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Four times to skip a travel agent

By Christopher Elliott, Tribune Media Services
  • Travelers with a lot of time to research options may find better deals, columnist says
  • If you have particular knowledge of a route or place, you may know more than your agent
  • Skip an agent who isn't helpful or interested in your business

(Tribune Media Services) -- Want to go somewhere? Book the trip yourself.

About half of all leisure trips are reserved online -- give or take a few percentage points -- according to several recent surveys. The latest, a Forrester Research study which showed an unexpected drop in the number of U.S. leisure travelers who booked online (it fell from 53 percent in 2007 to 46 percent last year) was a boost to traditional travel agents, who thought their days were numbered.

They might want to hold off on the celebrations, though. That's because there are a lot of vacations you're better off booking by yourself, despite a recent story in which I outlined some trips where you should consult a travel professional.

In fact, after that column appeared, I heard from dozens of indignant do-it-yourselfers who insisted travel agents were worthless. And so, in the interest of balance, I'm going to let them have their say-so. (For the record, I don't think travel agents are worthless, but there are many agents practicing their trade who should probably be working somewhere else, just as there are many travel writers who should have taken their mother's advice and gone to law school. But I digress.)

Before I jump into this thorny subject, a refresher: I believe honeymoons, cruises, round-the-world flights and certain international trips should be handled by a pro. Also, if you're uncomfortable with the Internet or don't have any time, a travel agent is a good choice. I'm also on the record as saying there are a few trips I can't imagine planning through anyone but a travel agent.

"For the rest," I noted. "I fire up my laptop."

So let's talk about the others, then.

1. When you know more than a travel agent

Travel professionals aren't omniscient. If you know more about a particular route or destination, you're probably better off flying solo.

Christine Porter, a field label evaluator in Seattle, wanted to work with an agent to book a complex airline itinerary to Anchorage, Alaska. The agent, though nice, drew a blank on the return flights. "I gave up on the agent and went home and searched on my own and found that the flights did leave Anchorage, but it was the next day at 1 a.m. -- an overnight flight," she says. "The travel agent was searching from 6 a.m. and later."

2. If you've got the time

If you have an abundance of time -- for example, if you're retired -- then you might be able to do at least as well, if not better, than an agent.

Joe Reynolds, a retired surgeon from Bastrop, Louisiana, says he often finds cheaper rates than he would through a travel agent, because he's able to research every option. On one recent package that was being offered through an agent, he recalls seeing a hotel rate that was "way out of line." He added, "If I make my own reservations, the cost is just about the same, but I have control over my seat choice. If I want to use frequent flier miles to upgrade it is easier to do than trying to go through a travel agent."

3. If your agent isn't interested in your business

Oddly, this happens a lot more than you'd think. Many agents would prefer you book a simple point-to-point airline ticket online. Why? Because there's almost no money in it.

John Graham, an exhibit designer in Snohomish, Washington, recently asked several American travel agents to help him book a hotel in Japan. "At least two had no interest whatever in selling me anything but a package tour," he remembers. "I wanted advice and was willing to pay something for it, but received little to no information about places I specifically wanted to go. Blogs connected to travel guidebooks were vastly more helpful."

4. When your travel agent is negligent

You pay more for a travel agent because you get more, at least in theory. You get a professional who ensures your trip goes as smoothly as possible. And when that person isn't there for you, then you probably should have just booked it yourself.

Take Gail Tighe's recent trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Her flight was canceled, and her agent rescheduled it for the next day -- without telling her. "We discovered the change when we checked in for the flight," says Tighe, a retired forensic scientist from Hamilton, New Jersey. "We called the airline directly to reschedule the flight the same day."

I don't know of any competent travel agents who would disagree with these points. Travel pros who can't do the job, won't do it, don't have the time or the know-how, should not get your business. They should get out of the travel business.

However, there are still incompetent travel agents out there who will be upset at this column -- the ones who see us as walking commission checks and live for the next familiarization trip. For the sake of the travelers who inevitably will be their future victims, I hope they find another line of work. Soon.

Should you consider an agent for your next trip? I still say yes. I wanted to give a travel agent the last word in this column, so let me hand the mike to Chris Reimer, an agent for the British Columbia Automobile Association:

"I liken what I do to buying full-serve gas," says Reimer. "You pay a little bit more, I do all the work and I take car of all the details -- like making sure to remind you to check the expiry date on your passport and making sure you have adequate out-of-country medical insurance. The self-serve option is the Internet. You are doing the work, so it costs you a little less, but you are now responsible for all those little details that can make or break a business trip or vacation."

(Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, or e-mail him at