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Why It Pays to Book With a Travel Agent

Booking a trip often proves to be an extremely stressful, grueling undertaking. You can spend hours online searching for deals on flights and hotels, bouncing from one website to another in pursuit of the perfect price. This kind of process is often headache-inducing: Approximately 20 percent of more than 2,000 travelers worldwide said it took them more than five hours to search and book travel online, according to a recent survey by the I.B.M. Institute for Business Value.

To avoid the hassle, some consumers are turning to travel agents. After suffering for years, the travel-agent industry is now experiencing substantial growth. Nearly 1 in 3 leisure agencies is hiring, according to PhoCusWright, a travel research firm. And the American Society of Travel Agents reports that 57 percent of independent agents saw an increase in business in 2011.

Faced with countless choices for flights, hotels, car rental, and tours, some consumers are dumping the DIY approach. "There are simply too many travel products in the market today for individuals to decipher on their own," says James Shillinglaw, editor-in-chief of Travalliancemedia, a media network for travel agencies. "You need a guide to help you cut through all the different things out there that are available."

"There's a difference between price and value," adds Arnie Weissmann, editor-in-chief of Travel Weekly, a newspaper that covers the travel industry. The more travelers realize that, he says, the more they're opting to use a travel agent. Here are six reasons to consider booking your next vacation with a travel agent:

Save time. An agent can save you time by vetting thousands of flight and hotel options to find the right fare at the lowest rate. "There's just a glut of information, and you need someone to make sense of it all," says John Peters of Tripology.com, a website that matches consumers to travel agents.

Stephanie Axelrod and her husband, who live in Fairfax, Va., used Tamalpais Travel to book a trip to Spain and Italy in 2010, and saved a lot of time in the process. "After we spent many hours on the Internet ourselves, we found using an agent made the whole experience more pleasant and less time-consuming," she says.

Save money. Some people shy away from using a travel agent because they think they'll be charged extra for the agent's services. Some agents charge additional fees (for example, a $25 fee for their time and research), but most make their commission through the travel suppliers. "You're going to get more value from your money booking with a travel agent," Peters says. Nina Meyer, president of the American Society of Travel Agents, says you can also save big on airfare with the right agent: "I have seen in the past people save anywhere from $500 to upwards of $1,000 on a ticket."

Axelrod says she and her husband found it difficult to find good flight deals on their own. "The travel agent was able to get deals we weren't able to find," she says.

Learn what you want. "Very often, people don't really know what kind of trip they want," Shillinglaw says. It's the travel agent's job to provide you with a number of options they think you'd enjoy. Not only will they help you book a trip, they'll help you build the trip.

Connections. Don't underestimate a travel agent's extensive Rolodex. Agents may have people on the ground who you can connect with, such as a local tour guide, as well as people you can reach out to if you encounter any problems. "Having access to a travel agent's insiders makes it just an overall better customer service experience than going at it alone," Peters says.

Kate Rice, who covers airlines for TravelPulse.com, says agents who book a lot of flights develop strong relationships with sales representatives. "That means they have double leverage that they can use on your behalf--the purchasing power of the agency group they're affiliated with, as well as the personal relationships they have with their sales reps," she says.

Authenticity. The right travel agent will enlighten you about trip options you may not be able to find online. "It's about knowing what the real local find is, whether that be a great dinner at a small café or tickets to a private show," Peters says. "When people travel, they don't want to travel like a tourist. So it's about the travel specialist being able to help people find unique life experiences that they'll remember."

Knowledge. Flawless travel plans lie in the details, and travel agents are experts when it comes to handling those details. "It could be a pretty picture, but what if there's construction going on? What if it's in a bad neighborhood?" says Meyer. "Agents have that kind of background knowledge."

Axelrod booked five of the eight hotels on her trip based on recommendations from the travel agent, but says she wishes she had booked all of the hotels through her agent. "This was the first time we had used a travel agent," she says. "In the future, I would take all of their advice, rather than just picking and choosing to save some money."

Troubleshooting. Despite extensive travel planning, you might encounter some bumps on your trip. Having a travel agent handle them for you can make your travel experience a lot less stressful. "In almost any rough situation, you need a travel agent," Meyer says. "I have clients who were going to miss a sports event because their flight got cancelled, but we still got them there." Says Weissman: "If the hotel room doesn't match your expectations and you don't have a travel agent, you're on your own."

Twitter: @danielbortz



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