Direct vacation booking and online travel agencies haven’t killed the old-school travel agent… yet.
When my wife and I planned our honeymoon roughly seven years ago, we went to a travel agent in Newton, Mass., to help us along. We wanted to travel to Paris, Nice, and Barcelona over a 14-day span, wanted to stay in hotels in each location, and wanted to travel by train between cities. The travel agent we used was able to give us hotel recommendations, but couldn’t book a Eurail pass for that time of year (without telling us why), could not find us flights on the dates we wanted, and basically couldn’t put together a package for us.
We left his office, and began searching travel sites for hotel recommendations and airfare comparison sites for flights. We also ended up booking first-class rail travel from Paris to Nice to Barcelona. We didn’t have a price to compare it to, since the travel agent couldn’t even put together a quote — but the convenience made direct hotel and airfare booking staples of our vacation planning from that point on.
But did we sell travel agents short? Is there ever an upside to using a travel agent over an online source?
Naturally, the travel agents think so. The American Society of Travel Agents released a study two years ago noting that nearly half of consumers (47%) booked their travel directly through supplier websites. Another 25% used online travel agency websites including Expedia, Priceline, and others. While the 23% who used travel agents was the highest share in the past three years, it was also less than a quarter of all travel bookings.
“At this point, consumers have tried it all, said ASTA president and CEO Zane Kirby. “They’ve booked online, they’ve gone direct, and they’ve used a travel agent.”
However, Kirby went further by saying the study found that online booking didn’t provide a better deal or save time. According to the ASTA study, almost two-thirds of travel-agent users said using one makes the overall trip experience better. It also asserts that consumers who used a travel agent saved an average of $452 and four hours of work.
Travel agent backers like Host Agency Reviews argue that the hours travelers put into research and booking should be charged at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ average hourly rate of $26.75. At 22 hours of preparation, they argue, that’s $588 saved by using a travel agent. They also argue that online travel agents’ inventory is limited (though our real-life travel agent said the same about his), that they steered certain clients to higher prices, that their reported prices didn’t include fees, and that travel agents can get better group deals.
Yet the number of travel agents dwindled from 124,000 in 2000 to 74,000 by 2014. According to BLS projections, those numbers are going to shrink another 9% by 2026. And in 2015, Business Insider found that the prices quoted by four out of five travel agents were higher than what they found on their own online.
However, they described travel agents who were the exact opposite of the one my wife and I consulted — attentive agents who put together personal recommendations for cafes and restaurants and bounced different hotel, tour, museum, and ticket prices off of them. These agents even walked them through Eurail and multi-flight combinations for connecting flights. Also, as Business Insider noted, while travel agents will charge fees for specific services like airline booking (ASTA quotes an average rate of $36), they generally don’t charge for the work they’re doing and can serve as a liaison for travelers should something go wrong.
And while traditional travel agents may still have exclusive access to certain discounts, events, and attractions, online bookings are closing that gap. As hotel technology company SoftInn points out, hotel chains including Hilton and Marriott now offer benefits to customers who book directly, including lower prices, free Wi-Fi, and loyalty program points. A Piper Jaffray study reported by Skift notes that 13% of hotel bookings (not including loyalty member rates) were offered at a lower price to those who booked directly, while 21% were cheaper when booked through an online travel agent, and 66% were the same price when booked by either.
“In the end, there remains a strong argument in favor of checking both the hotel sites and the OTA sites, at least for travelers who are not loyalty-program participants,” says Tim Winship, travel industry expert at TripAdvisor-owned travel site SmarterTravel. “For those who are loyalty-program members, when the points and discounted rates are factored in, the case for OTA booking is much weaker.”
Rick Seaney, founder and CEO of travel site FareCompare, has advised that booking packages that combine a hotel stay with airfare and a rental car can typically bring down prices — even during the holidays — simply because it’s easier to squeeze a deal out of hotel or rental car pricing than it is to get a discount on airfare. While online travel agents offer these kinds of packages, companies that lend their services to other travel agents have become adept at this as well.
Only after we booked our honeymoon did we come across Monograms, an offshoot of Swiss travel company Globus. Monograms cobbles together travel packages that include airfare, hotels, certain meals, tours, transport, local guides, and VIP access to attractions. Granted, the prices fluctuate with airfare depending on your departure city, but it gives you at least some idea of what you’ll be paying for the entire experience and leaves flights and other details to either you or a travel agent.
This isn’t exactly a new concept, as my grandparents in New Jersey used Perillo Tours and the ill-fated Club ABC Tours for years. But looking back on some of the trips my wife and I have taken, both the price and perks offered in packages to Ireland, the Benelux countries, and elsewhere were awfully close to what we were looking for.
In conclusion, taking planning out of the equation, we’ve found that direct booking tends to be the cheapest option more often than not. While online travel agents do a fine job of sifting through airfare and hotel options, other cost-cutting measures like vacation rentals and Airbnb are still a rarity on most booking sites. (Though Airbnb listings do come up in Hipmunk‘s hotel search, allowing to compare vacation rentals and hotel rooms side by side.)
However, if you want a hands-off experience that largely requires you to pay and show up, a travel agent or connected tour service can be a great and even cost-efficient option. Just do your homework and shop around before contacting an agent or walking into an office. Also, take the same precautions with any tour company they may suggest. While you don’t have to book online, it still pays to research ratings and complaints there.