When to Hire a Travel Agent to Plan Your Trip

Even do-it-yourselfers may want a pro’s help with an elaborate vacation or a complicated itinerary.

(Image credit: vm)

Before the internet put trip-planning tools at your fingertips, you might have popped into a travel agency to shop for airline tickets or flip through brochures. Now, online booking engines and review sites can spark vacation ideas and point you to everything from a cozy B&B to the best wine bar in a city.

Post-COVID, traveling looks a little different. At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, only 23 million Americans traveled 50 or more miles from their home during Memorial Day Weekend, per AAA. Cut to May 2023, and AAA predicts 42.3 million Americans will take a vacation, with 3.4 million travelers planning to fly. With pre-pandemic crowds on the roads and in airports, mapping out a stress-free trip could get complicated.

Does that leave a reason to turn to a travel agent? It depends on the trip. An agent won’t add much value to a quick getaway or a meandering road trip that you plan as you go. And for some people, researching where to go and stay is part of the experience, says Kelsey Blodget, former senior executive editor of Oyster.com and Jetsetter.com.

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If you have a complicated itinerary or faraway destination, you can benefit from an agent’s advice. And if you hate sweating the details or become overwhelmed by all the information online, a travel agent can save you time and money.

Average airline fares for April 2023 were $294.55, down from a peak of $344.85 in May 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even so, that's 2.7% higher than March 2023's average of $286.81.

A travel agent's expertise could come in handy when you want to save on rising travel costs, or if you simply need some guidance.

Hand-holding and more. A good agent should interview you about your travel style and the inspiration for your trip to suss out your “ultimate desires,” whether that means outdoor adventure or delicious cuisine, says Scott Koepf, senior vice president of sales at Avoya Travel

Agents will research, customize and book as much of your trip as you like, using reputable companies. They can help sift through the myriad cruise-line options, organize private pickups from transportation hubs, reserve tables at restaurants that book up fast, and arrange skip-the-line tickets to popular attractions. They can also steer you away from, say, a resort displaying the lowest price in favor of one that offers better value.

Although agents aren’t the only gatekeepers of unbiased or “insider” knowledge, thanks to travel blogs and online destination guides, agents can tap their global contacts to arrange something you’d be hard-pressed to replicate yourself. For example, Michelle Weller, an agent in Houston, once set up a client and his friend with a private English-speaking guide to revisit where they served in Vietnam.

They may also be privy to deals that aren’t advertised elsewhere. Plus, agencies that are part of larger networks can access group rates and perks. For instance, agents affiliated with Travel Leaders Group can get up to 30% off “best available rates” at thousands of hotels, along with free breakfast and Wi-Fi, and up to $100 in credits, depending on the property.

The price of advice. Travel agents say you won’t pay more to book an excursion through them instead of directly with a tour operator or cruise line; rather, they make a commission off the sale. Some agents will charge a planning fee, which could range from $50 to several hundred dollars for a complex itinerary.

To find an agent, you can search by destination and specialty at the American Society of Travel Agents’ consumer site, Travel Sense, or use online search tools at networks such as Travel Leaders or the luxury-focused Virtuoso.

Ask prospective agents about their expertise in your style of travel and destination, what they offer that you can’t arrange yourself, and how they will advocate for you if something goes awry. For example, can you call your agent at any hour to fix a missed connection? If that peace of mind helps you sleep at night, you’ll be a happier traveler.

Miriam Cross
Associate Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Miriam lived in Toronto, Canada, before joining Kiplinger's Personal Finance in November 2012. Prior to that, she freelanced as a fact-checker for several Canadian publications, including Reader's Digest Canada, Style at Home and Air Canada's enRoute. She received a BA from the University of Toronto with a major in English literature and completed a certificate in Magazine and Web Publishing at Ryerson University.
With contributions from