These days, travel agents are becoming the exception rather than the rule when people with a trip in mind start planning their itineraries. Many a TA has bemoaned the fact that long-term clients only visit or call them now to get verification that the deals they’ve already found online are really the best deals.
This is not to say that travel agents are less competent or hard-working than they used to be, just that it’s usually cheaper, if not quicker or easier, to get the information you need online.
The caveat here is time: to track down the best rates and best deals, follow up on one-time special offers and keep up with constant changes resulting from circumstances beyond mortal control, like weather, it takes time and concentration. If you have a fairly simple itinerary, point A to point B and a single hotel for, example, you’ll probably do well booking your own reservations. Chances are you’ll save money, since many if not most travel agencies charge a fee of some sort for their services.
There are ‘experts’ on both sides of the fence, but there’s no question that for some people and some circumstances, going online and surfing the web for deals is the way to go. If you know precisely where you want to go, when you’re going and for how long, and how you’ll get around when you there, sites like Priceline and Hotwire can find discounts and special offers that a travel agent probably wouldn’t.
Once again, the main requirement for successful online booking is the ability and willingness to spend some serious time searching, re-searching and following up on sites that post travellers’ comments. The fact is that there’s an information overload in most cases – it’s really necessary to sift through a whole lot of data to pin down the cheapest rates that still offer at least reasonably good customer service.
Doing all the booking yourself means you won’t have to wait for a travel agent to do the research and call you back; TAs have more than one client and may not be at your beck and call when you want to ask questions or change something in your itinerary. Also, some travel agencies pay their agents on commission, so they are not as likely to search out the cheapest fares and rates. Most agents also charge a fee; it varies, but can amount to more than £100.
Online, you can book and confirm a low-priced fare or room as soon as you spot it, so if you’re lucky all the arrangements can be made at top speed and at the lowest price available. Many travel sites also offer a ‘price drop protection’ so if the price you paid is lowered after booking your price will be adjusted accordingly. Even better, by consulting a voucher site you can often get a few percent of the total price of your trip – for examples you check it out yourself.
If there’s a down side to online booking it’s the fact that you have to do all the research yourself, and if you’re an infrequent traveller hoping to book a complicated trip through several countries, it’s easy to get bogged down in the details. Another drawback is that even with the popularity of online booking, many hotels, airlines and other services will give priority to a booking that comes through a travel agency.
Many travel advisers suggest that a good travel agent can take most of the hassle out of planning your trip, not to mention being there as back-up if something unforeseen happens. If you run into problems mid-trip, a competent, experienced TA can usually solve them much more easily than you could expect to do on your own.