Do I still need a travel agent?
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Thanks to the ease of the internet, travel agents may seem like a thing of the past. Nowadays, with easy access to airline, hotel and vacation rental websites, it’s simple to pull together a trip on your own with a click of a few buttons and your credit card details. And OTAs (online travel agencies) like Expedia or Kayak have also replaced travel agents as an intermediary between consumers and hotels, airlines and car rental agencies.
But travel agents aren’t extinct. A 2020-2021 survey by Condor Ferries showed that 55 percent of millennials and 28 percent of baby boomers would consider hiring travel experts to help plan their trips.
Travel agents are still relevant, especially when it comes to certain types of travel. You may still benefit from a travel agent’s connections and expertise for corporate, group, luxury or special-occasion travel. Additionally, beginners or those simply not interested in doing the research might prefer having an agent handle things. Or, if you’re traveling somewhere far-flung, it can be useful to have a destination expert organize your trip.
Travel agents have evolved
Although travel agents continue to provide value, the concept of a travel agent now manifests in a new way. Brick-and-mortar travel agencies are not the norm. Instead, you might use a credit card concierge service, a destination specialist or a boutique luxury online agency (not the same as an OTA like Expedia or Kayak).
Many agents have rebranded themselves as “travel advisors” or “travel experts.” For example, Fora Travel is a modern, tech-based agency that uses specialist advisors to help customers curate trips. Another company, Origin, creates luxury, tailor-made vacation experiences based on questionnaire responses. Virtuoso provides luxury travel destination specialists offering curated advice and planning in your chosen vacation spot. Many of the best travel credit cards offer concierge services that help travelers organize travel, accommodations and tours, and they even help when emergencies or travel problems arise.
Here’s everything you need to know about travel agents in 2022 to help you decide whether or not you’d like to use one.
What travel agents do
Travel agents, often called travel advisors, help you plan and book travel. This includes personalized assistance for booking and reserving things like airfare, hotels, excursions, cruises, tours, restaurant reservations, travel insurance, transport and more. They can also help arrange things like visas or documents needed to enter a country.
The key word here is personalization. Travel agents organize and book your trip exactly the way you’d like, taking into consideration personal preference, budget and specific needs. Travel agents often specialize in particular destinations or have relationships with hotels or tour guides, which can lead to things like room upgrades, better rates or VIP experiences.
Travel agents can be invaluable when things go awry. If you have a medical emergency, visa issue, flight cancellation or even experience something like a natural disaster, they’ll work quickly to help and provide solutions.
Average cost of using a travel agent
The cost of using a travel agent varies wildly, as there are so many different types of travel agents and travel advisors.
Before the pandemic, many travel agents’ services were actually free, as they earned a percentage of the trips they booked paid out by the airlines and the hotels. 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.
Some agents charge fees by percentage, ranging from 5 percent to 15 percent of the trip’s cost. Others may charge a flat rate, anywhere from $100-$500 on average. You may have to pay an hourly rate for travel agents to research, plan or arrange your trip. Agents may also ask for a deposit that’s returned once you take your trip.
Make sure to inquire about an agent’s fee structure right away, so you don’t waste their time or yours if it’s not the right fit. If you can’t find an agent with a fee you feel is fair, remember that they may be able to save you a lot of money. Paying a travel agent $200 to save you $400 on airfare or obtain a cruise upgrade worth $600 means you’re coming out on top. Likewise, if you’d prefer to avoid the cost of an agent, you may want to consider a credit card concierge service, which we’ll cover more below.
The case for using a travel agent
These are some of the reasons you may want to use a travel agent:
- Saving money. Although agents may charge fees, you still might benefit financially from using one. According to the survey by Condor Ferries, travel agencies can save customers, on average, $452 per trip as they have access to promotions and deals from suppliers that the average traveler doesn’t.
- Important trips. You’ll want to make sure your honeymoon or 50th anniversary trip is perfectly planned.
- Long, far-flung, luxury or extensive trip. It might be helpful for something with expert or destination knowledge to plan that 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.
- Upgrades, benefits and extras. Travel agents have connections that the general public doesn’t. Thanks to a travel agent’s connections and partnerships, you may get hotel upgrades, VIP treatment, connecting rooms, free breakfast, or other perks.
- Curated experiences you didn’t know existed. A destination expert might find you experiences you might never have discovered on your own, like an insider, after-hours visit to Cambodian ruins or a vintage car rental in Italy.
- Emergency services. Travel doesn’t always go as planned, and agents can provide support when you need help.
- You’re a beginner or don’t have time. If navigating the online world of travel seems overwhelming or you simply want someone to handle it for you, travel agents make the process easy.
The case for planning your own travel
- Using points and miles. If you want to use credit card points, airline miles or hotel points, using a travel agent may not be the best fit — at least for airfare and hotels. However, if you really need help, niche advisors out there can best advise you on booking using your points and miles or using your stash to book for you.
- Price. Although agents can save you money sometimes, certain ones may charge high fees. Avoid this by booking your own trip.
- Control. Sometimes, you just want to be in control of your own trip plans.
- Fulfillment/enjoyment. Some people get a kick of out of booking travel. It can feel like a game to find the best price or score an upgrade.
- Finding the right agent. It can take time to find the right travel agent, advisor or expert. In these cases, booking on your own may just be more convenient.
Can a travel credit card concierge replace a travel agent?
The short answer is… sort of. Certain credit cards provide complimentary concierge services that can help you with some of the things a travel agent typically does.
- For example, the The Platinum Card® from American Express offers the Platinum Card Concierge, which helps with things like purchasing event tickets, making dining, spa or other reservations, and general travel inquires.
- Cardholders of the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card now have free access to PRIOR, a program that provides insider destination advice and curated experiences and voyages.
- Those with cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and the Chase Sapphire Reserve® can use the Visa Infinite Concierge, which can help coordinate travel or book dining.
While a travel credit card concierge can’t fully replace a travel agent, they can certainly help you with specific aspects of your trip. In some cases, benefits seem vague, so it’s worth calling the concierge and seeing if they can help you 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.
Do credit card, airline and hotel benefits apply when using a travel agent?
It’s worth noting that banks like Chase code travel agents as a travel purchase, meaning depending on which card you use to purchase, travel agent fees should be eligible for bonus points if your code offers boosted rewards on the travel category.
Certain travel benefits should 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 or what 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.
While you should still earn airline miles and have your airline elite status recognized if a travel agent booked your airfare for you, 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.
Using a travel agent is a personal choice only you can make
Travel agents can still provide value, even though their role has changed over the years from in-person assistance to online help. When deciding whether or not to use one, there are many factors to consider, but you should first ask yourself if a concierge from one of your travel cards can help. If you need more extensive assistance, contacting a travel agent could be right for you. If not, plenty of online resources, including Bankrate articles, can help guide you in the right direction for booking your own trip, especially if you want to use your points and miles.