While some travelers will always use a travel agent when possible, others can’t imagine not doing it themselves. Often travelers will go to a travel agent for complicated trips, or for special occasions like a honeymoon, but figure, for a “simple” domestic trip, they might as well book online.

If it works, fine. Even most travel agents acknowledge there’s not much profit in a domestic airline ticket. Some have given up selling such tickets, and many others don’t mind at all if their clients book such flights direct.

There are times when you should probably pay an agent fee, and here are four of them.

Note: I realize that there are some lousy agents out there. This post presumes you’ve found a competent one:

1. When it’s a really time-sensitive trip. If you absolutely must be at your destination on the ticketed day a good travel agent can help. While a travel agent can’t fix the weather, or a broken plane, a good agent should be able to find last minute alternative connecting cities, or maybe a nearby airport that is open. (I’ve even booked stranded clients into airports that were a few hours drive or train ride from their destination, when it was the only open alternative.)

Now for this case, it does require an agent, or a backup who is available at the time you are flying, whether by phone/email or an after hours service. And yes, anticipating comments, true 24/7 service is probably impossible, because even 24 hour services get backed up on a bad weather day. And everyone sleeps at some point. But an agent on call most of the time is still better than being on your own with the airlines.

2. When fare and/or upgrades really matter, and there are alternative airlines and routings. Certain “fortress hubs” have limited flights on other airlines, and there may not be many fare choices. For example, if Delta cancels a flight from Detroit these days, or US Airways cancels one from Charlotte there aren’t many alternatives. (Although an agent still may save you waiting in line to be rebooked on a later flight.)

But if you’re traveling, say, from the San Francisco Bay Area to Cincinnati, not only are there three airports in the area (Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose), there are also alternative airports that aren’t a ridiculous drive away. Indianapolis, Dayton and Columbus are all less than 2 hours away, and often have better fares.

Travel agents also have information on how full a plane is, especially in first class, so an agent can steer you to a flight with a better chance of upgrade, when all of them are “waitlist only” at the time of booking.

3. When the agent finds the flight, even if you can book them yourself. Call it karma. Case in point, a traveler wanted to set up a family trip to Vancouver. She came to us because she couldn’t find anything good on her own. She wanted a lot of research done, with all the local airports, connections, etc.

She works for one of our smallest, and most price-conscious, corporate accounts, so I did warn her up front that we charge service fees, which we reduce for families. She said of course that she understood and felt it was worth paying if we could find something..

I gave her a number of choices, from three airports, and also suggested Seattle, a 2-hour drive away. Then she changed the dates. Finally I found an inexpensive Seattle option, and she said her husband had agreed to the drive. So I sent her the details of the completed booking and told her we just needed a credit card.

Then, and travel agents reading this will probably know the experience, she called and said, “well, I looked online with the flights you found and its the same price less the fee.” I told her I knew, but we had talked about this. Originally, she didn’t even realized Seattle was an option until I suggested it. And that we made no money that way for a lot of work.

She agreed I had told her about the fees, but added, “I just really try to be careful with my family money.” She told me she had booked online to save the $20 a person fee, but she, “really appreciated my work and finding this great alternative.”

In this case, because her company, a non-profit, has done business with us for years, I didn’t respond the way I really wanted to, but I did tell her to please not call us again for any personal travel. (I admit hoping her flight gets canceled.)

While this was an extreme case, the basic principle holds. Almost no agent minds trying to match an online fare, but if an agent finds a fare, or flights that a customer couldn’t find on their own, that agent deserves a fee. (And for travelers reading this, if you talk to an agent who charges up front, stories like this are often the reason)

4. When record-keeping is involved.
This last suggested comes from an administrative assistant I have worked with for years. Travel agents help when you will need a receipt later or you want your office to be able to find you. Some travelers are great with records or at using technology to calendar their trips. However for anyone who is organizationally challenged, it’s much easier for you or an assistant to call an agent to get a copy of the invoice, remind you what hotel or rental car company you booked and/or simply figure out when to have a limo pick you up.

Are there any other times that paying a travel extra to issue domestic tickets makes sense? Or do you feel that paying extra is only for the foolish or uninformed?

Photo: ©Leocha