4 times you should use a travel agent for domestic tickets


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

  • Aaron

    I have no issues using a travel agent, especially if I am stumped.
    I also have no issue with the fact that my TA charges a retainer for services before they are rendered. There is no reason he/she should do all the work and then have me book on my own to save a “fee”.

  • Michelle

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

    Ah, there’s the rub. I’d pay for service, but can’t find it. With many Americans having little time for travel, I’d wager many don’t want to take a chance on their few precious trips getting no or (worse) bad service/information. I had a great agent in Hawaii, but that was 5 states ago (things get lost in moving) and she’s retired now I’m sure.

    So how do you find a good agent? How about an article on that topic? Please don’t include “work with them for awhile”, who’s got the time? I remember calling/checking on two agencies in CA and was told by both I needed a passport to get into Canada, in 1994. That lead me to the internet.

  • http://www.bonjourparis.com Karen Fawcett

    Janice – I could not agree more. People who provide services are entitled to be compensated.

    I’m still smarting over a BonjourParis.com reader who asked for hotel suggestions and I even called to discuss her needs. I found her a hotel on our booking site and told her I *might* be able to get her an upgrade for her two room (for the five-night stay) since I know the owner.

    Imagine my chagrin when she sent a confirmation from another booking site, saying she’d found the rooms for $5 less per night .. and would I speak to the management. HUH? Think not since our Paris hotel site has a “must match” guarantee and I’d told her that.

    Yes – there are some days.

  • Dave B

    The last I used a travel agent was 7 years ago. Iwent to the biggest and best agent here. My wife and I were going to Hawaii.
    I wanted to make sure we had best connectios at the best price. I told the agent the best flights I could find. She came back to me in a couple of hours and said my flights were the best. She said the agency fee was $45.00. I felt like I was paying for nothing. Since I called them I went ahead through the travel agent.
    I especially mad when I got my credit card bill and found out we were charged $45.00 each for our tickets.
    I complained to the company and was ignored.
    I will never again use a travel agent.

  • Alica

    Another reason to use an agent is for trips that cost more money than your usual trip.

    I would say if you are flying to a big event such as a destination wedding, or a honeymoon, that you should consult a travel agent to help make the arrangements for you and even for your group. The bride and groom must get to their destination, and leaving the panning to someone else is a real help to the bride!

    Another that falls into this category are long trips overseas, such as in Europe and Australia. Oftentimes, agents are knowledgeable about the best fares, the best hotels and can even arrange excursions for you that you never knew existed!

    Rule of thumb: if you are spending more than you usually do for a small family vacation, chances are you should be using an agent.

  • John M

    Another time to use an agent is when your needed flight is sold out. Many agencies have arrangements with airlines that allow them to priority waitlist their clients and some even have arrangements that allow them to overbook a flight for good clients. Yes, you are paying full fare and the ticket has to be issued at the time of booking, but if you HAVE to be on that flight, that’s the way to go.

    As far as charging a fee per person, there are costs associated with doing the research to verify the fares and to run the ticket and these costs must be covered regardless of if the agent was able to find a lower fare or not. It would be like going into an auto repair shop and saying “I think my right rear tire has a slow leak” and then when they confirm it, being upset that they billed you for their labor.

    As for how to find a good agent, that can be a challenge as their are many variables that determine who is a good agent. Some of them are your expectations, some relate to the chemistry between you and the agent and sometimes you don’t find out how good an agent is until something goes awry. I would suggest talking to friends and co-workers about who they work with, just like you would if you were looking for a new dentist or doctor. Then arrange to meet or speak with the agent and discuss your expectations and allow the agent to tell you if he or she is comfortable with trying to meet and/or exceed them and let the agent tell you what he or she expects from you. I have had some clients who expected me to move mountains for them and then complained about paying a fee for my time and effort. I have had other clients who told me that my fee was way too low for the service that I provided them. If I mess up, I pay for it, if the client messes up, I expect them to pay for it. How do we decide who messed up, if the client sends an email with the wrong dates, it’s pretty clear who messed up. If I booked the wrong dates, then it is clear as well and I take responsibility. Where it gets tricky is on those things that are less cut and dry, such as a client who asks for a room with an ocean view but is expecting a room that is ocean front. I generally try to explain the differences to the clients before booking so that they are clear that views are not the same as being on the beach. If I feel like I didn’t make it clear or there were other issues that I should have been aware of, then I will take responsibility for the client, however if it is something that was the result of the client doing something without my knowledge or something outside of my control, I will not. An example would be if I book someone flights and a hotel in Cozumel and they went down the beach and rented jetskis and had a problem. I don’t believe that it is my responsibility to cover their expenses relating to this incident. I will be happy to help them try to get a refund or whatever is appropriate yet ultimately it is between the client and the vendor because I didn’t book the jetskis.

  • bodega

    We also know other places to book air than just the GDS or online. As an example, for my own travel, I saved 50% off the published fares for the exact same flights by booking it through a vendor that has the only contract for this discounted fare to Hawaii. We also know what we can do with segments with certain fares. I saved a couple $2000, at $1000 per ticket on business class air in my GDS when all online companies would only provide certain married segments that weren’t required to be married.

