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The Pros and Cons Of Travel Agents

You're planning your next vacation. In a world of cyberspace booking sites and toll-free telephone numbers, why use a travel agent?

"I like the convenience," says Scott Martin, a high school drama teacher in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y. "Travel agents handle all the things I don't want to deal with, making reservations at hotels, finding good air fares. They do all the planning and work, and all I have to do is write the check."

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California-based actor Jim Pollack appreciates his agent's expertise. He says, "I know that she has actually been to these places and that she has good taste. She got me into one of the best restaurants in Paris. I had an experience I'll never forget."

And many find that travel agents save them money. "A good travel agent can help clients find the best way to their destinations," says Charles Stevens, corporate sales manager for Rebel Tours, a Valencia, Calif.-based European tour operator. "If you call Continental Airlines directly, they are not going to tell you that American Airlines may have a lower fare. A travel agent can do that. Their computer systems search the airline fares continually. There are more than 200,000 fare changes every day. Travel agents have access to the latest, updated information."

Travel agents function as an informed and interactive gateway to the world of travel. In addition to booking tickets, tours, and cruises, they can make dinner reservations, buy theater tickets, and reserve rental cars. They also plan itineraries and give advice. Traditionally their services have been free to the consumer.

Airlines, hotels and cruise lines pay agents a commission out of the cost of the travel, typically about 10 percent. But since 1995, most major airlines have capped commissions at 8 percent, with a $50 maximum on domestic round-trip tickets. So many agents have begun charging service fees, typically $10 to $20 per ticket.

"It's worth it," says Mr. Pollack. "When I wanted to find an inexpensive flight within Europe, my travel agent found a low-cost airline .... It saved me far more than any fee would have cost."

Not all travel agents are as good Pollack's, however. "There are lots of inexperienced agents that set up shop and don't have the professionalism to do the job," warns Mr. Stevens. "Some of these people don't know the first thing about travel."

So how do you find a good travel agent? "Word of mouth is the best starting point," advises Jerry Brown, West Coast bureau chief for Travel Weekly, an industry trade publication. "You find a travel agent the way you'd find an attorney or other professional. Ask a friend. Then interview the agent. Ask, 'Have you been to this place?' Then listen carefully. If he starts to waffle in the answer, look for another agent."

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To be a member of American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) or Association of Retail Travel Agents (ARTA) the agent has to meet certain professional criteria. If you're considering a cruise, see if the agent is a member of CLIA, the Cruise Lines International Association, or NACOA, the National Association of Cruise-Oriented Agents. "And look for the initials CTC, for certified travel counselor, after the agent's name," advises Mr. Brown. That means the agent has completed a series of courses offered by the Wellesley, Mass.-based Institute of Certified Travel Agents. CLIA offers a similar program for cruise specialists, who earn the designation MCC, master cruise consultant.

Some, however, never consult a travel agent. "I peruse guide books; I do lots of research, and I make my own reservations," says Pat Hay, a former law office business manager who lives in Burbank, Calif., and has traveled to Hong Kong and London in the past six months. "I get a lot of information through searching the Internet."

In the last two years, the Internet has spawned thousands of travel Web sites. Many airline sites feature special fares, available only on the Internet, and several sites, such as Travelocity and Internet Travel Network, offer online booking. But the Internet will never replace the personal expertise of travel agents, says Mr. Brown. "Are you really going to trust your vacation to that little computer icon?"

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