These days one is able to book airlines directly without having to go through a travel agent. Yet travel agents have not entirely disappeared and some of them are doing very well indeed. Why this apparent contradiction?
There are several scenarios in which it is in your best interest to use an agent.
If you are booking flights for a group of, say, ten or more travellers then do it via an agent. Different rules apply for group bookings. An agent is more likely to get you seated in a block together, rather than scattered randomly around the aircraft. (This depends on how far ahead you are booking – if you leave it too late you may be scattered over several flights!)
A group quotation will come with at least two pages of rules governing it, which it is in your best interests to familiarise yourself with. Your agent will point out key ones such as cancellation and change policies, but you should take the trouble to read all of them.
If you are going to book a flight between major cities such as London, Paris, Frankfurt or New York then your DIY Travel booking will work out fine.
However, if you are travelling between other cities you may very well find that an agent can get you there both cheaper and faster.
How so? The airlines do not fly from any particular city to any other particular city. Their route planning works on a hub-and-spoke principle, The cities we just mentioned are major hubs. Even if you start at a non-hub airport your DIY routing will work out okay as long as the ultimate destination is a hub.
Agents are specialists with a good knowledge of airline hubs and can often work out alternative routings for you that may be non-direct but cheaper. Often too, they can find flights to meet connecting flights that have a sensible minimum wait time, rather than leaving you in a possibly boring terminal for 20 hours.
Journeys with multiple stops
The third time that DIY may not be best is where you’re planning a trip with multiple stops. While some airline sites have search functionality for multi-segment flights, not all do. The majority have only a departure and final destination selection for on-line bookings. This is also true for some of the well-known ‘middle-man’ booking sites (and so-called “bucket shops”) where you are searching potentially hundreds of options for a specific route.
If you have extra requirements, such as specific meal selection, wheelchair assistance, meet-and-assist or an unaccompanied minor request, it may often be worth the peace of mind to pay a little more and have the booking competently handled by an agent and would be easier. Sorting it out yourself can be a considerable hassle, or even impossible (because some airlines do not, for instance, permit kosher or halaal meal requests). The agent will know, or can find out quickly, which airlines permit meal requests. This would be of benefit for diabetics, persons who have religious restrictions on what they may eat, and people travelling with babies.
If you have to take a guide dog on board with you, this can involve a lot of ‘red tape’ depending on the carrier, and would save you a lot of time to use an agent.
When DIY Travel works well
When not to use an agent? Domestic bookings, basic international (hub-to-hub). Sometimes travel agents have “sweetheart” deals with specific providers that may make components more expensive for you. Shop around for insurance: I bought travel insurance online for one of my own major journeys 25% cheaper than if I had booked it through the tied broker I usually use.
There is a world of choice on-line and depending on your travel requirements and how much of your own time you wish to spend planning your trip, will decide whether you will go on-line or through an agent.
A tip to remember. Most Internet booking sites have people behind the scenes, validating and actioning the bookings. Try to find a company that allows you to speak to the people. In travel as in other things, there are times that arrangements can fail or otherwise go awry and you will want to hear a voice on the other end, when needed. A 24 hour contact number is best.