Can a Travel Agent Actually Save You Money?

Cheryl Lock
Posted

Are travel agents back?

This question, posed by The New York Times, got us thinking. According to the piece, nearly one in three leisure travel agencies is hiring, and in 2011 travel agencies experienced a second consecutive year of growth; in fact, their bookings accounted for a third of the $284 billion U.S. travel market.

Silly us, we thought travel agents had become passé.

But if the travel agent business is thriving, we started wondering—is there something to this? Could using an old-school travel agent actually save us money on travel?

A Travel Agent Dishes: How to Save Money When Traveling

To find out, we consulted Barbara Vong, a travel agent with Wright Travel Agency, the 2011 winner of the Best of the Best Globe Award from Travel Impressions.

The first thing we learned? Travel agents usually don’t charge customers for their services! Their payment actually comes through the hotels and wholesalers, meaning that we can simply tap into a free service. That also means using a travel agent should never be more expensive than booking by yourself online … and these are experts well-versed in where to find the best deals.

Of course, booking your flights in 30 seconds with a few clicks sounds a lot easier than playing phone tag with a live person, so it pays to know when a travel agent can help the most, and when you might as well DIY it. Vong let us in on the best times to call an agent, and some money-saving travel tips she’s picked up in her line of work:

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Use a Travel Agent If …

You’re Traveling With a Group

For group bookings that involve coordinating travel for multiple people, it’s usually easier to use a travel agent, says Vong. “I just had a bride call me because one of the groomsmen booked his own trip through a discount travel site, and he wanted to add someone to the room,” says Vong. “The customer service representative from the travel site he used told him they couldn’t do it, but they were probably just being lazy. This is a great example of when you’d rather hand the responsibility of changing that booking to a travel agent, rather than trying to fix it on your own.”

You’re Not Sure Where You Want to Go

Reading online reviews of a specific resort or city can take lots of time and effort. If you’re booking a getaway for your family, but your destination is still a question mark, an experienced travel agent can help steer you toward what you’re looking for. (Family friendly? Beach town? Non-touristy?) “What I’ve noticed is that often our suppliers have better rates than what discount sites are offering, even when they advertise for ‘cheap last minute trips,’” says Vong. “Plus, if you start working with the same agent over and over for your travel, they become familiar with you and your needs, which makes it easier for them to help you pick out a spot you’ll enjoy.” (As a side note, check out our editor’s review of one new personal travel service that could help you plan your next trip.)

You’re Traveling Internationally

If you’re planning to travel somewhere out of the country, and you’ve never been there before, it might be a good idea to go through a travel agent. When you use an agent to book international travel, you’ll be able to ask a million questions, says Vong, and your agent will be sure to gather all the information you’ll need to make sure you’re traveling safely.

You Don’t Need a Travel Agent If …

You’re Only Booking a Flight

Let’s say you’re visiting a friend in Arizona and all you need is the flight out there. With all of the discount flight sites available, it’s usually easier, and generally about the same price, to just book it yourself. (Check out our rundown of popular travel sites to see which one might work best for you.)

You Want to Use Your Miles

Travel agents aren’t able to use your points or rewards card miles to book a flight or hotel for you—you’ll have to book on your own if you’d like to use them. “You also aren’t able to use points or miles to buy flights on sites like Expedia or Orbitz, either, only directly through the site of the company who is giving the points or miles,” says Vong.

You Find a Fantastic Deal on a Deal Site

Go ahead and book a travel deal that you find on a site like LivingSocial, Groupon or Travelzoo. Just remember that you’ll need to be flexible with the travel dates (most deals are offered for off-peak times, like travel on a weekday only, or for a Sunday night at a hotel), and be wary of expiration dates.

Some Travel Tips to Help Save Money

In her years as a travel agent, Vong has discovered a few things that help her save money on her own travel. Here are a few of her favorites:

1. Fly at the Right Time

If you can, avoid flying out on a Thursday or Friday, or flying back on a Sunday, when Vong says flights tend to be the most expensive. “It’s hard to say exactly how much a traveler could save, as it depends on the specific flight and how much space is available on it, but you could find yourself saving up to $50 or more for longer flights,” says Vong.

2. Factor in Your Transfer

Set up transportation from the airport to your hotel through a shuttle or van service online prior to arriving at your destination. Local taxis in some countries have been known to charge more to foreigners traveling to and from airports. If you’re working with a travel agent, she should always be able to book transportation for you from the airport. If you’re booking on your own, try calling your airline for suggestions, or searching on the tourism website for the place where you’re going (most major tourist cities have a tourism website.) If you’re booking a tour on your vacation, most tour operators also offer transfers with the purchase of certain products, says Vong.

3. Try the Go City Card

The Go City Card is available in nine U.S. cities (including Boston, Chicago, New York, Orlando and more), and it allows you to pick and choose which sightseeing you want to do and to buy those activities as a bundle, which will be much cheaper than buying them individually.

4. Use Your Email

If you’re traveling within the U.S., sign yourself up for emails from deal sites like Groupon or LivingSocial from the city you’re traveling to for potential discounts. In other words, if you live in Chicago but are traveling to San Francisco, subscribe to the San Fran deal sites shortly before your trip—you can always unsubscribe later.

