Angie's List: When to use a travel agent

There was a time when all vacations were booked with a travel agent.

With the rise of the Internet, however, more and more people are now booking vacations themselves. But, by blindly booking online, you might be missing out on valuable services and savings.

Angie's List, the nation's leading provider of consumer reviews, spoke to several experienced travel agents across the country to find out how consulting with a travel agency can help you save money on your next vacation.

  • Expertise: Travel agents know the ins and outs of different destinations. They have a wealth of money-saving tips and tricks that you simply won't learn online. When you have a specific budget to work with, an agent can help you design a vacation within those parameters.
  • Not all agents charge fees: Using a travel agent usually costs the same or slightly more than booking a trip on your own. Travel agents are typically paid on commission by hotel groups, tour operators, cruise lines and other travel suppliers for selling their products, which means there's often little added cost for the consumer to book a trip.
  • Been there, done that: Most travel agents are experienced travelers themselves, and often times travel to the same destinations their clients will visit. They've been to places and can provide you the ins and outs of their experience.
  • More connections: Because they spend their time booking vacations and working with different resorts, travel agents have the resources to find the best bargains. They provide one-stop access for travel, accommodations and activities.
  • Offer flexibility: If you book online and there's a problem, it can be very difficult to get someone on the phone. Canceling a transaction or altering your travel itinerary may also be expensive if you booked a trip on your own, but an agent may be able to exercise their established relationship with contacts to adjust your bookings at a reduced fee or at no cost.
  • Knowledge is power: A good travel agent knows when the best times to travel are. Getting a good deal is great, but you don't want to be stuck in a hotel room the entire time because you booked during the rainy season. Agents keep up with what is going on around the world and can help you avoid areas or times that would prove to be less than desirable.

However, travel agencies also made Angie's Lists' "Most Complained about Categories" list for 2011. Common complaints with travel agents included travel agents who were unresponsive to calls/emails and/or difficult to reach, and travel agents who didn't honor contracts.

Here are some tips to make sure your dream vacation doesn't turn into a travel nightmare:

  • Seek out a specialist: If there is a specific region, country or cruise you want to visit, talk to an agent who has experience in those areas. Ask about their length of time as an agent and how often they travel to those areas. Do they plan all aspects of the trip?
  • Check credentials: An agent who has CTA (Certified Travel Associate) or CTC (Certified Travel Counselor) letters after his/her name has received professional training and been tested to achieve that level. An agent who has ACC (Accredited Cruise Counselor) or MCC (Master Cruise Counselor) letters indicates a tested level of expertise in cruise travel. Membership in the American Society of Travel Agents is also good as members must adhere to a strict code of ethics and are required to respond to consumer complaints or risk expulsion from the society.
  • How do you charge? While there are travel agents that work off commission paid by travel vendors, there are others who still charge service fees. Understand how the cost to use the agent works before you agree to work with one. And pay for your services with a credit card so you have some recourse in case there is a problem. Get confirmation numbers and documentation for all flights, hotels, transfers and tours.
  • Plan B: Ask for a backup plan if something on your itinerary falls through. How will your agent rectify the problem while you're away?
  • Do a little research: Even folks using a travel agent should perform some preliminary research (the Internet). Don't walk into a travel agency without knowing anything.
  • Be realistic: Be wary of unsolicited mailings, phone calls or emails. If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.