Travel Agents It still pays to hire one, even in the Internet age
By Robb Mandelbaum

(MONEY Magazine) – If any trade seems to have been doomed by the Internet, it's the travel agent's. Yet nearly a decade after the industry's death was foretold, there remain solid reasons to consult a good one.

--They're on your side Travel agents once made 70% of their money issuing plane tickets. As airlines eliminated commissions, many travel sellers left the business--and those who stayed figured out how to make themselves relevant.

The result: They ally themselves with their custom ers--and the best, says Laurie Loucks of Boulder (Colorado) Travel, watch out for you "from start to finish." She recounts how a major snowstorm hit Denver in March 2003, leaving many travelers stranded. Starting early on the morning of the blizzard, she says, her agency put all of her customers' reservations in a queue and had them rebooked before they knew there was a problem. Most travelers couldn't even get through to their airlines.

--They find the lowest fare--fast Anyone with Web access can supposedly find the "lowest fare" in minutes. But to really know you found the best rate takes forever. Even with a fast connection, start manipulating your itinerary and suddenly half an hour is gone. Then repeat at three other sites--or 13.

But some agencies--and the number is growing--now have software on their reservation systems that instantly searches dozens of air and hotel booking engines. The tedium-free certainty is worth the $19 to $26 agents typically charge.

--They can sweeten the deal Travel agents tend to sell a lot of what they know. That limits your options, but it also means you're getting products with a proven track record. Plus, an agent who has a longstanding relationship with a particular property can get you special treatment--from fresh flowers on arrival to a free meal or upgrade.

--Not all "experts" are expert While agents increasingly specialize in things like cruises or adventure trips, an agent can call himself a "destination specialist" without having been there. Be sure to ask. How to find an agent who knows the territory and understands your needs? Ask friends and colleagues, of course. A good agent should ask lots of questions, and you should detect both enthusiasm and courtesy in his tone. Agent managers prefer to hire people with three to five years in an agency; you should too. --ROBB MANDELBAUM