When Using a Travel Agent Can Save You Money

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Travel AgentCustomers who left their travel agents in favor of budget websites such as Travelocity or Kayak are coming back, says Aja Stallworth, a leisure travel consultant in San Diego. "Travelers want to have the people they can call and say, 'I'm at the hotel, my room is not good, what do I do?' They want to have a person who help them out."

And it's no wonder. Flying has become more complicated, hotels more competitive, and the best deals and perks increasingly harder to find. But for the average traveler, the ins and outs of working with a travel agent, and knowing when such a relationship is more helpful than not, remains a mystery.

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According to the American Society of Travel Agents, travel agents still book 85% of all cruises, 70% of all tours and packages, 50% of all airline tickets, 30% of all hotels and 25% of all car rentals. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there are 63,500 travel agents in the U.S., many of whom specialize in niche areas of travel.

Many believed that travel portals would wipe out travel agents. Yet that hasn't happened: Agents booked $95 billion in travel sales in 2011 -- approximately one-third of the overall $284 billion U.S. travel industry.

Most of those bookings were for corporate clients; agencies specializing in business travel recovered more quickly from the recession than those focusing on leisure travel.

But leisure travel is also making a comeback, and individuals and families are seeking the same level of service as their corporate counterparts.

When You'll Pay Extra (and How Much)

How and when an agent is paid, and by whom, is one of the most important things for first-time and potential customers to understand. Visions of hidden charges and fears of overpaying linger. But unlike the various hidden charges on air travel imposed by the airlines directly (such as for checked baggage, food, and taxes), agents' fees are fairly transparent.

The average travel agent charges approximately $35 for what are generically termed "airline services," which can be anything from booking a flight to being on hand if there are rebooking needs for inclement weather or cancellation issues. Since the U.S. legacy airlines no longer give a commission to travel agents, customers might see that $35 as part of their overall charge when they book a flight through an agent.

Sometimes the extra fee is worth it. Randi Sumner, an association executive from New Jersey, says that she always uses a travel agent when flying between November and February. "During that time of year, I know there's a very good chance my flight will be delayed or canceled due to inclement weather," she says. "Even I'm already at the airport, it's easier to call my travel agent to be rebooked than compete with all the other passengers fighting for an airline representative's attention."

When You'll Save

The leisure traveler booking a standard package of flight, hotel, and rental car will rarely see a fee, Stallworth says, and booking them together through an agent will often offer substantial savings. Many agents have relationships with the larger hotel chains, which pay the agents their commissions directly. As a result of these relationships, agents can frequently arrange late check-outs, airport pick-ups, breakfasts, and other perks free of charge to you.

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When Using a Travel Agent Can Save You Money

Rick Seaney, the co-founder and CEO of Rick Seaney, the co-founder and CEO of FareCompare, says that many airlines put their fares on sale on Monday night or Tuesday morning, then competitors scramble to match them.

Shopping after 3 p.m. Tuesday is likely to net you the best prices. Also, expand the scope of your searches to include nearby airports, red-eye flights and different dates to get the best deal. "Price points tend to drop dramatically the last week in August, so if you can delay your trip, you can save a lot," says Seaney.

You know all the typical airfare search sites, but the best deals now may be found through social networking. Airlines have been known to post deals on Facebook or Twitter (just beware of scams). You can also sign up for email promotions on carrier websites. And sites like FareCompare and Kayak have airfare alerts to let you know when prices drop.

How do you know when the price is right? Seaney gives these guidelines for what he considers a fair deal for round-trip tickets: $150 or less for an hour flight, $210 or less for two hours, $280 or less for three, and $340 or less for over three hours.

If the flight costs more than $400 or $500 round trip, it's probably worth paying with miles. And don't forget you can share. "Anyone who has miles can get a ticket for anyone else. If you have an uncle who flies all the time, tell him you'll give him $200 if he'll book your tickets," suggests Seaney.

 Many airlines now charge you if you'd like to select a seat in advance, and United just announced that even families with small children will no longer be given priority to board first. But the remaining seats are often released 24 hours prior to the flight, says Seaney, and you can make a selection then. If that doesn't work, throw yourself at the mercy of the gate agent. Often he or she will take pity on you. Finally, don't finagle a fee-free seat and then spend $20 on lunch and snacks. Pack security-friendly (and airplane-friendly -- nothing smelly, please) foods for the trip.

Agents have similar relationships with international airlines, which still pay commissions. Agents can frequently get a client a preferred flight, lounge access, preferred boarding, and other perks, all for no extra charge.

And, Stallworth says, more often than not the savings will more than offset any fees the client might see.

Motley Fool contributing writer Molly McCluskey does not own positions in any of the companies mentioned. Follow her finance and travel tweets on Twitter at @MollyEMcCluskey.

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