Online travel agencies have been chipping away at brick and mortar agents for over a decade. Sites like Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline, Kayak and any number of other competitors have been able to cut out the middleman from buying travel related products and services.
In the past, travel agents would earn a significant portion of their revenue from commissions generated by selling flights, but these commissions have largely been eliminated. Some agencies will still charge a booking fee if you go into a travel agency, but these fees are generally quite low.
Today, travel agents make their money by selling higher margin products like package holidays, cruises, car rentals and insurance.
With the endless amount of travel information available online, why would anyone go into a travel agent anymore? Buying a round trip ticket from New York to London may be a relatively painless experience, but figuring out how to fly a high school rugby team to South Africa might not be.
Here are some of the reasons why travel agents are still needed:
You can read all the Trip Advisor reviews you like but there’s no substitute for direct knowledge from a real person.
Engaging with someone that knows the destination you are interested in can be extremely valuable. Not only will they tell you about some great sights but they might also be able to give you advice on visas, food, allergy considerations, alternate flight options, money saving tips, etc.
While the Internet has all this information available, and vast amounts more, you’ll have to visit many websites and sift through a lot of garbage before you can pull together the necessary information. You can accomplish with an agent in 15 minutes what might take hours sitting behind a computer.
Many online travel websites will offer translations of their site in French or Spanish but what about Korean, Mandarin or Russian?
Native English speakers might not even consider language issues when planning a trip however someone who just came to an English speaking country might find navigating a site like Kayak.com impossible.
Solution? They’ll go to their neighbourhood travel agent.
As I mentioned earlier, arranging a trip for a sports team or any other large group can be a daunting task. Planning a trip for one family is hard enough, how would you handle 20 or 30? This is where the pros come in.
What about if you wanted to fly to Spain, take a ferry to Morocco, cross the Sahara then fly out of Nigeria? No online travel agent is going to be able to handle that for you, a niche agent that specializes in adventure tours might however.
One of the often overlooked advantages of using a travel agent is that you have the ability to call someone in case an issue arises. If you call an online travel agent your call will get routed through a vast network of support people who have absolutely no connection to you.
If you dealt with a brick and mortar travel agency, you’ll most likely be able to speak with the person who you sold you the trip and knows your situation. This is someone who you have a personal connection to, they’ll be far more likely to help.
Since travel agents are getting less and less of their earnings from the end consumer, using their services should be fairly inexpensive. While this may be good on one hand, you should ensure that the options the agent is recommending to you are what you want, not what they’ll get the highest commission on.
For cruises, use a site like cruise compete to ensure you are getting a good deal. Many travel agents will try to match their price to what’s available online.
Online travel websites are easy to use, packed full of information and they have reduced the cost of travel for everyone. These developments and the associated industry changes that come with them have not eliminated the need for full service agents however.
Whether you are booking a complicated trip or arranging a family reunion with 30 people, it may be best to deal with a real person!
Andrew is a Canadian personal finance and investing blogger who recently moved to London, England. He has a background in technology and a passion for travel. His blog, She Thinks I’m Cheap aims to help Canadians build wealth by sharing facts, stories and advice.