You want to plan a trip, but where do you start? Should you hire a travel advisor or go it alone?
Answering that question used to be easy. You picked up a phone and called your travel agent. Today, agents are advisors (more on that in a minute), and almost every trip starts online. How do you navigate this new world of travel?
Here’s everything you need to know about planning a trip.
A travel advisor is a seller of travel and tourism services on behalf of airlines, car rental companies, cruise lines, hotels, railways, and tour packagers.
In 2018, the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) announced that it had rebranded as the American Society of Travel Advisors. It’s a nod to the transition from order-takers to travel experts. However, many veteran advisors still refer to themselves as agents. We’ll use the terms interchangeably in this article.
A bricks-and-mortar agency is one that relies on a person for most transactions. An online travel agency (OTA) is largely automated and conducts most of its transactions online.
Human travel advisors cringe when you refer to a site like Orbitz as an “online” travel advisor. They also draw distinctions between the terms “travel agent,” “travel advisor,” and “travel counselor.” These labels are meaningless to most travelers. I’m sticking to the basic “travel advisor” term to describe a human agent and “online travel agency,” or OTA, to describe a site.
You should definitely consider planning your trip using a travel advisor if the following are true:
- When you want a professional to assist you with your travel arrangements. That’s particularly true during a time of crisis, like post-9/11 or post-pandemic.
- If you don’t have the time to pull together a complex itinerary and need a person to do it for you, or if you need someone to help you while you’re on the road.
- If you want access to special fares or prices that only an agent has, or if you need the expertise of an agent for a special event or trip, like a destination honeymoon or anniversary cruise. (Note: these special rates are not always the cheapest. Be sure to shop around and compare prices.)
Travelers who act as their own agents are known as DIYers, or Do-It-Yourselfers. For independent travelers, being a DIYer is a point of pride. But among travel advisors, DIYer is often a term of derision. These travelers they make rookie mistakes, like booking the wrong dates, or forgetting their visas. They also cut out a person or company that could potentially help them if they have a problem.
- A direct self-booking means you’re dealing with the company, which is to say you’re buying a ticket directly online, on the phone, or in person. You might still have the protection offered by your credit card, but there’s no intermediary handling or processing the transaction. You’re flying solo.
- Booking through an online travel agency means you’re buying travel through a third party, usually a website like Expedia, Orbitz, or Travelocity. It’s similar to a self-booking in that it’s fairly automated, but there’s a company acting as an intermediary. That can be helpful. (It can also be detrimental. For example, if there is a last-minute problem with an airline ticket, the company through which you booked the ticket must actually make any changes. If you booked the fare yourself, you can make the necessary changes.)
- If it’s a simple transaction, like buying a train ticket, a point-to-point plane ticket, or a hotel room.
- If you enjoy researching the best deals and like the flexibility of being able to book your trip whenever you want to, even at 3 a.m., in your pajamas.
- When you know enough about a destination or a product that you don’t require the advice of an expert, and can easily resolve any disputes directly with the airline, car rental company, cruise line, or hotel.
Human travel advisors remain an excellent resource for travel information, special offers, and recommendations. An agent can either work for a large, established agency, such as American Express, AAA Travel, or Travel Leaders, or they can work as freelancers. Collaboration is also key when it comes to using a professional travel advisor. A good travel advisor will offer advice, advocacy, access and accountability.
When you need to talk to a person
Many travel advisors have real offices (bricks-and-mortar agencies) with real office hours, and you can make an appointment to speak with one. Some agencies with retail storefronts are capable of offering services like 24-hour assistance, which is more typically associated with large corporations that have call centers. If you like doing business with a person you’ve met, a human travel advisor is a terrific option. Note: Some agents work remotely, also known as a home-based agent. If that person lives close by, they can arrange to meet you if you need to discuss your travel plans in person.
When you require highly specialized advice
The best travel advisors spend a career honing their expertise on particular geographic areas and forms of travel. Look for certificates offered by organizations such as The Travel Institute, which not only certifies the agent’s expertise but also refers you to an agent with the know-how you need.
