Be Your Own Travel Agent

Posted by Brette in Travel

I used to do all the planning for our trips myself. In recent years I got away from this and relied on a travel agent to help me. I guess I felt intimidated by international travel and thought that somehow travel agents could get me a better deal. Well, I recently broke up with my travel agent and it was the best thing I ever did.

Travel Agents Aren’t Free

Although you usually do not have to pay your travel agent directly (some agencies do charge a fee however), you are actually paying for the service. I was a bit shocked at how much I saved when I planned a trip on my own. For our upcoming trip, I was working with a travel agent who was farming the planning out to a travel service that has “relationships” with hotels in the area we are traveling to. I thought that meant I would get a better deal. Wrong. Before the break up, this service had almost completely planned my entire trip (based on my requests), so I had a list of where I wanted to stay and how much the service was charging me  in total (and no, I did not use them to get this list – they simply were unable to understand or accommodate the things that were important to us so I had to say goodbye even though the trip was nearly entirely planned and frankly I had to suggest most of the hotels on the list myself). I booked us at many of the places on this list and also choose some hotels that were much more expensive than the ones selected by the service (ants in the beds and rusty shower fixtures don’t work for me – part of the reason their service no longer was meeting my needs) and my total came in thousands of dollars less. Yes, that’s right. I still don’t know how this could be possible, but I assure you our hotels are nicer and we’ve saved a bundle.


Travel Agents Aren’t Picky

When you book through a travel agent, it’s unlikely they are going to investigate a hotel as carefully as you might. In fact, you can learn more from a site like TripAdvisor about a hotel than you can from your travel agent. Their job is to find the rate and meet your basic specs, not evaluate whether the staff is rude, how clean the rooms are, and whether the breakfast is any good. I relied on guidebooks and Tripadvisor to narrow down my choices and make my selections. When you use TripAdvisor, read all the reviews but also be sure to look first at the professional photos and then at the traveler photos. If the two sets of photos barely resemble each other, this is a red flag! These photos often will show you problems that will turn you off, such as dingy rooms, outdated decor, and unpleasant bathrooms.

I have a child who is uncomfortable flying, so airplane seat arrangements and positioning is absolutely key for us. Really, the only person who can truly book a flight for us while taking all of our requirements into consideration is me. We have been burned a couple of times and learned our lesson on this one, so travel agents weren’t of much help to me with flights.


Go to the Source

When your travel agent books you through a travel service, you’re two people removed from the action and it’s like a game of telephone. All of the information will be muddled by the time it gets to you.

The best way to book a hotel room is directly through the hotel in question. You can go back and forth with an agent about room size, size of bed, location of hotel, what exactly is included, etc. and still never really know what you’re getting. Email or call the hotel yourself and ask everything you need to know. You’re likely to get a better deal if you deal with them directly than if you use their main booking site. Even if you’re traveling to another country, you can still contact them yourself. We have found that email works perfectly well – they either translate it or have someone on staff who speaks English.

The best way to get the details on a flight is to talk directly to an airline. Use booking services to determine the cheapest flight then go to the airline yourself and ask all the questions you need to about seating, positioning, and comfort. Last summer we flew to Italy with metal boxes underneath the seats in front of us – they are part of the entertainment system. I have vowed never to let that happen again – we could not stretch our legs in front of us or stow anything under the seat in front of us. It was incredibly uncomfortable. The airline is the only one who can tell me if the seat I am considering has that issue.

Travel Agents Haven’t Been There

While a lot of travel agents are well-traveled and there are some who specialize in certain destinations they are very familiar with, it’s likely your travel agent hasn’t been where you want to go. Therefore, he or she doesn’t know where the ideal spot for your hotel is, how many days you should spend there, where the seedy parts of town are, and more. You can determine all of this yourself if you read guidebooks and web sites and get advice from people who have actually been there. It’s tempting to feel as though your travel agent is an expert, but unfortunately many are just experts at using booking systems on their computers.

Cut Out the Extras You Don’t Want

When you book a trip yourself, you book only what you want. The travel services who have booked our previous trips were always adding in tours, meals, and passes we didn’t want and didn’t need. I always weeded these things out, but somehow the pricing never really reflected those removals at the bottom line. It is also much more inexpensive to arrange your own transportation. Yes, it’s cute to get off the plane and have someone holding a sign with your name on it, but chances are you can find the taxis yourself, and you’ll pay MUCH less. It’s nice to get a printed itinerary that lists everything you want to do and everywhere you want to go, but you’re paying someone to book those things for you. Book it yourself for much less and type up the itinerary yourself. You can book “skip the line” tours online directly through the place you are visiting or using an online booking service and you avoid paying the middle man.

Trust Your Own Judgment

In the past I accepted some hotel bookings I had questions about because I felt as though the travel service must know something I didn’t. I was wrong. The hotel that I worried was possibly too far from the center of the city was actually an ungodly walk. The hotel that looked a little dated online had beds from the Stone Age (when they were made of rocks, apparently) and extremely outdated fixtures. The limited options I was given for tours was too limited and I would have been better booking it myself with a guide who offered exactly what I wanted. I’ve learned to listen to myself.

