When online travel companies first burst onto the scene in the late ‘90s and early aughts, the end of the travel agent was predicted. However, the excess of options available online has actually reinforced the benefits of using a travel agent. Yes, individuals can do more DIY travel planning online than they once could. But travelers of all ages still turn to travel agents for many of the same reasons they’ll call an electrician even though YouTube is full of “how to rewire a light” videos—because hiring an expert means avoiding unnecessary hassles.
Even with the Internet at your fingertips, there are plenty of great reasons to use a travel agent. (After all, just having the right tools in your garage doesn’t mean you’re the best person to rewire your home.)
Benefits of Using a Travel Agent vs. Booking Online
This perk’s the most obvious but depending on how busy your life is right now, it might just be the most important. Travel research is incredibly time-consuming and can be a bit of a black hole—the more you learn, the more questions you think to ask. When a travel agent develops an itinerary for you, your free time isn’t spent on what could be a never-ending quest for better and better deals.
Many travel agencies—including AAA—have relationships with certain providers and can offer specials and promotions that aren’t necessarily accessible to people who book directly. Not only that, AAA negotiates additional Member benefits not available to the public.
AAA Travel Agent Tonda Snyder explains, “Our preferred vendors offer discounts or added benefits such as dining credits and activity vouchers that equate to Member savings.”
And while those benefits might sound small, they really add up. “The savings from one booking can cover the cost of an annual AAA Membership.”
Things can and often do go wrong on trips. Travel takes us outside of our comfort zones, quite literally, putting us in unfamiliar places where we still have to face mundane problems like hotel-booking snafus. In that situation, you’re unlikely to have much immediate success using the customer service number for an online booking site. Travel agents, on the other hand, are usually available to help sort things out in a pinch.
“I had a client who had booked a hotel overseas with a credit card that was no longer valid at the time of travel,” recalls Snyder. “The day before the trip was to start, the hotel emailed to say that the room she had booked almost a year before was going to be canceled if they didn’t have a replacement card.”
Because Snyder had booked the trip for her client, she also received notification from the hotel. Despite the fact that her client was in the air and unreachable, Snyder was able to get updated account information to the hotel so that when her client arrived after her international flight, she had a room to check into.
It’s also worth noting that travel agents have clout the average traveler does not. A travel provider who wants to maintain a good relationship with an agent has added incentive to work on a solution to a travel dilemma.
It’s easy to look at a list of cities or museums you want to see during a trip and plan accordingly—without realizing the amount of time it takes to get from one place to another will leave you harried and rushed. A good travel agent can offer options to add to your trip and suggest what sights might be best left unseen or simply reordered to maximize each day.
Agents can also help frame expectations about the cost of a trip. “You might want your whole house remodeled, which is fine, but what if you only have $10,000?” Snyder says. “I can help set a client’s expectations about what kind of trip they can do for the budget they’ve got.”
No trip is one-size-fits-all. Your neighbor’s tales of a fabulous Caribbean cruise may make you pine for islands and turquoise water, but that doesn’t mean the same cruise is a good fit for you.
Getting to know your travel agent means she or he can better understand your travel style and preferences. Instead of booking the same trip your neighbors took, your agent can perhaps steer you toward a comparable trip that meets your specific needs.
“We have resources that may not be available to the public, so allowing us to assist you with your plans may open up options you didn't know existed,” says Snyder. That may include suggesting destinations you’ve never thought of visiting or activities you hadn’t considered.
Engaging in a dialogue with your agent not only helps answer your questions but also ensures your agent crafts a wonderful trip uniquely suited to you.
Top Questions to Ask Your Travel Agent
Since a travel agent is essentially your travel-planning proxy, it’s important to work with someone you trust. A few preliminary questions can help you determine if an agent is the right fit. Remember: You want an agent who will design trips just like you would if you had the time and connections, so it’s worth the additional effort to get to know the agent—and let him or her get to know you.
- Do you have experience/expertise with certain kinds of trips? The best agents have a wide variety of knowledge, and if they don’t know a particular area, will have the resources to fill in any gaps. But it never hurts to ask about their areas of interest.
- Do you have experience/expertise with certain parts of the world? Getting an agent’s personal input on a destination can be enormously helpful.
- What happens if I need to change my travel plans? Do you offer refunds or allow changes?
- How accessible will you be while I’m traveling? How can I reach you? As mentioned above, when things go wrong, you want a phone number with a human being at the other end of the line. Ask for a phone number as well as typical business hours.
When you’re planning a trip—either brainstorming where to go next or nailing down details—consider these additional questions to ask your travel agent:
- What destination(s) suit my preferred travel style? This is when getting to know your agent comes in handy. You may hear suggestions you would never have thought of before.
- What travel insurance should I get for this specific trip? Asking about travel insurance can bring up potential health needs or personal concerns that an agent wouldn’t be aware of otherwise.
- Would I save money by flying on a different day than my preferred travel dates? Your agent may notify you, but it never hurts to ask.
- How long will I spend in transit? Are there any really long or short layovers on this trip?
- What documents will I need for this trip?
- If applicable, is there anything that isn’t covered in this all-inclusive deal?
Snyder also suggests sharing any research you’ve done on your own. “It’s always helpful to provide your agent with as much detail as you have. That helps us to be more efficient on your behalf.”
Still on the fence about using a travel agent? Snyder adds, “AAA doesn’t mark up the rates offered by vendors, plus we offer additional savings and/or benefits. Why wouldn’t our Members use the services of a AAA Complimentary Travel Agent?”