If you’ve planned a vacation before, you know firsthand how stressful the planning process can be. Between booking hotels, flights and excursions, planning a vacation can feel like a full-time job. American travelers spent an average of 8 hours and 44 minutes reviewing travel content and resources ahead of their trips and read up to a whopping 277 pages of information on average, according to a 2023 survey from Expedia Group and Luth Research.

The time commitment behind planning a vacation could be one of the factors driving the 14 percent year-over-year increase in travelers who are likely to use a travel advisor, as reported by the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA). Working with a travel agent could save you time and money when planning a complex vacation, but alternatives like online travel agencies, and credit card concierge services could be more affordable. So which option is better — doing your own legwork and booking trips online or hiring a travel agent?

What travel agents do

Travel agents help plan and book travel for vacations, special events or group trips, but their jobs have evolved over the years, particularly in the post-pandemic world.

“In the past, travel agents were very transactional — able to book your flights, hotels, and tours. While that is still a service we provide, in a post-pandemic world, travelers are looking for more,” says Annie Jones, travel advisor and owner of Telos Travel, “They want to think less, have options personalized to their interests, and experience destinations in a more authentic way.”

These days, travel agents advise on multiple aspects of a trip to create a bespoke travel experience. Their role can include:

  • Regional tours and experiences
  • Cultural etiquette
  • Developing a custom itinerary
  • Finding exclusive deals, amenities and offerings
  • Handling emergencies and changes
  • Organizing travel insurance
  • Booking transportation (airfare and ground transportation)
  • Making restaurant reservations
  • Booking hotels, cruises and excursions
  • Arranging necessary travel documents and visas

To reflect the expansions on a travel agent’s role, the American Society of Travel Advisors officially transitioned the title to “travel advisor” in 2018. Some of the best travel advisors even earn certifications and attend trainings to continue their education and stay on top of industry changes.

Do you have to pay a travel agent?

The cost of using a travel agent varies wildly, since there are different types of travel agents and travel advisors. In the past, many travel agents’ services were free, as they earned a commission off the trips they booked paid out by the airlines and hotels. Some still are.

However, after the pandemic, when many businesses in the travel industry struggled to recover (along with the changing landscape of travel agents in general) kickbacks from these vendors became less common. According to a survey by Travel Weekly, 71 percent of travel agencies in 2023 charged some form of service fee for working with them. These days, there are three main ways travel agents get paid:

  1. Flat rate fee
  2. Percentage
  3. Hourly rate

Travel agents may charge a percentage ranging from five percent to 15 percent of the trip’s cost. Others may charge a flat rate, anywhere from $100-$500 on average. Some advisors charge an hourly rate to research, plan or arrange your trip. Agents may also ask for a deposit that’s returned once you take your trip or goes towards the total cost.

Although hiring a travel advisor might seem expensive, it could potentially save you money. Paying a travel agent $200 to save you $400 on airfare or obtain a cruise upgrade worth $600 means you’re still coming out on top.

“I think one of the biggest misconceptions out there is that it’s more expensive to book through a travel advisor,” Jones shares. “While most advisors do charge professional service fees, just like you would to a financial planner or lawyer, the actual cost of your trip is no different than if you were to book it on your own.”

To better understand the cost of working with a travel agent, ask about their fee structure to determine if their price feels fair for your budget.

Are travel agents influenced by commissions?

That depends on how your travel agent gets paid. Even though it’s declined in recent years, many travel agents still collect at least part of their earnings from commissions paid by hotels and other travel products.

When there’s a commision tied to each travel booking, travel agents benefit monetarily from what you buy which makes it hard to be unbiased. As such, those commissions will likely influence which vacation packages and options you’re provided. However, that’s not to say that there aren’t travel agents who put your preferences and must-sees at the forefront of their planning process.


Money tip: You may find less of a hard sell on certain travel packages if your travel agent charges a flat fee or a percentage of your total trip. But this could mean a higher out-of-pocket cost. Consider their fee structure and how your agent approaches travel planning as you decide who to work with.

Can a credit card concierge replace a travel agent?

