Before airline deregulation and the Internet, many used local travel agencies to book air, ship, and ground transportation and accommodations. It didn’t cost anything, and it solved the hassle of dealing with individual travel providers. The Christian Science Monitor reports that the Airline Deregulation Act allowed individual airlines to set (lower) commission rates for travel agents. Then the Internet introduced mega-agencies such as Expedia, and the once ubiquitous corner travel agency disappeared from the landscape. Travel is one of the many activities you have more time to enjoy as a senior, and it’s important to know where to get the best deals.
We’ll look at five bits of “conventional wisdom” surrounding agencies and help you discern fact from fiction. Then we’ll put it all into practice.
1. You’ll Get the Best Price Though Travel Agencies
Half-truth. Ka-ching — that’s the sound of convenience costing you money. The Economist explains that agencies are middlemen, which can add a layer of cost. However, when agencies buy in bulk, you can save money.
2. Travel Agencies Have Access to Everything
Not true. The Denver Post reported in February 2013 that Frontier Airlines has dropped out of Expedia and now “punishes” you for booking anywhere other than through their site. You can’t get an advanced seat assignment or other courtesies unless you book directly through Frontier.
Southwest has never sold tickets through online agencies.
3. Travel Agencies Get the Best Hotel Rooms for the Money
Probably not. 50plus Senior News reports that hotels reward customer loyalty. Join their rewards program before booking a room. You often get a better discount and a room upgrade with your loyalty card if you contact the hotel instead of booking through a travel agent.
4. You Might Not Get What the Travel Agencies Promise
True — BUT… Agencies sometimes over-promise and under-deliver, but the “fault” can lie anywhere on the food chain. However, the agency usually gets the blame.
5. Agencies Charge Hidden Fees to Recoup Lost Commissions
True — sort of. USA Today says fees are the norm but also says that customers should pay no more than if they pieced the trip together on their own because the agencies buy in bulk and receive discounts, etc.
What Does It Mean?
You can use travel agencies to your advantage and avoid them when there’s no advantage. How?
- Check hotel and airline prices online for reference. Then call the hotel and airline to compare prices. Always ask for the lowest possible price and/or special, hidden, or time-limited discounts.
- Use an agency to book an escorted trip. When the agency buys in bulk and handles all the details, you’ll likely get a better price than if you pieced it all together yourself — assuming you want to take advantage of everything on the itinerary. Frommers.com lists some of the largest and most reputable agencies offering escorted tours.
- Trust but verify. Travel agents dispense travel and destination information, which you can verify through user reviews at TripAdvisor. You don’t have to take an agency’s word for anything when you can verify the information with people who have “been there and done that.”
Bottom line: Travel agencies are in business to provide a service and make money. They do provide a valuable service; however, the Internet has partially replaced the (human) agent as the go-to source for travel information. If you want to do your own research and act as your own agent, you can. Today, the choice is yours.