If you have a unique interest
Need to plan a special trip? Chances are, there’s an agent that specializes in the kind of vacation you’re hoping to book, from a cruise to a theme park. For example, if you’re into luxury travel, you’ll want to check out an agent belonging to the Virtuoso agency network or Signature Travel Network. Other agents specialize in disability travel (look for membership in the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality).
Look for an affiliation with a trusted brand. If you see a AAA or American Express logo on the door, that’s a good sign. It adds a layer of accountability to the process, and may give you access to additional resources that a no-name agency might not have, such as a 24-hour phone number to call if you get into trouble. More importantly, you can appeal any decisions a corporate office has made, if necessary.
Ask for references
A competent travel advisor should be happy to provide you with a list of other clients and their phone numbers. The agent may have to ask for permission from them before handing out their numbers. At the very least, they should be able to offer credible testimonials from past clients.
Verify their professional memberships
Most legitimate travel agencies belong to either the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) or the Association of Retail Travel Agents (ARTA). These memberships signal that your travel advisor considers himself or herself to be part of the agency community, and holds to certain baseline ethical and business standards.
Look for their accreditations
Two main “degrees” are used to certify travel agency expertise. The Certified Travel Associate (CTA) is a designation for agents in selling, customer service, and communication, and doesn’t require any previous experience. The Certified Travel Counselor (CTC) designation is for agents with at least five years of experience, and focuses on leadership, business development and management skills. If your agent has a CTA or CTC designation, it’s a good sign.
Ask to see their Seller of Travel number
Many states require all sellers of travel to register with the Attorney General’s office and to display the registration number on all advertising. That’s no guarantee that the company is reputable, but a lack of a valid registration can mean trouble. California has some of the strictest rules when it comes to sellers of travel. Ask to see the travel’s registration acknowledgment, a one-page document issued by the California Attorney General’s Seller of Travel Registration Unit. You can also find information about registered companies through California’s Department of Justice website.
Check their ratings
Individual travel agency businesses are often rated by their customers on the BBB site. While BBB ratings can be manipulated, and often favor the business, a low or failing grade can be a sign that the agency with which you’re thinking of booking a trip won’t meet your expectations. Note: Don’t be suspicious just because an agency doesn’t have a BBB rating. After all, you have to pay to belong to the BBB. But if it has a bad rating, then of course it is suspicious.
Do a gut check
You know if you like someone. If you feel “off” or just disconnected from the agent, look elsewhere. You are preparing to spend a lot of money for a bucket-list vacation, and you need to have someone helping you who is on the same page.
Ah, travel advisors and their acronyms. When it comes to cruise industry accreditations, that’s particularly true. For example, if you are considering a cruise, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) is the primary accreditation organization. It certifies members based on years of experience, comprehensive testing, and ship visits. The Accredited Cruise Counselor (ACC) is the first step, followed by the Master Cruise Counselor (MCC), and then the Elite Cruise Counselor (ECC). ASTA also certifies agents for specific destinations as Destination Specialists (DS), or for specific lifestyles (LGBT or elder travel) as Lifestyle Specialists (LS). (Don’t forget to check out our ultimate guide to cruises)
Some agencies cater to a very specific market or niche. If the storefront is in another language, and the people at the front desk don’t speak your language, you’ve probably stumbled onto one of those agencies. Note: If you’re traveling to that country, it may still be a great deal — some of these agencies offer low “bulk” airfares to certain destinations — but it’s probably not the place to go to book your honeymoon.
The agent doesn’t listen
Travel advisors should work for you, so when one doesn’t listen to your wants and needs, and tries to book a vacation that isn’t right for you, maybe it’s time to look elsewhere. More on that in a minute.
The agent is “certified” through an organization you don’t recognize
Some unscrupulous organizations allow anyone to buy a certification without any training or knowledge. If you see a certification you don’t recognize, find out if anyone can buy their way into the program. If that’s the case, don’t walk away, run!
Always ask about the cost of an agent before you start planning. Many upscale agencies may charge by the hour or a percentage of the overall sale, and a few even require a retainer before they will provide you full access to their services. (They’re advisors now — get used to it!) Many will charge a plan-to-go fee, which is often waived when you book your travel. Such fees ensure “tire kickers” don’t eat up valuable agent time. Find out before you sit down to plan your dream vacation.