  • Anna

    I’m confused about what that agent fee covers. I paid an agent $50 to book me a round trip flight from SFO to Paris in October with a return in May. However, during my stay in France, my circumstances changed and I had to change my return flight to March. I was charged an additional $50 by the agent to change my ticket and arrange the bank transaction for the airline’s ticket change fee. Shouldn’t that original $50 agent fee have covered any transactions on the part of the agent for the entire round trip flight?

  • http://www.ecvr.com Vicki

    I’m sure travel agents have taken a huge hit though since it is so easy to buy tickets online yourself. Being in my early 20s, I have never used a travel agent and I cannot even think of a local travel agency in my city. I’m not totally against using one though. I can definitely see how useful one can be in the situations you mentioned and will take them into consideration with my new job.

  • Marlin

    I haven’t used a travel agent for 10+ years for business and for personal travel. I use websites like ITA that give many options for checking as many airports as you want. Just bought four tickets on Delta from PIT to LAX for $165 which I don’t think is to bad (and used my AMEX so no luggage fees either).

  • Paula

    Excellent post Janice!

    Dave B – I’m surprised your local agency wasn’t more clear
    that fees are per person as are those online. Studies show
    agents find a lower fare over 70% of the time. It’s about
    having the best available fare AND an advocate should
    things go wrong.

    Anna – Its often more time and effort to exchange a ticket than to do one from scratch. That’s why most agencies have a re-issue fee on top
    of the airline’s change fee.

    An example of why many good travel agents no longer do domestic tickets and focus on complete vacations or international air: I booked a gift certificate cruise for a couple. She booked their flights with 2 different online companies and 4 carriers for 5% less than a simple routing. When setting up their car/hotel, I discovered the flight arriving the day prior to sailing was no longer operating. The online agency never notified them. I called with alternatives including ticketing fees and held space. 2 days later I was told they booked same flight for less (ie without ticket fee). They never even thanked me for notifying them of the schedule change that would have left them high and dry halfway to their cruise.

    One the other hand, I recently helped a young couple with a vacation they would love within their means. After weeks of waiting on her time off request, her new job said no. In her industry, service costs are by time spent. She was happy to hear my flat fee for planning applies to the same trip within a year.

  • Paula

    BTW…it’s a 2.5 hour drive from SeaTac to Vancouver airport without delays at the border crossing, rush hour or holidays. Downtown Vancouver is at least 30 minutes farther.

  • dcta

    Anna –

    I quite honestly would prefer to slit my wrists than do an exchange – thus in my case, the fee. Too begin with, airline ticketing is fraught with danger – if there is an error, even one caused by the airline’s computation of fare in our FDS, we are often held accountable for the difference in fare – so six months after you have exchanged our ticket, I might rerceive a debit memo for a couple thousand dollars in fare difference and penalties for making the mistake. Further, there are some very esoteric rules on exchanges depending upon the original fare and/or the airline. SOME airlines do allow a “refund” on a non-refundable fare, etc….. It is very complicated and again, “dangerous”. Further, you had the Agent handle a bank transfer as well – do you think that’s instantaneous or easy?

    How would you have worked that (the exchange and the bank transfer) on your own?

    On top of that, please understand that there are costs involved every time we make a change to your record in the GDS (and yes for bigger agencies it may be just the opposite but there ARE costs), I have the phone call if I have to make one, and on may foreign ticket exchanges, I have to spend 30-40 minutes on the phone with or waiting for the airline to look at the record and make sure that what I am doing is correct – again, because I don’t want that debit memo. In those 30-40 minutes, it’s possible I could be making 100s of dollars on another sale, etc., etc.

    $50 by the way on an overseas ticket is kind of a “deal” Our fee here is $75 and $45 for domestic.

  • Joel Wechsler

    @Dave B I don’t blame you for being upset with this agent, not because it was $45 per ticket, which is reasonable, but for being charged at all. If someone calls me with a question like yours my usual response, after a quick check, is to say that if you can get that fare on your own, go ahead. There is very little time involved on my part so I don’t feel I’ve been used in any way. By agreeing to book through the agent you left yourself open to being charged a fee. It was nice of you to make the choice you did, but the outcome is your responsibility and not really grounds for saying that you will never use an agent again.

  • Sabrina

    I have been an agent for 10yrs and I would never waste my time on some of the scenerios described. I can tell a timesucker from a real clients in less than a minute. Even though we charge a fee, I don’t care about collecting it, I’d rather it discourages those types of clients.
    The public have NO idea how complicated the travel industry is; how much work can go into a “simple” transaction. I don’t get commission on air ticktets, and since they are indeed dangerous to book nowadays, I avoid them at all costs!

