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Do You Need a Travel Agent

Do You Need a Travel Agent?
by Rudy Maxa for Marketplace

Once, your friendly neighborhood travel agent happily met all your travel needs and you didn't pay a dime. Then, about four years ago, things began to change. To save money, the airlines decided to limit on the commissions they paid agents to issue domestic airline tickets. So some agents began charging fees of ten or fifteen dollars a ticket. A month ago, airlines began limiting commissions on international tickets, a big source of income for agents. You may soon have to pay a fee for that service, too.

Is an agent worth it? That depends.

First of all, they're convenient and offer one-stop shopping. You don't have to call a dozen airlines or hotels to comparison shop. If you use agents for routine business travel, almost anyone can help you. If you travel a lot on business, build a relationship with an agency -- you may find your agent has the clout to upgrade you every now and then from coach to business at no extra charge. You should also be able to negotiate a reduction in fees -- or at least free ticket delivery -- if you're a good customer.

If you're a leisure traveler, the rules are a bit different. The agencies that are thriving are ones that have developed a specialty, whether it's cruises, mountain treks, eco-tourism, extreme sports vacations, educational holidays or travel for the disabled. If you've never been where you want to go, try to find a travel agent who has. Brochures and pretty pages on the Web rarely tell the whole story. And despite their profession, some agents don't travel that much.

So how do you find the good agents? Let me suggest some offbeat ways:

Find Someone in the Know
If you're interested in a particular part of the world, like, Turkey or Nepal or Brazil, find a travel agent in a big city who serves natives of those countries. They're likely to know the absolute cheapest airline flights and the best tour operators. After all, the agents in the office are usually from the country and most of their clients travel to and from all the time, bringing back valuable intelligence.

Do a Little Research
If you want someone who specializes in a particular sport, like skiing, check ads in ski magazines. Any travel agent who spends the money to advertise probably knows his or her slopes.

Don't forget the words "Internet" and "travel agent" aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. Do a search. Type in "rafting" and "travel agent," for example, and see who pops up. Want to know the best place in Central America or the Caribbean to dive? Visit a dive shop and ask them what travel agency knows a lot about diving around the world.

While tourist offices for countries can't recommend travel agents, if you push them, they might be willing to at least LIST some agencies that specialize in travel to their countries.

Here's a footnote. Like many other businesses, agents often get bonuses if they steer business toward a particular cruise ship line, resort, or airline. Now, good agents won't let that affect their recommendations to you, but it's a reality you should know about, especially if someone seems to be giving you the old hard sell.

It's a brave new world for travel agents. And just as their world is changing, so, too, will you have to change how you shop for them and how you use them.

Savvy Traveler on Marketplace

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