A travel advisor’s advice isn’t free, even if you don’t pay anything for it upfront. It helps to understand how your travel advisor is paid.
When you buy something through an agent, you will probably pay a transaction fee of anywhere between $50 and $100, depending on the type of booking. This covers only a fraction of the agent’s actual costs. As a result, the agent’s loyalties rest primarily with the travel companies with which they book, rather than with you, the client.
By the travel companies
Airlines, car rental companies, cruise lines, and hotels sometimes compensate your agent with various types of commissions and bonuses. They can range from an outright sales commission of 5 and 12 percent (and sometimes higher) to a bonus for exceeding a sales quota.
You can ask your travel advisor about his or her compensation, and some will tell you. Others feel that their actual remuneration — at least the part that comes from a hotel or cruise line — is none of your business, and they might be offended if you persist in asking. But who pays your agent is important, because it means your agent probably is beholden to that entity. A great agent is not a slave to commissions. That person wants happy, repeat clients, who will spread the word to family and friends, leading to more business. But mediocre agents will follow the money — and chances are, you’re not paying them enough to ensure their loyalty.
Travel advisors can be swayed in the same way you are — by ads in trade magazines, by user-generated reviews and by word-of-mouth recommendations. Be wary of buying products that may benefit the agent, but not you.
For example, many large agencies have preferred-supplier agreements that mandate agents book with a certain airline or hotel. These arrangements are supposed to benefit everyone. The agents are rewarded for sending a lot of business to one company, and the company reciprocates by offering a lower rate. But it isn’t always a win-win. The best agents simply ignore these policies and try to find their clients the best travel product, which is as it should be.
Travel advisors are sometimes invited on familiarization trips (FAMs) or all-expenses-paid visits to a place for “familiarization” purposes. While they can make your agent more knowledgeable about a destination, they may also unduly influence a travel professional’s recommendations. After all, who wouldn’t want to repay their generous hosts? (Travel writers who accept “comped” trips face similar pressures, but that’s another discussion.)
Even if your agent skips the FAM, there are other ways of influencing a professional. Destinations and the suppliers of products are known to throw big parties, where there’s plenty of free food and booze, in an effort to curry favor with agents. It doesn’t always work, and the best agents take the free shrimp and Chardonnay and then do what’s best for you. But as a practical matter, FAMs and receptions can predispose less ethical agents to recommending a particular property or product.
In the end, none of this may matter. If you book a vacation that you didn’t like, you have the option of not using that travel advisor the next time you need to go somewhere. The threat of you taking your business elsewhere is a powerful incentive to keep an agent focused on keeping you happy.
- A competent agent should be available to you before and during the booking to answer any questions about your upcoming trip. The agent should also be available after your trip if you have any questions.
- A reliable travel advisor should be able to keep you posted on any deadlines for making payments and getting the necessary paperwork to travel. However, you alone are responsible for meeting all those requirements, not your agent.
- A good travel advisor should support you during your trip, if not with a 24-hour phone number you can call, then by phone or email, during regular office hours. It is reasonable to expect an agent to help you when something goes wrong while you’re on your trip, instead of pushing you off on the airline or cruise line. Remember: Your agent is being compensated for this work. The top agents monitor the progress of your trip and fix problems before they happen. If you find one that does, you’ve got a keeper.
A dispute with a travel advisor can quickly turn into a personal conflict. If you’ve chosen the right agent, then that person should have something called Errors and Omissions insurance to protect them — and you — from problems like a name or date typed into the reservation system incorrectly.
If you have a problem with an agent, go to the person first, and try to resolve it. Why? Because it gives the agent through whom you made the purchase a chance to fix the problem. Some travel companies will only deal with the agent on a reservation, so it may be impossible for you to fix the problem by dealing directly with the company.
Remember these essential strategies:
- The sooner you say something, the better.
- Put your grievance in writing if it can’t be fixed quickly.
- Politely appeal to a manager or supervisor.
What are your remedies with a travel advisor?
