Travel

Truth in Travel Fees

Sometimes it's worth paying for an agent.

Why don't travel agencies have to divulge in advance that they are tacking on a commission to book flights? I wasn't aware of a $200 fee for our trip to Italy until I saw it on my Visa bill. The travel agent never mentioned it -- only the price of the tickets. --Susan B., Edmond, Okla.

Just a minor detail, right? True, agencies don't have to tell you about service fees, but the price they quote must include them before they sell you a ticket, says Bill Mosley, of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

In your case, it might just be a misunderstanding. You told us in a follow-up conversation that you weren't sure what price you were quoted and that you were comparing the fare with one you found elsewhere. Your surprise came only when you saw three charges on your bill: two for the tickets and another for the agency. But let's be realistic. The practice of airlines paying commissions has all but disappeared. Now agents have to charge you for their services, and that's fair.

We spoke with Elizabeth Holmes Travel, the Seattle-based travel agency you used. Manager Rachelle Breitenbach says quotes do include the fee, so this was likely a miscue in which the agent failed to explain that a service charge was included. Still, the agency agreed to refund the $100-per-ticket fee and says it has revamped the way its agents explain charges to clients.

What should you do next time? Ask the travel agent at the outset what the agency charges and confirm that the final quotes include taxes and fees, which may vary. For example, Elizabeth Holmes charges a lower fee for domestic flights and a higher one for tickets on which airlines pay no commission.Before you buy, ask the agent to fax or e-mail the quote with a breakdown of ticket prices, taxes and fees. If this is for confirmation and not a fare-shopping strategy, a good agent will oblige. If you change your mind, tickets bought through agents can be voided in the first 24 hours, and agents may be able to get a waiver in the first 48, says Breitenbach. After that, the refund policy is up to the airline.

Of course, all this begs the question: Why use an agent in the first place? A majority of consumers still book cruises with agents. Commissions from cruise lines are common, so you may not be charged a fee, and a good agent can make sense of the many itineraries, ships, rooms and dates you have to choose from. Ask up front about fees.

As for air travel, agents can no longer guarantee lower fares than you might find yourself (although they may have access to a few fares that you don't). They now rely on service and advice to attract customers. Agents can book you on another flight if yours is canceled, and they can help plan complicated trips. Some agencies also have after-hours emergency service.

Joel Widzer, author of The Penny Pincher's Passport to Luxury Travel, thinks working directly with airlines and hotels is best. But an agent is useful if you don't have the time or interest to plan a trip yourself, he says, or if your destination is a less-traveled place, such as Cambodia or Cameroon, and the agent specializes in the area.

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