  • PauletteB

    I’ll be planning a trip to Tasmania in the next year, and I’m praying to find a TA as competent/caring as Janice. The TA for my last Australia trip (a supposed “Australia expert” recommended by our office manager, who used to work at the agency) was terrible. There was so much she didn’t know, and some of it could have created real problems for us. Fortunately, the people I was working directly with in Australia gave me the heads up on the potential problems, and I was able to avoid them.

    Janice, if I ever move to your area, you’ll be m go-to gal!

  • Dave B

    Note to Joel:
    I was told the charge was $45.00 and was charged $90.00. This was a simple round trip flight from Pittsburgh to Hawaii and in 2003.

    Is there any travel site where just normal travellers can communicate that is not obviously dominated by travel agents. I have used 5 different agents in 4 different cities and none of them were anything special. In fact one royally screwed up a standard packaged airline vacation.

    My employer had a fabulous agent but they were 2500 miles away and nobody would tell me their name. Now I do it myself.

  • Joel Wechsler

    @Dave B To repeat, you shouldn’t have paid at all because any fair-minded agent could have calculated the fare from PIT to HNL in minutes and told you to do it yourself. As to this site being dominated by agents, I think you are drawing the wrong conclusion from this particular discussion. While certain topics will bring out a lot of agents, most of the time the dialogue is between consumers, as it should be, given the name of the site. Some of the most frequent contributors, like @SirWired, @Hapgood, @Arizona Road Warrior, @Joe Farrell are corporate and/or leisure travelers and have a lot to say that you would find useful.

  • Jack

    As someone who has worked more than a dozen years on travel industry publications for agents, and now works on a travel insurance newsletter, I hope you will consider some suggestions I recently compiled to help consumers a good travel agent. I put this short list together to help travelers, but also to save travel agents from having their time wasted by those clients who are not serious about sincerely considering an honest working relationship with a travel professional
    • Consider a travel agent as valuable to your well-being while traveling as a doctor or a lawyer is at home. Ask friends or relatives for referrals. Ask why they like their travel agent.
    • Please do not waste an agent’s time by picking their travel brain with no intent to book. If you want the cheapest travel go back to using websites. But don’t expect great service.
    • Do some due diligence. Learn the agent’s business experience and industry affiliations.
    • Ask the agent for client testimonials or contacts. Search online for any complaints.
    • You’ll get better service by indicating you are looking for a possible repeat travel relationship, not just a one-off trip, if things go well with your first booking.
    • Ask the agent where they’ve personally traveled and how. Does their expertise match your interests? If the agent is annoyed by questions, you may want to look elsewhere.
    • Be honest and forthcoming in describing the trip and budget you are looking for. Be open to hearing agent suggestions even if you do not choose to take them.
    • Does the travel agent offer travel insurance and get answers to your coverage questions? Protecting your travel purchase and his or her business reputation indicates the agent is a pro.
    • Ask the agent how to reach the agency or their backup service if you have an emergency during a trip. Will someone get back to you quickly with help if you leave a message?
    • Important: if the agent responds to your initial phone messages or emails promptly, it is a clearer sign of good service than if you wait more than a day for a return call.

  • dcta

    Of course none of the above means a thing if you do not communicate well with the Travel Agent – and “communicate” means not only asking questions but listening.

    Dave – why do you think your employer would not give you the “great” TA’s contact info? That’s kind of strange.

  • http://voyagemasters.com Rob

    There is no reason to ever use a travel agent other than just being lazy. Do a little homework and you will get the best deals by booking directly for any form of travel. All of the other issues can be handled with travel insurance.

  • Dave B

    @ dcta
    I’m pretty sure my employer owed the agency money because shortly after I asked about them the ties were severed. Also I was in Virginia and they were in California

  • dcta

    Interesting Dave. I suspect there was more going on there than monies owed – especially if the relationship was “severed”. Usually one wants to collect their money and most of us are reluctant to ever “fire” clients.

  • john p

    Wow, there really are some crazy comments here. The real problem exists because agents believe they need to charge a set service fee. There’s enough product out there that they do get paid commission on, that as long as their service is good…they will get paid even if one or two bookings they may work for nothing.
    Consumers buying directly themselves really are taking control of everything, and I know how many times people make mistakes. You make a mistake yourself with your booking and you are the one who pays. You book with an agent, and they make a mistake…they fix it. And they can advise you when a good deal really is a good deal, and when it’s crap. they can put together options for you that you’d never even know was out there. There are very few people out there that really know how to search all the options from the thousands of websites out there to search fromm. And you may think you got yourself a deal only because you were not actually able to find every option. Sometimes an agent can find you something much much cheaper within a matter of minutes. Sometimes longer, and sometimes they don’t save you anything at all. But as long as they are not charging a service fee (you should ask them up front), then you have absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain.

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  • [email protected]

    just had a friend book a ticket for her daughter to visit us this summer. Ticket was $150 more than same flight on yapta.com or justfly.com. AND the agent charged $40 for “professional fees”. I guess if you really can’t do things yourself, you need an agent. Otherwise, just be an intelligent adult and do it yourself. (BTW, articles that tell you to use a travel agent are always written by agents or people who work for the travel industry. Come on people…)