When you should book with a travel agent (and 3 myths)

Having spent more than 15 years in the travel industry I will give you 5 specific situations where it makes sense to at least consider to book with a travel agent.

Unfortunately there is no general rule that will always apply but there are easy to follow guidelines that will help you save money and create value.

I will also address some of the general statements that you come across when you read articles on the subject whether travel agents are a thing of the past or not.

Finally, I will answer some of the most common questions in a Frequently Asked Question format.

Accessing special prices

Generally speaking you will find the cheapest flight prices online by visiting price comparison sites like Momondo, Kayak and Skyscanner

But then there are the special prices where you need to meet certain criteria to be allowed to book.  These prices are often only available at traditional travel agencies. Examples would be:

  • Tour operator fares if you also need to book accommodation or rental car
  • Youth prices where you need to be of a certain age
  • Student prices where you need to produce a valid student ID

Airlines are very strict on following the rules for these types of ticket prices. And as of today there is no proven and effective way for price comparison sites and Online Travel Agents to know when to show these prices.

Summary: If you are looking for this type of special flight price, do consider to book with a travel agent for the best possible price and terms.

Save money when booking flights for more than 2 travellers

If you are travelling as a family or a group of friends you could save money if you use a skilled and experienced travel agent.

To understand the concept we need to look at how airlines use so-called booking classes to control inventory (available seats) and revenue (price per seat).

Most commercial airlines divide their airplanes into cabins. Examples would be Economy, Premium Economy and Business. 

Each Cabin is in its turn divided into a set number of booking classes. Each booking class is then given a total number of seats and a price per seat.

It could look like this:

Economy Class

Number of seats

Price per seat

Business Class

Number of seats

Price per seat

As a general rule we would move to a higher booking class and price per seat when available seats in the lower booking class are sold out.

But this is not the whole truth. Imagine that available seats instead look like below:

Economy Class

Number of seats

Price per seat

When a family of four searches online most booking engines would return a result of 4 seats in booking class L at the total cost of $400.

The reason is that the L booking class is the lowest available class with 4 available seats.

A skilled travel agent could however create a booking per below at the total cost of $300.

1 seat in T class ( 1x 50)
2 seats in K class (2×75)
1 seat in L class (1×100)

Now this would most likely be 3 separate bookings but they would be linked together in the reservation system by your travel agent. And as you are all travelling in the same cabin, Economy, you could still be seated together.

But how would you know if this is possible? Start your search looking for one seat, then 2 seats and so on.

But you should also be able to ask your travel agent as that level of trust must exist in any good professional working relationship.

Combination trips to unknown parts of the world (for you)

You should always contact a travel agent if you are planning a combination trip consisting of several independent components to a destination that is new to you.

Needless to say you would need to contact a travel agent that has experience, expertise and a fair volume of travellers going to your desired destination.

  • Experience will make sure that you are protected against booking a trip during rainy season 
  • Expertise would safeguard against missing the detail that a planned safari requires a transit visa
  • Volume would allow you to benefit from preferential treatment and prices with partners

When you plan trips that include flights, hotels, transfers, tours and maybe a short cruise there are many details that could go wrong.

And it is in situations like this that specialty travel agencies shine.

And no, it does not have to be expensive. Any good travel agency should have preferential rates where you end up paying the same as you would booking directly  and they pocket the commission paid to them by their supplier.

When your time is worth more to you than money

Face it, to book with a travel agent is a stress free and time saving venture. 

You share your wants, needs and desires and receive itineraries filled with tips, must-do´s and suggestions. 

What could be better?

It can be an ideal scenario but do make sure you set a budget and remember to be clear about your wants. After all, they are not you. 

Airline stopover packages

If you are booking long haul international, some airlines offer stopover packages. 

A clever travel agent will be able to identify a route where you can take advantage of a stopover package. Meaning that you have the opportunity of exploring an exciting city on the way to your final destination. And beat jet-lag by breaking up your long journey with a good night’s sleep. 

Often this is possible if your layover is, for example, longer than 6 or 8  hours. The airline will offer a heavily discounted package price on transfer to/from a city hotel, hotel overnight with breakfast, and even a city excursion can be included. 

Some stopover packages allow up to 3 nights’ stopover. The stopover packages can be booked by your travel agent in the Global Distribution System (GDS) at the same time as your flight booking, saving you time and money and creating a seamless journey for you. 

Some examples could be Singapore Airlines (Singapore), Air China (Beijing), Emirates (Dubai) but always check with a travel agent for the latest information.

Three myths about the benefits of booking via a travel agent

As we have noted above there are times when it makes sense to book via a travel agency. But with the technological advances being made the marketplace is becoming much more competitive and difficult for the broad and general travel agent.

Whereas there still can be a place for skilled, experienced and specialized travel agencies the following myths are long gone as general truths,

They save you money

Generally speaking a travel agent will not save you money even though there are situations where it is true. 

A good travel agent will however not charge you more than you would pay directly and make a living from commissions from partners.

The problem for the general travel agent is that in the online marketplace many products are even offered below cost. And when you are too broad you will find it difficult to sell the volumes necessary with individual partners to benefit from preferential rates and conditions.

You get personal 24/7 service and support

This may or may not be true. But you need to verify before you assume that your travel agent offers 24/7 personal support and international contact numbers.

I would actually argue that 24/7 access across all time zones is one of the major selling points of airlines and major hotel providers.

Travel agents are specialists

Again, verify before you assume that your travel agent is a specialist.

And the word specialist is a really wide term. Booking a flight in the GDS requires skills and expertise and is in many ways not destination specific. There are commands that show availability, sell a seat and price the booking regardless of destination.

If you on the other hand are planning a trip to Europe, Singapore or Hawaii you would want a destination specialist. The flight would be a part of it but you would also want someone who has put together fantastic and successful trips in the past with rave reviews to prove it. 

The harsh reality for many travel agencies is that they have to serve the business that comes their way. And the whole situation surrounding Covid-19 has made the situation even worse.

And with this follows an industry with more travel generalists and fewer travel specialists and we are all poorer for it. 


Is it worth booking through a travel agent?

There are situations where you should contact your travel agent for a quote. Situations include when you are booking complicated trips, need expertise, qualify for special prices or book flights for large groups.  But generally speaking you will save money if you book yourself online.  

How do I know if a travel agency is legit?

Reputable travel agents are often members of international associations such as The International Air Transport Association (IATA), The American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) and The International Airlines Travel Agent Network (IATAN).  

Other warning signs can be travel agents wanting to be paid in cash. And always remember that if it sounds too good to be true – it probably is. Please do your homework and check before it is too late.

It is also advisable to visit online travel portals and read reviews. And if there are no reviews to read that should also tell you something.

Furthermore you can contact consumer protection agencies and ask for advice. 

And finally, if you are in doubt about the travel agent you are in contact with, please find another travel agent to work with. There are so many good and reputable travel agencies out there – there is no need to risk your hard earned money.

Book through travel agent vs online booking flights

When you are booking just flights you will most of the time save money booking online, There are some situations where a travel agent can be useful if you qualify for special prices or book larger groups of people. 

How much do travel agents make per booking?

A good and professional travel agent should be prepared to share fees charged. Ideally the travel agent will not charge you more than you pay directly and make a living from commissions from partners.

Is it cheaper to book flights online or with a travel agent?

In most cases it would be less expensive to book the flights online.

Meet the author: With more than 20 years experience from the travel industry, Mattias offers tips, expert advice and a unique perspective anchored in having worked with market leading cruise lines, tour operators, consolidators, airlines and hospitality suppliers. Read more..