With a travel advisor, you have several remedies at your disposal that you don’t when you’re at odds with a travel company. For example: the threat of taking an agent to small-claims court can help move your problem closer to a resolution. Some states, notably California, also require travel sellers to be licensed. Reporting an agent to state regulators can also persuade him or her to find a fix. As a last-ditch effort, you can dispute your credit card charge, or report the agent to his or her trade group. Organizations such as ASTA have ethics codes that, if you can show they were violated, could result in disciplinary action being taken against the agent. Normally, ASTA doesn’t remove agents for disciplinary issues, it just fails to approve their membership renewal.
Competent travel advisors are worth their weight in gold. They know how you like to travel, and can anticipate your needs before you ask. In the rare event they make a mistake, it’s fixed quickly and without costing you anything extra. But finding a great agent can be a challenge. In a world where agents are being swayed by bonuses, commissions, and free trips, some are in the business for all the wrong reasons. If you have the misfortune of working with a bad agent, it probably goes without saying that you are better off on your own.
Most travelers don’t distinguish between self-booking — dealing directly with a travel company — and booking a trip through an online travel agency. Indeed, human travel advisors often refer to online agencies as vending machines for travel. I’m going to handle independent bookings together in the following section because they are functionally similar. Where there are differences, I’ll point them out.
Online agencies (OTAs) like Expedia and Priceline can be an attractive option for travelers who are comfortable booking online, even if they have a minimal level of knowledge about the travel industry. Among the benefits:
- Access to almost-real-time airfares and hotel rates. No need to call a travel advisor and ask for a fare quote.
- The ability to package airline tickets, hotel accommodations, and hotels in one place.
- Aggressive discounts on travel products thanks to the agencies’ economies of scale. OTAs will buy blocks of rooms or flights at deep discounts and then resell them to you.
Without an agent to help you through the process, you could make one of several rookie mistakes when buying travel. Here are the most common ones, and how to prevent them.
Wrong date or time
An easy mistake to make, and far too common. The pull-down menus can be confusing, especially if you’re dealing with a European site, which formats Year-Month-Day instead of Month-Day-Year. Foreign calendars also often group Saturday and Sunday at the end of the week, so it’s easy to click on a square you believe is Friday and have it actually be Saturday. Also, remember that when you’re booking a hotel, you’re checking in one day but spending the night, so you’re staying until the next day. Also, DIYers frequently confuse a.m. and p.m. A 24-hour clock can confuse them, too. (See: My flight was on time — so how did I arrive on the wrong day?)
The fix: Verify your times, dates and airports before and after you click the “buy” button. Under federal rules, you normally have 24 hours to cancel your airline ticket (unless you’re within seven days of departure).
Incorrect name on a reservation
If you can’t spell your name right, you probably shouldn’t be anywhere near a computer. Remember, the name on your airline ticket must be an exact match. “Frank” instead of “Francis” or “Bob” instead of “Robert” could screw up your vacation. If you’re traveling internationally, the name on the ticket must match your passport exactly (Here’s what happens when the name on your ticket doesn’t match your passport).
The fix: Double-check the name on your itinerary before and after you click the “buy” button.
Not shopping around
One of the biggest benefits of using a website to buy travel is that you can compare prices. If you’re pressed for time — and if you don’t really care how much money you spend — then find a travel advisor, and let that person book the most convenient itinerary. Otherwise, you owe it to yourself to check multiple sites for the best bargain. Certainly the three major OTAs, but also a site like Kayak.com, which searches multiple sites for the best deal.
The fix: If you’re booking yourself, do your homework. Visit at least one competing website (and preferably two) before making a booking decision.
Not doing basic trip research
When you book something online, everything is up to you. That includes not only passports and visas, but also ensuring your own security. A travel advisor can help guide you through these essential aspects of your trip, but when you self-book, you’re entirely alone.
The fix: If you’re not prepared to at least look up your visa requirements, and consult the State Department site to ensure your safety, maybe you should use an agent.
Failing to read the terms of your purchase
If you’re booking online and directly through a company, the terms will be available on its website. Airlines have a contract of carriage, and cruise lines and hotels have a ticket contract, both of which can be found online. They outline your rights to a refund, and the terms of your purchase. Similarly, your OTA has terms and conditions that outline what it will, and won’t, do for you. Finally, each purchase may come with its own terms, which are displayed before you book.
