Planning a vacation can be as easy as finding an Uber in a foreign city. You can use the same website to book your flight, hotel and rental car and receive sightseeing recommendations from a single Google search.
Even though traveling has gotten easier doesn’t mean it’s gotten more economical. Booking a hotel can take five minutes, but reading hotel reviews and finding the one that fits your demands and your budget? That’s where it gets complicated. Where do the travel agent benefits outrank their more high-tech counterparts?
Travel agents carry personal connections to hotels, airlines and rental car carriers. Agents can ask for special upgrades or negotiate services within your living quarters that you might not be able to get yourself. Can an app tell the hotel you’re on your honeymoon and would like a free bottle of champagne? Or that it’s your first time in London and you want to see what pubs the locals recommend? Apps can do a lot of things (as you’ll see later), but perk searching is best left to humans.
Travel agents can also help you book an experience, not just a trip. Tell your agent the kind of vacation you’re looking for — a romantic getaway or a more active adventure — and they can advise you on which cities or countries would deliver.
The cost to hire a travel agent is typically minimal, as reported by CNN, as they make most of their money through commissions from the airlines, hotels and other companies they book you with. You might pay anywhere from $25 to a few hundred dollars in research fees for them to craft an itinerary, but because they can also save you cash on airfare, you may barely feel this cost. Nina Meyer of the American Society of Travel Agents has seen travelers save up to a thousand bucks on a single ticket.
So, is it worth it to hire a professional? That depends on how travel savvy you are and how much you value your time. If you have lots of frequent flyer points and miles, you may be able to find a better deal than a travel agent. However, travel agent benefits can be perfect for people kicking it abroad for the first time or those pursuing a destination off the beaten path.
Since many travel agents charge for the research involved in a client’s trip, you can save money by developing this yourself. Apps like TripIt offer the perfect template that you can populate based on the spots you’ve identified and the timeline of your getaway. It’s been used by countless travelers and even allows you to incorporate restaurant reservations (the reviews of which you can just as easily consult Yelp for).
Cheap lodging isn’t impossible without an agent either, especially if you want a less “touristy” experience. Airbnb and VRBO allow you to rent rooms and housing, respectively, while you’re on vacation — instead of asking a travel agent to find you a hotel. To book the cheapest trip possible, it may be best to steer clear of travel agents altogether, as they may not always be keyed into recently cleaned camping spots or decent hostels. Those who want to travel on a budget can use Hostelworld, a directory and app that helps you find the perfect accommodations.
Thankfully, the internet abounds with options for travel research. Travel books from Rick Steves and Fodor’s are still popular for a general overview of a region or city, but blogs and online forums such as Nomadic Matt and TripAdvisor have also become great ways to crowdsource information about a particular place.
Using a variety of sources can let you see what the common denominators are; the more opinions you get, the more informed you will be.
Don’t laugh, but Reddit’s subreddit, r/travel, is perfect for answers to questions asked by prospective travelers all over the world. The best answers are located to the top of the page, so you’ll only see the premium responses. The New York Times’ 36 Hours Series also explores how to make the best of only 36 hours in a city.
Hiring a travel agent depends on what kind of trip you want to plan. Before you can make that decision, figure out what experience you’re hoping for and what kind of budget you have.