A few years ago, travel agents appeared to be sailing into the sunset as options for booking vacations online flourished. But business has been booming. The American Society of Travel Agents reports that about 75% of its members say revenues, transactions and number of clients rose or remained steady in the first half of 2011 compared with the first half of 2010.
Travelers such as Lisa Kolb are returning to travel agencies after disappointing do-it-yourself results. Kolb, an information technology specialist, uses Travel Leaders in Fairfax, Va., to book vacations. She scours the Web for deals but says her agent beats the prices she finds. Plus, the agency alerts her to local customs abroad and tosses in perks, such as setting up tours at popular sites so she doesn’t have to wait in lines. "We've outsmarted ourselves by not taking advantage of the knowledge that travel agents have," says Kolb.
The more complex or luxurious the trip, the more useful an agent can be. Agents have an inside track on deals and upgrades, and they can quickly solve problems or change plans while you're on a trip, says industry consultant Mark Murphy, at Travalliancemedia. In some cases, travel agents don't charge their clients—for example, an agent who books a cruise may earn a 10% commission from the cruise line. Others impose booking fees—say, $30 for an airline ticket—or require a deposit that they'll keep if you cancel.