Travel Agent vs Online: The Answer

So, you’ve got it all figured out: you know exactly which destination, which resort, and which room category you want. Now it’s just a matter of hitting that ‘book’ button…or letting someone do it for you. So which one will it be: travel agent vs online. Here’s the answer:

Go with the cheapest option!

At the end of the day, you usually have three (yes, three) options: book through a travel agent, book online through sites like Expedia or Travelocity, or book directly through a hotel or resort.

But let me first give you a bit of information about your options.

Travel Agent

I would say 90% of the time I use a travel agent, the same travel agent we used for our first trip, even though technically I do all the work. I’ve gotten to the point where I email her and say “these are the dates, this is the resort, this is the room category, and these are my special requests.” She books it and I make the necessary payments through her. Then I start my obsessive countdown, while I scour the internet daily for new reviews, forum topics, photos, videos, updates – anything and everything – of my newly chosen resort. If this is your first trip, you’ll soon find out what I’m talking about. If it’s not your first, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Don’t lie to me.

The Upsides

So the question I get a lot is “Why pay for a travel agent when you can just go online and book?”

Two things:

First, you don’t pay for a travel agent. Let me rephrase: You shouldn’t pay for a travel agent. I would say 99% of travel agents will not charge you a fee, so if an agent asks you for a fee to book your trip, I’d move on to the next agent. Chances are the new agent won’t charge you. The only time I’ve heard of a travel agent charging a fee (I think it was $25 per person) was to a large wedding group that required a lot of leg work from the agent. And I’ve only heard of that happening once. (I’m still not sure how I feel about it.) They don’t need to charge you a fee because they get a commission from each sale they make, so you’re paying them that way.

The answer to the 2nd part of the question: “Why use a travel agent when you can book online?” I think there are a few reasons:

The Leg Work

If you have no idea where you want to go or if you know absolutely nothing about the booking process or how much you should be spending on a particular vacation, or if you’re too busy to research reviews and read travel forums, then you need a travel agent. You can simply tell the agent when you want to go, how much you want to spend, and what qualities you’re looking for in a destination/resort. The agent can do most of the work for you while you continue on with your busy schedule.

Knowledge and Backing

I couldn’t imagine booking those first few trips without my travel agent. I was completely lost. If you’ve read my previous post about my first conversation with my travel agent, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Seriously, I didn’t know anything about anything. So the questions would just flow out of me, day after day, and not just questions about resorts and destinations, but about flights and airlines, travel insurance, passports, airport transfers, safety, currency exchange, what to pack, etc. Oh, and throw in the mix that I was getting married and had a million questions about that process. Wow – I couldn’t imagine having done any of that without a travel agent by my side.

And think about in times of crises. Let’s say you skip the travel agent option and you book directly through a resort. Weeks before you’re ready to take off you find out that your resort has shut down and has taken off with your hard-earned money. Would you know what to do? I wouldn’t. I bet a travel agent would! I bet they’ve all been through such a circumstance. So the bottom line is, if you have no idea what you’re doing and a travel agent can compete with the prices you’re seeing online, let the travel agent help you. It doesn’t cost you anything – or at least it shouldn’t! And then maybe when you get the hang of things, you can go your own way.

Supporting Local Businesses

I love going through my travel agent because I know I’m supporting her financially. I know she gets a nice commission every time I book through her and I know she really appreciates it. If I book through an online booking engine, I have no idea who, if anyone, is getting the commission from the resorts. It’s just a nicer feeling when I support someone in my local community and someone who has helped me in a big way over the years. Don’t get me wrong, if my agent can’t compete with the prices I’m finding online or through the resort directly, then I have no choice but to part ways with her for that trip. No question!

The Downside

But… there can get downsides to relying heavily on a travel agent. Travel agencies often have contracts with specific tour operators and must book vacations through those tour operators. The problem is that the tour operators might not offer the same great price that you see online or on the resort’s website. In the end, you have to make a decision: go with the cheaper price, which means you don’t have an agent backing you up but you get a great deal, or you go through the agent but have to lose out on a better deal because of it. For me, if the price difference is negligible (i.e. under $50), I’ll go with the agent. If it’s anything above that, I go it alone. Ask your agent up front if s/he is obliged to offer the rates given by specific tour operators of if s/he can compete with or match prices you find online. Many probably can but some probably can’t.

Book Online or Go Directly to the Hotel?

So your other options are to book through a site like Expedia or go directly through the resort. My advice is always the same: go with the cheaper of the two.

Compare Prices

My first few years of travel I never went directly to the resort website to search for prices. For some reason, I assumed that the hotels/resorts overcharged and would never offer the same great deal for their rooms that an online booking engine would. Then one year something told me to compare. And to my surprise, the resort website prices were cheaper than the prices of the online booking engines I had been checking for years.

It doesn’t seem that these booking sites will always offer the sales that the resort might be offering. For instance, I’m currently looking at Excellence Punta Cana for April 5-12, 2015. As of this writing, Excellence Punta Cana is having a 30% off sale for 2015. The nightly rate for the lowest-level room category is $226 per night, for a grand total of $1,582 US for the week. If I check those same dates and that same room category on expedia.com, I get a nightly rate of $320, for a total of $2,240 US. By booking through the resort, I save $658 over booking with expedia.com because Expedia isn’t offering the resort’s 30% off sale.

On the flip side of that, let’s look at the Riu Palace Tropical Bay in Negril for that same week, April 5-12, 2015. On expedia.com, the price for the lowest-level room category is $403.20 per night, for a total of $2,822.40 for the week. When I go directly to Riu’s website and search for that same trip in the same room category, I get a nightly rate of $440.75, for a total of $3,085.30 for the week. Again, I’m talking US dollars. I would save $262.90 by booking with Expedia over booking directly with Riu.

So definitely compare booking options when you’re trying to get the best deal on a resort. You may save yourself hundreds.

Study the Terms and Conditions

Okay..now…let’s say the price between the booking engine and the resort is the exact same, or the difference is very minimal. How do you choose which is the best booking option? For me, it’s always the one with the easiest payment options, more flexibility when it comes to modifying the reservation, and a better cancellation/refund policy.

For instance, many resorts will hold the room for you with a small or no deposit. All they ask is you pay the balance in full before a specified date, which can be anywhere from 2 days to 45 days before your arrival date, or forfeit your deposit. I always prefer this option to paying someone in full up front because I always book my trips at least six months in advance, sometimes more than a year in advance if I find the right sale. The downside with booking so early is that you never know what could come up that could seriously impact your financial situation, forcing you to cancel your trip.

If you paid the full balance of the trip up front when you booked, you might have a hard time getting that money back. If you only paid a small deposit, that’s the most you stand to lose. I’m not comfortable with handing over a couple thousand dollars, minimum, when it’s never 100% certain that I’ll actually take the trip.

Sure, there might be a policy in place that says even though you paid in full at the time of booking, you can still get your money back if you cancel in time. But do you really want to go through what could be a lengthy and painful process to request that money back, then wait lord knows how long to actually get it back?

Conclusion

Again, the answer is clear when you’re trying to choose between a travel agent or online: take the better deal.  Do your diligence and shop around! And don’t discredit any booking option because you assume it will cost you more…because that might be the option that could save you, oh I don’t know, 658 dollars!

Which booking method do you typically use for your tropical travels? Answer in the comments below.

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One Love.
Jody, The Tropical Tourist

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