By Anne Roderique-Jones
A travel agent can be a great resource. But some may pressure you into booking less-than-stellar vacations or get you to spend more than necessary to up their take-home pay. We got the inside scoop on travel agents' secrets and found ways to help you save on vacations, book more easily and enrich your trip experience. Read on so you can go into a travel agency with eyes wide open. Photo by Getty Images
1. They're making major commission…
…and maybe even a bonus for booking your travel. This means they're trying to influence your vacation decisions based on perks on offer at that particular time. "If the agent seems to be pushing a particular cruise line, resort or destination, there's usually a reason: a higher commission, a contest for a cash bonus or even a prize if she sells that product," says Donna Cambridge, co-owner of Chesterfield Cruise & Travel in Springfield, MO. "I once won a fur coat by selling an Alaskan cruise!" Wendy Stone, a home-based travel agent in Kansas City, KS, adds, "Airlines no longer pay commission, so most travel agencies add a booking fee to the traveler's total cost for air-only reservations. That's how they make money and compensate for their time."
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2. They can't book (or price) all airline carriers.
Have your heart set on a particular airline to earn frequent-flier miles or take advantage of their great amenities? Your travel agent may not be able to book seats on certain carriers without booking a whole vacation package, says Stone. Travel agents are required to have an International Air Transport Association (IATA) or Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) number to book airlines through their booking source, which gives them direct access to the airline's inventory. However, not all airlines (such as Southwest and a few other smaller, regional carriers) are on these booking engines. For an agent to book, say, a Southwest ticket and get paid for it, they go through a third party that allows them only to book vacation packages, likely with a hotel. And there's not much advantage to booking a package with a travel agent over booking online.
3. They may not have been to the hotel or on the cruise ship they're recommending.
Some pros may fib about their travels to close a sale. "Agents untruthfully telling clients that they've sailed on a particular cruise ship because it's more expensive or stayed at a certain pricier resort is common," says Cambridge. Stone explains that reputable agencies encourage their employees to take "familiarization (FAM) trips" which allow the agent to learn about a destination at a deeply discounted rate. She suggests asking about recent FAM trips your agent's taken to learn which destinations and accommodations she truly knows well.
4. Be flexible with travel dates and airports.
Being open about when you fly and where you fly into can slash your trip costs. But your savings mean less commission for some travel agents, so they may not suggest being flexible. Jaime Freedman, Group Publisher at Travelzoo.com, suggests "being your own travel agent." Visit sites like Fly.com and Kayak.com, plug in dates you're willing to travel and airports you're willing to depart from and arrive in and you just may spend less than you thought you would on your vacation.
5. Travel insurance may not be necessary.
Travel agents push insurance because it increases the price of the vacation package-and thus, their commission. Yet, if you have health insurance, you're most likely covered for overseas travel. And many credit card companies cover the costs of lost baggage, canceled trips, emergency assistance and accidental death or dismemberment. It pays (literally) to check with your health-insurance and credit card companies before you buy travel insurance.
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6. They're best for milestone trips.
It's easy to book yourself a quick flight from New York City to Dallas, but going through an agent for a special vacation can make or break your trip. That's because good agents have networks of reliable vendors in certain destinations, getting their clients VIP treatment and ensuring everything runs like clockwork. Jeff Wasson, owner of travel site Gusto.com, used a travel agent who specialized in his honeymoon destinations of Italy and Greece. "I could've winged it and taken a subway or bus from the airport, but my travel agent arranged to have a town car whisk me away, cool drink in hand. Plus, the driver showed me the back streets where he grew up," says Wasson. "Yes, it cost more, but my experience was considerably better." And that may be worth it for a special-occasion vacation.
7. Online travel sites offer refunds and cancellation policies.
In the not-so-distant past, online booking engines didn't issue refunds, so travel agents were the way to go if you were concerned you'd have to cancel your trip. Now, online travel sites offer money back even if airfare drops through benefits like Orbitz.com's Price Assurance program. And, since January 2012, the U.S. Department of Transportation mandates that airlines refund your money if you book online at least one week prior to departure and cancel within 24 hours of booking. "Most people aren't aware of that, so if you see something you love, book it, because you can now cancel. It's how everyone at Travelzoo does it," says Freedman. Travel agents won't mention this because they want you to book through them instead of online.
8. A travel agent won't necessarily find the best price.
You can often find a better price on a room than a travel agent can by calling a hotel directly or visiting their website. Many hotel sites have drop-down menus featuring AAA and AARP rates and special rates for in-state residents (especially in Florida), so shop around, suggests Freedman. She also recommends taking advantage of local deals in the city you're traveling to-not just for hotel stays but also for dining out and entertainment. Check sites like Groupon and LivingSocial to find them.
9. Book and fly on Tuesdays.
Oh, that commission: It's why travel agents won't tell you that it's usually cheaper to reserve seats on planes on Tuesdays and fly on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. They may also neglect to mention that there are cheaper times during the day to fly. "6 a.m. flights are less expensive," points out Freedman. "Although less desirable, there's less of a chance they'll be delayed." She also advises signing up for travel e-mail alerts that share late-breaking deals, which in most cases, come out on Tuesdays. How low do these fares go? A few recent Tuesday airfares sent to Travelzoo Newsflash readers: $239 for roundtrip nonstop flights with taxes between Los Angeles, CA, and Lima, Peru, and $190 for the same between New York City and Puerto Rico.
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10. Sign up (and use) a travel rewards card.
A travel agent won't tell you that they make the bulk of their money on packages, so if you're
booking hotels, airfare or rental cars with rewards points, they're losing big dollars. Still, Wasson recommends doing your homework before committing to a card-and then using it appropriately. "A lot of people sign up for every reward program under the sun, and 80% never get anything." He suggests ordering one card and putting everything on it to reap the benefits. A good idea: Find a card (like AmericanAdvantage) that has an airport hub near you and choose a miles card accordingly.
Original article appeared on WomansDay.com.
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