5. Be Smart About Exchanging Currency

If you’ll be traveling to a country where you’ll need a different currency, Vong suggests exchanging money at your hotel. “They usually have the best rates, they don’t charge a fee and you can put any extra money you don’t need back in the safe deposit box in your room as soon as you get it,” she says.

Tell us—how do you save money on travel?

Saving for Big Trip

LearnVest Planning Services is a registered investment adviser and subsidiary of LearnVest, Inc. that provides financial plans for its clients. Information shown is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended as investment, legal or tax planning advice. Please consult a financial adviser, attorney or tax specialist for advice specific to your financial situation. Unless specifically identified as such, the people interviewed in this piece are neither clients, employees nor affiliates of LearnVest Planning Services, and the views expressed are their own. LearnVest Planning Services and any third parties listed in this message are separate and unaffiliated and are not responsible for each other’s products, services or policies.

  • http://www.morewithlesstoday.com/ Lori Felix

    Great tips, especially about factoring in transfers. I would also add factoring in renting a car at the airport vs renting it off site, and factoring in airline baggage fees when comparing carriers. For dining out and sightseeing, I also recommend buying an Entertainment Book and/or Groupon and Living Social deals ahead of time for your destination. I write a money-saving site called More With Less Today (dot) com and have websites to fnd kids eat free deals and where to find food festivals all over the country -one of my favorite things to do when travelling.

  • sue

    I travel abroad regularly, and have NEVER found a hotel to exchange currency more cheaply than ALL alternative sources, including banks, traveler’s check exchange services, and American Express offices.  The exchange rate offered at most hotels is totally non-competitive with walking down the street to a bank.  But my travels have focused on North and Central America and Western and Eastern Europe; perhaps it is different elsewhere.

  • Sasha K.

    Exchange money at a hotel? WHAT? That’s almost as expensive as an airport. Find an exchange kiosk. DO NOT EXCHANGE AT A HOTEL. Worst rates ever. Just no fee, only thing they have on an airport.

    • Megan Kramer Jaunich

      I agree, in my travels to many countries the rates at hotels are among the worst, even worse than at the airport.

  • http://www.makingsenseofcents.com/ Michelle

    Hmm very interesting! We’ve been wondering about whether or not to use one for our next trip.

  • Stefanie Anton

    As a travel agent, I would only add that sometimes I can assist with flights, like when you are flying for a cruise. We have access to cruise airfares that people don’t have access to. Great article!

  • Rcdrury

    Why is this news to anyone? Getting professional help is the best way to save on almost anything from travel to cars to insurance. Brokers, which include travel agents, get paid to earn your business; and to do so,they must offer only the most cost effective options.

  • Apushkal

    I never stopped using my awesome travel agent, even when things got bad and he had to charge me a $25 fee for airline tickets – he always more than made up for it in good fares and saving me hours by finding the best flights and schedules for me.  And when I got stuck in Peru he was the one making phone calls back home to get me home again.  A good travel agent is worth his or her weight in gold.

  • Robin

    Get a Charles Schwab checking account and use their ATM card to withdraw money when traveling abroad. (You’ll get the best exchange rate using your ATM.) Schwab doesn’t charge an ATM fee and will reimburse any fees charged by foreign banks!

  • http://www.sueroupp.com/ Sue Roupp

    I use airbnb, hotwire, Costco travel site, travel on Tuesdays, look for cheap internet only fares.  

  • Rochelle

    As a travel agency manager, I can see that this article is coming from money saving angle however our agency strives to create long-term relationships with our clients (like a lawyer or hair dresser or a doctor). For us, it’s not about the one-off booking.  Loyalty comes from offering excellent service to our clients at a great value and finding experiences that they might not have access to on their own. The cost of a trip is only part of the equation.

    FYI, at least 75% of travel agencies charge a fee for service to book vacation and cruise packages. This can range from a per trip fee for service to a consulting fee depending upon the complexity of the trip.

    • Kru

      I don’t agree with your 75% number. I own an agency as well as work with a lot of other agencies and not one of us charge a fee for any of our services including airfare. Your agency might do so, but I can say with certainty that most agencies, especially smaller ones do not charge additional fees.

  • Lindsey

    As a travel agent, I think this article hit a lot of things right on the mark.  My primary goal is to create a relationship with my clients by ensuring that I am around to answer questions, book trips, and add some magical extras as possible.  We often have advanced notice of special offers, and know where to look for the best packaged deals.  If better offers come along after a trip is booked, often times a travel agent can work to get that offer applied to your vacation, without any hassle to the client.

  • Barbara@wrighttravelagency.com

    The hotels I’ve stayed at have always offered competitive rates and once you factor in the fees that most currency exchange kiosks charge, it is the same or better.  A 5% fee on $100 is an extra 5 cents you are paying.  I was just in Istanbul and checked out every kiosk I walked by and none were more than 5 cents what the hotels were charging.  In addition, you have the option of putting money back in your safe as opposed to walking around with tons of cash.  And if the hotel is charging a bad rate, then you can go to a kiosk.  Sometimes convenience is worth a few pennies.

