult and very time-consuming to do on your own.” A good travel agent should know the best hotels, cruise ships, attractions, restaurants, and the quickest routes, and will be “able to tailor your trip to fit your budget and ultimately save you money,” Rodriguez added. “We can usually offer special perks like complimentary room upgrades, discounts, and much more.”
How much money you’ll save is debatable. While travel agents may be able to cut corners here and there, you’ll probably make up for that when their bill comes—so even with the breaks they get you, it can end up as costly as planning your own trip. Fees can range from $50 to $500, depending on the agent and how complicated your trip is. Agents are also compensated by the resorts, cruise lines, and tour guides they recommend. (Keep that in mind if an agent seems to be pushing one destination a little too hard.)
Talking about money can leave you tongue-tied. My weekly newsletter is full of financial conversation starters.
Playing it safe
Agents really pay off if things go wrong. “If you’re stuck somewhere unexpectedly, we can do things like find you a room in a sold-out hotel,” said Jack Ezon, founder and managing partner of the travel service Embark. Knowing someone has your back—and that you don’t have to scramble to fix the issue yourself —is often worth the added expense.
But what about those poor stranded Thomas Cook clients? There are messes no travel agent can clean up. That’s why even new school agents recommend trip cancellation insurance. Quiana Thomas even requires that clients sign a waiver if they refuse. Before you buy, though, check your credit card benefits—travel insurance is a common perk. But as with all insurance, the devil is in the fine print. “Some policies only cover the bankruptcy of a travel supplier such as an airline, cruise line, hotel, or tour operator—not a travel agent or intermediary agent,” said travel expert Laura Begley Bloom. Look for a policy that protects you if your trip is cancelled for any reason.
Bottom line: If you’re planning a basic trip, it’s easier than ever to do it yourself, so embrace technology. But if you crave a personal touch, you’re just not that app-savvy, and/or you want the assurance that if something goes wrong you’ll be taken care of, a travel agent might be the answer. Either way, pay with a credit card that offers insurance coverage, or purchase a policy. And happy traveling!