The fix: Read everything. If you don’t, you could be surprised by what’s in it.
Yes. Although the major online travel agencies deny they do this, the technology exists to use your browsing history to show you a higher (or lower) price, based on your past online behavior. Don’t let that happen. Always clear that data by erasing the “cookies” on your web browser, or by browsing anonymously.
A lot more than you think. Don’t assume you know the three-letter airport code, because chances are, you’ll get it wrong. Even professional travel advisors sometimes do. For example, what’s the airport code for Chicago’s airport? Did you say CHI? Sorry, that belongs to Chaoyang Airport in China. Chicago’s is actually ORD. No, that’s not Orlando’s city code. Orlando’s is MCO. Told you it was confusing. Look it up, or you could end up at the wrong place.
Even though online travel agencies would like you to believe you’re receiving all of the benefits of working through a travel advisor, the truth is slightly more complicated. OTAs are large organizations that can offer some of the benefits of a human agent, but not all. Here are a few key differences:
It’s optimized for making online purchases unassisted
The online agency — as the name implies — is meant to be used online. Call an OTA, and you are asking for trouble. I’ve handled far too many “wrong name” cases that were the result of a language barrier involving an offshore phone agent or poor phone reception. At the same time, automation can be your friend. Many online agencies have superior notification systems to let you know when your reservation changes. They can be better than an agent — when they work.
It’s a bureaucracy
The major OTAs are huge companies with international footprints. While that can be a good thing when the company is trying to negotiate a volume discount for its customers, it can be a disadvantage when you’re looking for personal attention, or even a quick refund.
Additional restrictions may apply
Don’t assume that the terms of a purchase made directly through a travel company will be the same when you book through an online travel agency. This is particularly true for so-called opaque sites like Hotwire and Priceline. Those purchases are generally nonrefundable.
So, why use an online agency? Because technically, you still have the ability to call on your OTA to advocate for you when something goes wrong. For many travelers, it’s like having the best of both worlds: a large company that can negotiate aggressive discounts and be in your corner if something goes wrong.Still, we mediate many cases where the system doesn’t work and customers are stranded at the airport without flights.
Increasingly, travel companies want you to buy their product directly through their website, or at a ticket counter. This reduces their expenses — there’s no need to pay a fee or commission — and gives them access to your personal information and spending data. That’s worth a lot to them. Here are a few more issues you should know about before booking directly.
You’re the “perfect” customer
Let’s not kid ourselves: Someone who cuts out the middleman is the ideal customer. You should expect anything from bonus miles to preferred seating or room assignments for bypassing an agent, and if not, then at least a big “thank you.”
The information comes from a “firsthand” source
When you deal directly with a travel company, they’re responsible for providing you with accurate information about your purchase. No blaming the travel advisor. So, in a sense, the reservation numbers or record locators you receive from the company are slightly more reliable than when they come from a third party.
Got a problem?
Only one place to go. Yep, that’s right. If something goes wrong, you can’t lean on your travel advisor or OTA. You’ll have to go directly to the company. As a last resort, you can always dispute your credit card charge.
Online travel agencies have sophisticated “customer service” departments designed to send form responses or read scripted responses over the phone. Cutting through these “I can’t help you” divisions is sometimes a challenge. Don’t get me wrong: Many common problems can be resolved by phoning your OTA. For example, if you’ve made a booking error, or your flight’s been canceled, calling your online agent is absolutely fine.
Get everything in writing
OTAs do record some of their calls for “quality assurance purposes” but they don’t make the recordings available to you. Get a record of your communication in writing. For more information on the dispute resolution process and blazing a paper trail, see this guide on fixing any consumer dispute.
The companies are keeping records. The OTAs record every keystroke, and if necessary, can provide screenshots that show your reservation. If you want to protect yourself, you have to be vigilant, too. Record everything.
Don’t take “no” for an answer
Often, when you ask to escalate something to a manager, they’ll tell you it’s impossible to appeal something. That’s nonsense. We list the names of the top executives for the major OTAs on this site. Failing that, you can always dispute your credit card charge — if you paid with a credit card.
These tips should get you well on your way to a successful trip. Bon voyage!