  • Gene

    I am surprised honestly that Ms Vong said half the information she did!
    1) Good and smart Travel Agents DO charge fees because we work hard for our clients and provide many services you cannot get or wont get by shopping online. (Good customer service, help before, during and after your trip, Weissmann Destination Reports, currency information, visa and passport information, NO long hold times or waiting hours for a callback, valuable experience and information on properties and destinations and alot more! As someone mentioned previously, we ARE worth our weight in gold! We have never had someone complain about a “plan to go fee” or “consultation fee” once we explain why we are charging it!
    2) While we don’t solicit air travel services, we can definitely help better than most sites in that we can tell you what days and alternate airports may have the best fare…and it’s not a rule that thursday, friday and sunday are the worst days to travel as sometimes those exact days can actually offer the special! Let us do the work for our small fee of just 35.00 domestic, 50.00 international or 100.00 complex international!
    3) Travel Agents can definitely help you book with points and more as long as it’s a trusted travel agent…we gladly help with using your points for a fee which frees the client from having to deal with the hassle and rules that many of these programs have…especially American Express points, as American Express agencies are the ONLY ones that can help you with Pay With Points options that American Express cards offer!
    4) Yes please sign up for all those emails and I guarantee within a day you will have a million spam emails driving you crazy from whomever you signed up with plus all the thousands of companies they share that information with..even if they say they don’t! In other words sign up for anything at the risk of getting inundated with lots of unwanted emails!
    5) Never use the hotel for currency…it is by far better to use your debit or credit card as that will offer the best exchange rate at that time..and IF you must have cash, withdraw from a major bank in the city you are in in small amounts as the only time you usually need cash is for tipping and small marts and markets…most everyone including most taxis take credit cards these days!

    Hope this helps everyone… I love being a Travel Counselor/Manager and I for one know the value I bring to my clients and their vacations! I think most Travel counselors will agree!

    • Barbara

      Gene, I think you are taking everything written in this article as the final word on traveling and that is not the case at all.  Our agency has enough volume and repeat clients that we do not need to charge a fee.  If you do, more power to you.  It doesn’t make our agency any less “good or smart”.  

      Just as with any type of pricing, nothing is set in stone.  But I think it is safe to say that more often than not, it is less expensive to fly on a day other than Friday or Sunday.  Just like you could say, to find the best sales at a department store, go on a weekend.  Of course there may be some sales during the week, I think it is safe to say that most dept stores have sales on the weekend (for obvious reasons).

      In regards to signing up for emails, I was referring to finding good deals ahead of time of restaurants or tours in the area you are going.  There is a reason that sites like Groupon and Living Social have become so popular.  Many people, including myself, use them for deals in their own city so to select an extra city to get deals for is really not that big of a deal.  Once you have visited, it is easy to unselect that city so you don’t get emails anymore.  

      Credit cards give great exchange rates but most charge fees each time you use it.  A fee essentially decreases the exchange rate you are getting.  When you are getting charged a fee for every transaction, the great exchange rate is not as good when you break it down per dollar.  I was just in Istanbul and needed cash for cabs, the metro, many of the sites, at the bazaar and to buy food from the delicious carts selling food.  The convenience of exchanging money at the hotel and being able to put any extra money back in my safe is worth a few pennies.

  • MikeB

    Very helpful article! Nice to get advice from an agent who seems genuinely interested in getting the client the best rates possible and avoiding unnecessary fees that some travel agents charge.

    @Gene: I find that signing up for alerts from travel sites can be very beneficial… You can easily adjust the email settings when you sign up on the site, to ensure that you are not bombarded with mass emails/junk mail. Hope this helps the problem you are having!

  • Anamaria

    I have found hotel currency exchange rates to be quite competitive with banks and other currency exchange venues. Perhaps those who have found this to be otherwise aren’t staying at the right hotels? I have also used Wright Travel Agency for various different trips over the years and have been consistently satisfied with their diligence in getting me the best prices on my vacations and even business travel. Not charging a fee doesn’t equate to poor customer service at all. In fact, knowing that they are working hard for me and not charging a premium is exactly why I have used them as my travel needs service provider again and again.

  • mel

    If you are comfortable giving your travel agent your credit information, etc. the agent can use your miles to purchse flights or upgrades.  Ours sent us on a three week trip to Israel,Turkey, Greece and France using our miles for hotels, etc.

  • vlad

    Much better is to open a contest and choose from the best offers of many agents/experts using Flightfox crowdsourcing site. For a small fee people save hundreds on international trips. Here is a link with 25% discount http://flightfox.com/?referral=35808

  • mr javaid

    dear madam i want to my travel agency is online please help us

  • Paulina

    Never exchange money at the airports. They have outrageous exchange rates. Only exchange a little at a time too so you’re not stuck trying sell off the currency before you go back home and lose money on that.

  • pro-traveler

    I think travel agent definitely helps. I found a travel agent on quotebreaker.com . I think few of the tips I got were very helpful