It used to be that if you wanted to book a vacation or a cruise, or generally had any questions related to travel, a travel agent would be your first call. They were widely regarded as experts in their field and in many cases were the only viable booking option open to travelers.
Then came the internet.
It gave us the ability to do all of those things for ourselves directly and easily, crashing the exclusive party that travel agents had been enjoying for decades. More recently, the sharing economy has meant that we’ve got even more channels open to us to book our trips, with sites like Airbnb disrupting the process even further. But does this mean that travel agents are truly a thing of the past? (See also: 9 of the Craziest, Coolest Airbnb Listings)
An industry shift
Not so long ago, it seemed an open and shut case, with many insiders predicting it to be the end of the industry. With just a computer, people could now book all of their travels themselves, so why would they pay someone else to do so?
Though they’ve largely moved out of sight, travel agencies are still around. They’ve had to adapt to survive, but they’ve found ways to stay relevant in a rapidly changing landscape. Even though the Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected a 12 percent decline in travel agent jobs between 2016 and 2026, it states that “job prospects should be best for travel agents who specialize in specific destinations or particular types of travelers.”
It’s true that travel agents have moved away from the brick-and-mortar stores that used to occupy prominent positions on our streets. But that doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared. Some industry figures suggest that the profession has been growing. James Shillinglaw, editor-at-large for Travel Market Report wrote that “most travel agency executives I speak with believe independent contractors or home-based agents now constitute a majority of the market — and that market continues to grow.”
Many travel experts are now striking out on their own to build smaller, more dynamic agencies that focus on very niche aspects of the travel market. Rather than being travel generalists who help with any kind of travel booking, they’re specializing in a particular destination, activity, or type of excursion.
When it can be beneficial to use a travel agent
Generally, if you’re booking a straightforward trip for a small number of people, you can find great deals by yourself. Book a flight directly with the airline or with a booking site, find a room or apartment on an accommodation site, and plan your activities as you go. But that’s only one type of travel, and certainly not the simplest, or in many instances, the cheapest solution for all situations. (See also: 10 Flight Booking Hacks to Save You Hundreds)
Complex travel plans
If you’re planning a complicated trip where you want a full itinerary laid out prior to setting off, a specialist travel agent is a good option. Depending on which country you’re visiting, booking activities in advance can be complicated and time consuming, as can planning any internal travel for when you’re there.
Language barriers, less advanced offline booking systems, and even restrictions on where you can purchase tickets from can all make things more difficult. A specialist agency will use their experience and contacts to get this done probably more efficiently than you can. (See also: How to Provide Proof of Onward Travel During an Open-Ended Trip Abroad)
Travel agents are still big news when it comes to luxury travel, as well, and used frequently for for various reasons. If money is less of an issue, there’s no problem with paying someone else to make all of your arrangements on your behalf. Luxury travel providers often use agencies as a way to promote their packages to their regular clients. An example of this would be cruises, where the relationships that agencies have with the cruise lines can help them secure better deals than you’d be able to get yourself.
Travel agents not only take the hassle out of the arrangements for big groups, but they also have access to group discounts that you simply can’t get through online booking sites. This is particularly true at the higher end of the market, again with cruise lines or with luxury resorts.
Corporate travel is also a huge market for travel agents because companies typically don’t have the time to dedicate to booking trips directly, and it can be far more cost effective to use one for company events.
Why a travel agent isn’t necessary for every trip
While it can be beneficial to use a travel agent for complex or extended travel plans, it’s not always necessary. As mentioned before, many travel bookings are easier to do yourself online. Travel agents typically charge fees for their time and effort, so even if you score a cheaper reservation through an agent, you could end up paying the same or more by the time the fees are added on.
However, it’s important to note that not all travel agents charge the same fees. And even for complicated bookings, some agencies may charge a fee to create an itinerary, then refund it once the client books the trip.
If you are considering using an agent, ask for an estimate of their fees upfront.
What other benefits do travel agents provide?
Plenty of people prefer the peace of mind that comes with having a single point of contact who is accountable for their plans. If anything goes wrong, the travel agent is directly responsible for getting it resolved, and unlike an online booking site, they should be easy to contact by phone or email.
Travel agents often have access to perks that otherwise may not be available when booking directly. Travel providers who work with travel agencies have programs that offer incentives to the travel agents, as well as their clients, to keep them coming back. Things like room upgrades, free airport pickups, and VIP airport lounge passes are often thrown into a package, which in turn helps create loyalty with their clients.
Good travel agencies will customize your trip around what you like and dislike, and will provide you advice that is often based on their own experience. They will also save you the time it takes to pore through all the internet information that you’d have to go through without them.
How to find a good travel agent
Many travel agents advertise online these days, but a good way to weed them out is to first ask friends, family, and social media contacts for recommendations. Beyond that, you’ll find networks of travel agents you can search based on geographic location, specialization, and languages spoken on sites like the American Society of Travel Agents and Virtuoso. Be sure to also check out online reviews of travel agents through Yelp or TripAdvisor.