I was always taught to book my own trips, find my own way, and make my own path. When I was growing up, I also grew up under the assumption that any form of help costs money, which, when your planning a trip, is no incentive. I also thought: to be a real ‘traveller’, I need to be able to do this myself. I have since learned, being able to is not the same as having to. If it is cheaper, easier, or provides assurance, why make things more difficult, and potentially more expensive?
When I started planning my first Caribbean vacation, I felt a little in over my head. I had heard horror stories of the dangers that could be encountered, people buying vacation packages that didn’t really exist, or going to all-inclusive resorts to find out it only included the flight and accommodation, leaving them stuck without food let alone drinks, and no planned way to pay for them. I was looking online for hours, and found so many options, and so many packages which all included different things. I had no idea where to start, had never been to the Caribbean before, or an all-inclusive, and had no idea what I was even to look for.
I decided to visit a travel agent. I went to the mall – to one of those big corporate travel agencies with the idea that I would just probe for some information to help me book it myself. After about an hour of talking with this travel agent, I found out that there were no fees, no hidden costs, and few hidden agendas. I say few instead of ‘no’ for a reason, and I’ll explain.
Travel Agents / Travel Agencies (The Basics):
Travel agencies typically get paid on commission by their vendors. Competing hotels, airlines, travel package providers, and tour operators offer different amounts of commission. Obviously, as a travel company, I want the highest commission possible, so I will push those vendors first a foremost, and may provide my travel agents with incentives to push these vendors, if they don’t already offer them. Travel agents also typically receive commission, in addition to a reputation of credibility for having more sales, more clients, and on-going clients. This means instead of suggesting to you the cheapest, or most popular option, you may be offered a slightly more expensive, or less popular (usually because of being lesser known, not because of actual quality) option. This doesn’t mean that these are not good options, or that the agent is completely out for themselves. In order to maintain their reputation, travel agents / agencies do want to recommend something they know you will really enjoy, so that you recommend and refer your friends to them. A good travel agent really does want to make YOU happy. This will mean greater satisfaction, better online reviews, greater chance of referral, and the possibility that you will go back to book through them again. This means that their suggestions might not be the cheapest or most popular, but should still make you happy. In addition, it means you have wiggle room. If cost is a major issue to you, make sure your agent understands that so they CAN make you happy by offering less expensive options. If your willing to pay more but expect the best, make sure your agent knows what ‘the best’ means to you. Is it something quiet and secluded? Is it un-wavering attention to you in a small group or one-on-one experiences? Is it the length of time you get or number of experiences you have? Experience is relative, so make sure they know what you identify as important.
Should you use a travel agent or book your travel yourself?
There are a few questions I ask myself when considering whether to book a trip myself or go through a travel agent:
- How comfortable am I with the place I am going?
Really, all of my questions surround this one, some are just a little more specific in case I am not actually sure how comfortable I am. Let’s start general speaking: Western European culture is very similar to North American culture, in terms of food, customs, rules, and ‘way of life’. I know what I can and can’t do, and have a pretty good idea of what to expect. Some places might look good on TV, or in a travel magazine, but may not actually be what you expect. Sometimes it is the right place, but with missing expertise, you may not get what you want out of that big trip. A travel agent can help match you to products, help you define what you really want, and make sure you have the best trip.
- Are there language barriers?
This will not determine if I use a travel agent in itself. Language barriers are rarely a primary cause for concern, but may come in to play, especially if you are looking to book excursions. Most countries are also bilingual, making it even less concerning, but this still might be a consideration.
- What is the economic and political climate?
There is no doubt, if a country is encountering issues of poverty, or war, they are likely less concerned about their tourists then their country. If a country is at war, or may be facing an impending war, it is not a likely safe place to be, and should probably be avoided entirely unless you are going for family, work (such as a peace-keeper or journalist), or some other extenuating circumstance. In times of economic instability, you may be safe to visit the country, but you may also need to be aware of scamming. When an economy is down, or poverty is present, it makes it harder for the people who live in the destination country to make money, making you – a tourist with enough money to visit another country – a source of income. When you get there, watch for pick-pockets or ‘tourist pricing’, but you may be able to use a travel agent in this situation too. By booking at home, a travel agent may be able to book tours or excursions for you through a regular vendor and help you avoid paying ‘tourist prices’.
- What am I booking?
I have found that what I am booking plays a major role in whether I book myself or use an agent. A few flights, assorted hotels, hostels, and rent-a-cars I can easily book myself, and leave gaps to explore and make decisions on my trip. For example, if I am booking a trip to Italy, I might book my return flights and my first 2 nights at a hotel. Then, when I get there, I have the flexibility to rent a car, moped, or bicycle and explore, find a hotel when I get tired, and eat where I want.If I am looking for something more luxurious, like an all-inclusive, however, I turn to a travel agent. Travel Agents have established relationships with all-inclusive resorts and package providers. This means they know the providers services, and costs, and are the first to find out about specials or deals. They also are encouraged to visit the places and provide first-hand experience, so they can match me up with a place or package that gives me all the luxury and inclusions I’m looking for. This also applies to cruises!
- Can I get any deals?
Travel agents do sometimes get deals, or just know about deals that exist because they are in the industry. Why not see if you can save a few dollars? It just means you get to spend more on your trip, or save for another trip!
- How much money am I looking to spend?
This goes back to the last two questions, really. If I’m looking at spending a lot of money, to get the experience I want, a travel agent has industry relationships and know where to find the best bang for your buck, and can help match up what you are looking for with your budget.
- How many people am I booking for?
If I’m booking for me and my partner – no problem. if something goes haywire we can fix it, deal with it, be flexible. If i’m booking for my family or for an event, things can get complicated and less flexible. Save yourself the hassle, the worries, and the work. Let someone else deal with it!
The overall best part of getting a travel agent? A contact. When you book through a travel agency you have a contact. If the hotel doesn’t have your reservation, if you don’t know where to catch your transport, if you lost your plane tickets, you have someone who has your back. This can relieve enormous pressure.
So, what should you look for or do – as a consumer?
- Find a reputable travel agency. Either a big company with a lot to lose if they provide poor service that jeopardizes their reputation, or an independent company or agent that comes with a personal recommendation. Check online reviews, ask for references, and if you have a bad gut feeling – trust it, and leave!
- Should the travel agent be certified? Not necessarily. Any large company, or independent agent that works through a host company should have insurance and some form of in-house training program. Many travel agents do take a formal educational program in travel or a related discipline, but it is not necessary.
- Ask lots of questions! Lots, and lots, and lots! Remember, they are getting commission, and will have some sort of agenda or quota to meet. This means A sale, even if it’s not one of their highest grossing sales, is better than no sale. Be honest about your budget, and even when you think you understand, ask them to explain it again, and if you get more questions – keep asking them.
- Don’t book right away – take it home. You should be given pamphlets, brochure, maybe even a book or a website. Go home, see if you can find the same prices that the agent gave you or lower for the same trip. If you find a major price variance – and what you find online is cheaper than what your agent provided – see another agent, or consider booking it yourself. If it is incredibly close or higher priced online then what your agent gave you, you should feel pretty secure about booking through your agent.
Generally, if you’re not sure, you have nothing to lose by visiting a travel agent and asking some questions. Don’t feel pressured to book through them, but travelling can be intimidating, take any information you can get, and decide what is best going from there! Best of luck, and happy travels!