The short answer is… sort of. Many of the best travel credit cards offer concierge services that help cardholders organize travel, accommodations and tours, and they even help when emergencies or travel problems arise. But not to the extent a travel agent might go to.

“Many of my clients are surprised I offer 24/7 support while they are traveling,” says Jones. “If they face an unexpected challenge, I’m there to help resolve the problem or answer their question so they can just focus on enjoying their vacation.”

Complimentary concierge services can take the place of a travel agent on some aspects of your trip. While concierges can help you cross small items off your to-do list, they typically won’t plan a full trip itinerary for you.

In some cases, concierge benefits seem vague, so it’s worth calling or emailing to ask if they can help with your specific issue or need. However, in most circumstances, they probably won’t be able to plan and book an entire curated vacation for you.

If you’re booking travel on your own and simply want to lighten the load, then concierge services might be the way to go. However, if you want a fully customized itinerary without the legwork and within budget then a travel agent is your best bet.

Should you use a travel agent?

The decision to use a travel agent depends on a few factors and is closely intertwined with your preferences, budget and type of trip.

Travel advisors are particularly helpful when planning complex travel. Their connections and expertise come in handy for corporate, group, luxury or special-occasion travel, which could make it worth their fee. Advisors are also helpful when you’re not experienced with vacation planning or have time commitments preventing you from planning. In those cases, having a travel advisor could be a win.

Ask yourself a few questions to determine if it’s the right choice for you.

  • Does this trip require a lot of planning (i.e. corporate, group, anniversary or highly-specific travel)?
  • Are you looking for unique experiences, tours or upgrades?
  • Are you experienced in booking your own travel or designing your own vacation itinerary?
  • Do you have the time to dedicate to travel planning?
  • Are you visiting a location and culture you feel comfortable navigating on your own?

For less complex travel where you’re on a tight budget, you might consider using resources already at your disposal like the credit card concierge service on an existing credit card or booking through an online travel agency (OTA) like Expedia or Kayak.

Travel advisors offer their experience, expertise and connections to take the stress out of planning a vacation. When you want to spend less time planning, get access to exclusive experiences, or need someone to create a vacation you couldn’t imagine planning on your own, a travel agent could save the day.

Pros of using a travel agent

Still not sure whether a travel agent would be worth the cost? Some additional advantages of using a travel agent as opposed to planning your trip yourself include:

  • Saving money. According to a survey by Condor Ferries, travel agencies can save customers an average of $452 per trip through promotions and deals from suppliers that average travelers don’t have access to.
  • Expert planning on important trips. Whether it’s corporate travel, a honeymoon or a 50th anniversary trip, you’ll want it to be impeccably planned.
  • Help with trip disruptions. Many travel agents offer 24/7 support before, during and after your trip to help with any challenges or changes that arise.
  • Upgrades, benefits and extras. Travel agents have connections the general public doesn’t. Their connections and partnerships may get you hotel upgrades, VIP treatment, connecting rooms, free breakfast or other perks.
  • Curated experiences. A destination expert might find you experiences you never have discovered on your own, like an insider, after-hours visit to Cambodian ruins or a vintage car rental in Italy.
  • Extensive vacations. You need expert destination knowledge to plan a cruise to Antarctica, a hiking trip to Bhutan or a two-month-long Galapagos expedition. If you want all the bells and whistles and money is no object, a travel agent may be able to get you into the most coveted hotels, tours and spots.
  • You’re a beginner or don’t have time. Beginners planning a DIY vacation can easily get overwhelmed. The time it takes to plan a trip can also take time away from your other responsibilities. Travel agents make the process easy.

Using a travel agent doesn’t mean you’ll get a vacation that’s just like everyone else’s. Travel agents use the details of your personal preferences, budget and needs to customize your experience. Some of them even specialize in particular destinations or have relationships with hotels and tour guides which could help you get room upgrades, better rates or VIP experiences.

“These relationships not only allow for special treatment, but upgrades are nice, right? After all, you can’t VIP yourself! In addition to perks, these relationships also allow us to have high-level contacts in the event something should go wrong or a client needs assistance… These are things you are not going to get if you DIY.”

