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But how can you know if you've found a good agency and agent or not?

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How to Choose the Best Travel Agency

There are a great many ways that a good travel agency can help your travel planning.

Use the information in this and the previous article as a checklist.

Part 2 of a 3 part series - click for Parts  One  Two  Three



Travel is probably the most expensive intangible item you'll ever buy, and knowing when you have made the right choices is enormously difficult.

Most of us can benefit from the services of a good travel agency and a good travel agent.

But how do you know when you've found a good agency?

Continued from part one . . .

If you're just needing to buy a single roundtrip ticket to Chicago, you probably don't need to follow the nearly 20 evaluation steps outlined in part one and this article.

But if you're responsible for a sizable corporate travel budget, or if you're preparing to plan and purchase a major 'trip of a lifetime' experience, then you're going to want to be as certain as possible that you're placing your trust - and your money - in the best possible hands.  Read on, accordingly.

Who Has the Lowest Airfares?

In theory all travel agencies can access exactly the same published air fares, and so they should all be quoting you exactly the same price for any given itinerary.

There are exceptions to this theory, however!

Some agencies have negotiated special deals with some airlines.  Typically these special deals involving higher priced airfares rather than the lowest advance purchase fares, but if you're a business traveler who buys more expensive airfares, then sometimes an agency might have special deals that could be of great value to you.

Another exception relates to consolidator type fares.  These most commonly apply to international travel, but some - otherwise very costly - domestic fares are also available through consolidator outlets.  Consolidator fares can be very much cheaper than published fares, but may have more restrictions and penalties associated with them if you need to change/cancel your plans.

Some agencies refuse to buy consolidator type fares.  Others do, but don't pass any of the saving on to their client.  Ask if the agency can purchase lower priced consolidator tickets and what sort of saving this will give to you.

And then there are the many fares available online - not all of which are lower than regularly published fares!  Now that travel agencies no longer earn airline commissions, they should be willing to use the internet as part of their airfare researching, and to book/buy tickets for you on the internet.  Ask if they have any special tools to include internet fare searching as part of their fare research.

Find out how the travel agency can help you get better than published air fares - whether it be through discounts, unpublished fares, consolidator fares, rule breaking, or some other form.

Who Has the Lowest Hotel Rates?

Most people realize that the more sophisticated and larger hotels now play the same sort of pricing games that airlines play.  Any given room might have five or more prices, any one of which you might qualify for, depending on how the room is being booked.

Some agencies have access to 'corporate rate' programs that give them preferred rates at a selection of hotel chains.  These corporate rate programs are not necessarily the very best rates available, and you might be able to find better rates on the internet or somewhere/somehow else, but they are very much better than full undiscounted rates, and if you find yourself needing to stay somewhere that does not have hotels participating in discount programs you already belong to, an agency with a range of generic discounts can help you save money.

Other Preferred Supplier Relationships

Ask what travel companies the agency might have preferred arrangements with.  Quite possibly the agency might answer 'none', but equally possibly, they might disclose a long list of suppliers, perhaps as a result of consortium membership, or due to the volume of business they directly give to the supplier.

This list might indicate opportunities, but it might also indicate problems.  If you are a loyal Hertz renter, you'll get no benefit if the agency has a preferred relationship with Avis.

Ask also how these preferred relationships will benefit you.  That is, after all, the key issue from your perspective!  Does it mean you'll get lower rates?  Or perhaps special waivers and favors - see the next point.

Waivers and Favors

In the 'good old days' when travel agents and airlines were much closer together than they now are, airlines would almost automatically break their own rules to help travel agents.  If a travel agent had a preferred status with an airline, it could expect to get its clients put to the top of waitlists, preferred seats to be advance assigned, it could expect cancellation and change fees to be waived, and it could also expect other rules such as advance purchase or even, sometimes, staying over the weekend to also be modified.

This situation is much less common now, but a few airlines still have special relationships with a very few agencies, and will still give some grudging help when there is a mistake or special need.

It isn't only airlines, however, that can help out.  Any type of supplier can probably choose to waive some of its policies that might otherwise cost you money or cause you inconvenience.  But they'll only do that as a 'one-off' special favor for an agency that they work very closely with.

Ask your travel agency what sort of special help they can get from the travel companies you expect to be dealing with.

Can they get 'waivers and favors' from airlines and other suppliers

Upgrades and Amenities

Closely related to waivers and favors is the ability of some agencies to obtain complimentary upgrades and other small perks or bonuses.  In the good old days, airline representatives would hand out fistfuls of airline upgrade certificates to their favorite agencies.  This happens much less commonly these days, but rental car companies still regularly send out various upgrade coupons, and so too do other suppliers from time to time.

Some of these amenities are not of major value - for example, discount vouchers for airport parking - but they are another small extra service that the agency can provide for you.

Ask your agency what they might be able to get and give to you in the way of such coupons and certificates and perks.  Of course, you should only expect a level of special favors appropriate to the level of business you give the agency, but if you are a regular customer, giving them good business every month or two, you'd probably qualify for some special attention in return.

Added Value Services and Assistance

Even in this internet age, we all find an old fashioned brochure one of the best ways to evaluate a potential tour or hotel or other travel activity.  A good agency that provides comprehensive leisure travel services will have a comprehensive range of uptodate brochures on most major travel products and destinations, and will be able to get in other brochures to meet your interests if asked.

In addition, some agencies will also have a library of travel books and/or travel videos, which they may loan out to you.

A good agency will also have a wide range of their own reference material, such as probably various hotel directories, tour operator directories, and other information to help them find suitable products for your travels.