Not a Bash on Agents

None of this is meant as a bash on travel agents. I know and respect several, but have learned that for the most part, I do better when I take things into my own hands. If you don’t have the time or inclination to do your own research, definitely use a travel agent or travel service.

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14 Responses

  • I thought of getting a travel agent this year, so I’m glad to hear your remarks. I booked Icelandair, through the Icelandair Web site, and got a hotel for our last night in Sweden near the airport at a cheaper rate, since I went through this Web site. (Two years ago when I booked through Expedia for my hubby, they put him in a cheap room above a disco. Not acceptable!)

  • I haven’t used a travel agent for about 25 years. When both my husband and I were working at more than full time jobs and really did not have the time for research–and before the Internet–it made some sense. Besides, I like the thrill of the hunt! Tip: you can get the absolutely BEST advice by hanging out on the Fodor’s travel boards and asking people who’ve been there recently for advice.

  • I think it depends on where you are going and what you’ll be doing, and the quality of the agent. Would I use a travel agent to plan a road trip or the typical jaunt to Europe? No.

    Would I use a travel agent to book a luxury cruise, South African safari or similarly expensive trip? Absolutely yes. But not just any travel agent. I would use one who is an expert in THE cruise line I want to book or THE experience that I’m seeking. My travel agent will not represent any cruise line that she hasn’t traveled on herself. She knows the pitfalls, the cabins to avoid but can also provide extras as a high-selling agent of that line. When she started selling luxury South African safaris, she stayed at every property she intended to represent. My travel agent has saved me money, secured special perks and watched my back when I had to negotiate a medical emergency overseas.

    And be especially careful using online booking agents such as Travelocity, Priceline, Expedia, etc. They have their place, but it depends on the trip. And if something goes wrong with your flight, hotel room, etc., you are on your own. Oh, and that room with the view, you’re not likely to be booked in that one.

  • I would have to say you didn’t have a very good travel agent if they didn’t research the hotel room cleanliness, staff, location and any other important detail.

    There are agents who specialize in a destination and those are who you should be using not a generic travel agent. There is no way anyone can know the ins and outs of every destination so specialization is key.

    I agree with Donna, using an agent is dependent on the person, destination and mode of transportation. I don’t usually use travel agents but thats because I’m very comfortable doing research myself but there are destinations where I would feel more comfortable using an agent that specializes in that country.

    I also would not use an agent for air. There is no money in it for them and it is much easier to do the research myself. That said, a specialist might know of low cost airlines in-country that I’m not aware of.

  • Brette says:

    I had a bad experience with a site similar to Expedia. It’s not worth the little bit they save you in my opinion. I like dealing directly with the hotel and being able to have input on which room I get.

  • Brette says:

    I agree I would use one for something very specialized like a safari or a cruise. But for regular air and hotel? Never again.

  • Brette says:

    The agent assured met that the company she was using had specific relationships with certain hotels and knew them well. I did not find this to be the case – at least not to my standards.

    I spent some time talking with agent who was a specialist in one specific country, however it became clear to me that his preferences and opinions did not coincide with mine at all. If I’m booking hotels, I think I am going to be a much better judge of what works for me than someone else, unless I’m looking to book something very unusual and difficult to find.

  • I’m with you about planning your own trip–it definitely take more time, but I think you get more of the experience you want. Travel agents seem to be a dying breed anyway–do you find that to be the case?

  • Brette says:

    There seem to be a lot of travel agents who book cruises, but I couldn’t really find anyone who could really do more, unless you pull out the list from Travel & Leisure magazine of the agents who specialize in destinations and charge fees to even talk to you. My parents have someone they have used to book European tours and who has personally been to many luxury hotels and locations. I contacted her and once I told her the price range for my trip (not in the luxury range!), she wasn’t interested in talking to me.

  • Interesting perspectives. I always thought a travel agent has more time/access to all the best deals and features that we might otherwise not know about

  • Brette says:

    I did too. I think the problem here was I was being booked through a travel service that purported to have connections in the area. They were putting together a package offering. I am still scratching my head at the huge price difference, but I think they were tacking on a profit. The better deals for hotels are found directly through the hotel. IF there’s a travel agent, they have to get a cut somehow.

  • Brette says:

    I have to add one more thing to this. We finally got our next trip completely planned (it was complicated with study abroad plans for my daughter which took forever to coordinate with the school). I have realized that our previous travel agent was using a travel service to book everything. I think the service would buy or have access to a certain number of plane seats. So we were always being pressured that the flights were going to sell out and there weren’t many to choose from and we had to HURRY to book. That was not the case with the flights we just booked. Lots of seats available. It also explains to me why we always ended up stuck in the back of the plane. NEVER AGAIN.

  • When we were going to Bali a number of years ago, I asked my friend the travel agent to help. She was 3X’s more expensive than what I could do on my own. I haven’t actually used a travel agent since 1994-before the Internet. It takes time, but usually I’m ok.

  • Brette says:

    That’s a big savings. Apparently there is a lot of money to be saved if you plan for yourself.