— Mandy PullinLuxury travel advisor of six years with DPP Travel

Some travel advisors have even developed specific travel niches.

“I’m seeing advisors specialize more than they did in the past,” explains Adeline Kuroki, a travel advisor and owner of Savor & Soak Travel Co. “I think this is great for travelers… For example, some advisors will specialize in luxury travel, and make it their mission to visit and understand the pros and cons of luxury resorts all over the world.”

When you have an advisor who’s an expert on one location, you get more curated experiences too. Kuroki specializes in travel to Japan and helps clients navigate the complexities of booking in such a popular destination.

“I can quickly tell them which experiences need to be booked well in advance to avoid missing out, and which can be decided on closer to their travel dates. And as Japan becomes an increasingly popular tourist destination, I’m able to recommend and book more off-the-beaten-path locations that offer a lot of the same sights and experiences as more well-known places.”.

So even with developments in online bookings and credit card concierge services, travel advisors are irreplaceable when it comes to designing a personalized itinerary in a destination with which you’re unfamiliar.

Cons of using a travel agent

While there are many benefits to using a travel agent, there are also disadvantages to consider. Some of those include:

  • Not redeeming points or miles. If you have credit card points or airline miles to cash in, a travel agent might not be the best fit since they typically can’t help you redeem them for the trips they plan. However, niche advisors can best advise you on booking using your points and miles or use your stash to book for you.
  • Less flexibility to make updates. Once your travel agent locks in reservations, it can be difficult to change things since you may have put down a deposit.
  • Added layer of communication. For your travel agent to plan a vacation you’ll enjoy, you have to clue them in on your likes and dislikes, budget, preferences, needs and more. And when you need to make adjustments, you’ll have to go through them.
  • Missing out on planning your own trip. Planning your own trip is exciting for some folks. Plus, you can build the exact type of experience you want at a price point that’s comfortable for you.
  • Fees and price. Travel agents can save you money sometimes, but it comes at a cost that might not fit into your budget. Some agents charge high fees or percentages of the total vacation cost.
  • Finding the right agent. It can take time to find the right travel agent, advisor or expert. If it takes too long, DIY travel might be more convenient.

Do you earn rewards on travel booked by an agent?

You might be hard-pressed to find a travel advisor where you earn rewards by booking through them as opposed to your credit card’s travel portal. However, it’s worth noting that the merchant code for travel agents is often “travel”, which means the travel agent fees you pay through a qualifying rewards credit card could be eligible for bonus points if your card offers boosted rewards on the travel category.

Certain travel benefits still work for you even if a travel agent books your trip. For example, you’ll get lounge access if your credit card offers it regardless of who booked your airfare, which airline or class you’re flying. As long as you use the appropriate card to pay for the trip, it shouldn’t matter if you or the travel agent physically made the purchase.

You might also earn frequent flyer miles through an airline’s loyalty program if your travel agent can include your frequent flyer number on your reservation. You’ll also still have your airline elite status recognized if a travel agent booked your airfare for you, but you may or may not get hotel loyalty brand points. The same goes for recognition of your hotel elite status. It’s best to discuss this directly with your agent or call the hotel to confirm, as each case may be different.

Star Alt

Keep in mind: American Airlines announced in February 2024 it plans to limit which tickets purchased via third parties are eligible to earn AAdvantage frequent flyer miles. The details were still vague at the time of publishing, but it could mean that your ticket purchased by a travel agent would still earn miles – assuming they purchase through a qualifying site or directly on American’s site – but if you go the DIY route for your trip and purchase online through a third-party site, you may not earn miles at all.

The bottom line

Choosing to use a travel agent or book vacations online ultimately depends on your personal preferences, budget and the type of trip you’re planning. Opting for online booking might be quicker and more cost-effective, but the personal touch and stress-free approach provided by a travel agent can’t be overlooked.

The days where travel agents just booked your flight and hotel are long gone. Today, they offer bespoke itineraries tailored to your interests and budget while specializing in certain destinations or forms of travel. Taking the time to find and build a relationship with a reliable travel agent could save you money on your next trip even if there’s a fee involved. But it’s still important to weigh the pros and cons to know if hiring a travel agent is right for you.