Some agencies even sell various travel accessories - power adapter plugs, headrest cushions, and other minor items that you often need but might find difficult/inconvenient to purchase elsewhere.

Ask the simple question - 'what else can you do for me that other agencies can't or won't do'?  The answer might surprise you.

Fees and Rebates

Some travelers still don't appreciate that a travel agency is a for profit business, same as the business they might work for themselves!

Travel agencies need to earn income, either from suppliers or, if not from their suppliers, then from their clients.  Back in the good old days, agencies received about 10% in commission from everything they sold, and they were content to build their business plan around these supplier commissions.  Now that airlines have zeroed out most of the commissions they pay, and with uncertain commission levels from other suppliers, agencies have to look to their clients for revenue when selling airline tickets.

But if the agency is selling you a $5000 tour package on which it earns a 'standard' 10% commission, it shouldn't need to also ask you for an 'itinerary planning fee' as well.  And if the agency gets an override commission from a supplier (ie more than 10%), then some agencies feel that at least some of this over-ride could be shared with the client.  My own feeling is that it is probably fair for the agency to split overrides more or less 50/50 with a client.

As a quick rule of thumb, it is reasonable to expect a travel agency to be able to earn between $50-100 for every hour that they are doing work on your behalf.  Surely a travel agent should be able to earn as much as an auto mechanic in a garage.

If they are not getting this much from the suppliers of the products they are selling to you - either because the suppliers pay low commissions, or because your travel requirements take up a lot of their time, then it is fair that they bridge the gap by charging you a fee.  But if they are earning substantially more than this general type of rate, perhaps it is also fair that they consider rebating some of the extra money received back to you.

This can also mean that if you go to an agent with a high priced tour already chosen, so that all the agency needs to do is quickly book the tour and handle the payment and document distribution, some agents will offer to give back some of their commission.

If you are looking at an ongoing relationship with an agency, your focus should be on an overall picture, with the various swings and roundabouts all taken into account - both by you and by the agency.  This might mean that the agency will waive some of its standard fees in recognition that sometimes you are an 'easy' profitable customer, while at the same time, the agency will not do line item by line item rebating.  If you're planning on giving a substantial amount of business to an agency, then a good agency will be willing to negotiate any basis of fees and rebates that works for you both.

Agency policies about fees - and rebates - vary substantially.

As further example of how things have enormously changed, these days even the airlines themselves will usually charge you a fee if you try and telephone them and book a ticket directly with them!

When Things Go Wrong

Murphy's Law seems to apply with double strength in the travel industry. Mistakes do occur, and often in the most inconvenient way possible for all concerned.

How an agency responds to problems is probably more important to you than just about anything else.

First of all, try and find out how likely it is that there might be problems.  Ask how stable and experienced their staff is.  Are their agents full time or part time?  Do any/many of the agents have any type of travel qualifications?

Ask if the agency has Errors and Omissions Insurance that will indemnify them if something goes seriously wrong.  If you end up in an unfortunate situation where lawsuits are the only solution, you want to be certain they will be able to settle any damages that are awarded to you.

Many times, when you are buying and paying for travel, you will be paying for your travel long before you actually travel.  Your money perhaps goes first to the travel agent, and then at some later time, the travel agent sends your money to the travel wholesaler, who in turn, at some later stage sends your money either to another middle man or to the actual suppliers of the travel products.  This means that all the people receiving your money typically get your money before they have to pay it to the next person in line, making for a 'float' or positive cash flow that can sometimes dangerously disguise businesses that are otherwise loss-making and, for all intents and purposes, bankrupt.

Ask if the travel agency has any type of trust account to handle your funds, or if they are commingled in with their ordinary operating funds.  If the agency has a trust account, then your funds are somewhat safer than if all money passes through a single general account.  Paying by credit card gives you extra protection, but may incur extra fees as well.

Other Agency Policies

It is important to distinguish between the policies that relate to the agency, and the policies that relate to travel products which the agency is arranging for you.  Agencies generally have to pass on the payment policies of their suppliers.  For example, if a supplier requires a $200 nonrefundable deposit, and the balance to be paid 90 days before your travels start, then the agency can usually not vary this policy.

It is harder to negotiate supplier policies, so when dealing with an agency, find out which policies are theirs and which are their suppliers.

Some agencies will ask for a 'good faith' deposit prior to doing a lot of research for you.  This is only fair.  Just like an accountant or a doctor, the ultimate product they have to sell is their time, not the travel arrangements they make for you.  If you make them spend time on your behalf, they are incurring very real costs that must be compensated.

Most people like to pay for most things by credit card these days.  This can sometimes be a problem with travel items.  A 2% credit card fee is easily absorbed by a clothing shop that has a 50% gross margin on their clothes.  But this same 2% is a huge part of a 10% margin, and so for this reason, few travel suppliers or agencies are able to accept credit cards at no extra cost.  Indeed, it is fair to say that travel suppliers who claim 'we accept credit cards at no extra cost' have probably already built this cost into all their rates!

It is also helpful to know if the agency has any types of service standards.  Do they promise that they will call you back within a certain time frame?  Do they in any other way provide any guarantees?

Read more in Parts 1 & 3

Part one provides the rest of the suggested selection criteria for how to determine which travel agency best matches your needs and style.

Part three tells you how to select an individual travel agent. Sometimes your choice of individual agent will be more important to you than the choice of agency.

Related Articles, etc

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Originally published 10 October 2003, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

Related Articles
How to Find the Best Travel Agency part 1
How to Find the Best Travel Agency part 2
How to Find the Best Travel Agent part 3


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