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?
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:
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?
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.