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updated 8/9/2011 8:24:58 AM ET 2011-08-09T12:24:58

Back before I became a diehard fan of travel agents, I was a diehard fan of doing it myself. But a few bad trips, many of which I've written about in this column, resulted in numerous comments from travel agents that they could have saved me the agony, not to mention quite possibly some money. Here's the story of my quest to find the perfect travel agent.

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Death of a middleman
With the advent of the Web, airlines figure they can sell directly to the customer. The travel agent is a classic middleman, and the death of the middleman was predicted even in the early days of the Web. Time was you had to call every airline yourself, or use a travel agent. Now, not only can you comparison shop over the Web, but you can book the flights yourself while downloading pictures of your grandkids in the background.

Companies and reservations services offer airfares, hotel rooms, car rentals, online vacation package deals, online B&B reservations, even bidding. With so much information right here on my laptop screen, why do I need to call anyone? And why do I need a travel agent?

There's something to this notion, and to tell the truth, for most routine travel I'm an unrepentant do-it-myselfer. But on the rare occasion I complain about one trip or another, I often get mail from travel agents who tell me "Get a good travel agent, and you won't have these problems." To my ear, the emphasis is on the word "good."

I suspected that travel agents still have their place in the world, and wanted to find out where that place might be.

What makes a 'good' travel agent?
Full disclosure: I'm in the market for a holiday trip to a popular destination (a Hawaiian island) for a friend's wedding. I figured I'd mix business and pleasure, and turn this article into a quest for an affordable airfare.

As a result, I had three agendas:

1) To find a "good travel agent." What is this elusive creature?
2) To experience this creature's purported magic first-hand.
3) To (somehow!) find a great airfare in a sold-out market.

A recent Monday afternoon's calls to some local travel agents went thusly:

First call: No answer, left message, no returned call within 48 hours, still haven't heard from them.

Second call: Spoke to an agent, gave her my itinerary, then had this exchange:

"We'll see what we can do, and give you a call." I had to ask when that call might come.

"Hopefully by the end of the week."

Remember, this was on Monday.

Third call: Receptionist answers, asks my name, then tells me (and I swear these were his exact words): "All our agents are currently busy with other customers. Please call back in 15 to 20 minutes."

Aside from the fact that he sounded like a computer-generated on-hold operator, he made no offer to take my name or my number to have someone call me. Call us, we won't call you ...

Fourth call: The folks at the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) are always trumpeting their agents, so I chose an agent who sported the ASTA logo in his Yellow Pages ad. Pay dirt.

Gene was funny, happily swapped war stories with me, called back promptly after investigating my itinerary, and explored other options at length when I wasn't entirely happy with prices or the airline. In short order, by using some alternative airports, he found a fare that was $200 cheaper than I had seen online.

He placed the reservation but asked if I could wait until the morning, as he was going to a party that night with some colleagues, and wanted to see if he could find anything interesting.

At 9:15 a.m., Gene called with some news: he had found a package deal with a three-night "throwaway hotel" (when you don't even have to show up if you don't want to) for almost $2,000 less than either of us could find anywhere else. He had nailed down our preferred dates of travel, if not our preferred airline, but beggars can't be choosers, as the saying goes. As I said before: pay dirt.

Finding a 'good travel agent'
Needless to say, I'm sold that a "good travel agent" can do some things no search engine will ever do. (I'll still use online booking sites, nonetheless, for speed and convenience, but will call my new travel agent much more frequently.)

Unfortunately, commission cuts could make finding a good travel agent that much tougher, as the best of the profession might move on, and potential future stars will choose other work.

A few guidelines for choosing your travel agent:

1) I have to trumpet the ASTA connection; go with an ASTA agency. ASTA has a code of conduct, a Consumer Affairs Department where you can register complaints against members, and a reputation to uphold. You can search for ASTA-affiliated agents on the organization's consumer site, TravelSense.org.

(Note that, on further inspection, I discovered that at least one of the agencies I didn't use was an ASTA shop. ASTA affiliation isn't a guarantee, but it's a good start.)

2) Does the agent tell you everything you need to know? When you don't like a certain airline, departure times or dates, or connection, does he shift gears immediately to find alternatives, or try to force the issue? If your agent responds well in these situations, stick by him.

3) Is the agent local? This is a personal preference, but one I think can pay off.

On occasion, you're going to want to drive by the agent's office to pick up tickets at the last minute, get passport photos taken or get reticketed in the event of changes. When flights are canceled, airlines go bankrupt or trips disappoint, you want to be able to stop in the office to straighten everything out, rather than write a half-dozen irate e-mails and or make a half-dozen angry phone calls.

4) Do the agent's fares and itineraries stack up well against the online booking services? Even when I call the airlines directly, I check an online reservations site to investigate my options ahead of time; I do the same with travel agents. The more information you have as a consumer of any product, the more likely you are to find what you really want.

When to use a travel agent
Strongly consider using a travel agent instead of doing it yourself in the following cases:

Group trips/sales.
Getting 25 people on the same plane with seats together at an affordable price is no job for a dilettante. Call a travel agent or outfitter immediately when traveling with a large group. Be firm and clear in your instructions on your budget, time and date restrictions, and other preferences or requirements.

Family travel.
I consider our family travel just a smaller subset of a group trip — we want sensible flight times, the fewest connections and shortest overall travel time possible, seats together throughout, hotel rooms with enough sleeping space, a car that can accept a child's seat, etc. A good travel agent understands all of this intuitively, and can save you the headaches of sorting through all of this yourself.

When looking for a package deal.
There are so many package deals out there, at hotels you've never heard of, with itineraries so vague you're not sure what country you're visiting, that you may need some assistance. (Our story on "Unpacking your vacation package deal" can also help.)

When you fly frequently.
When you fly frequently, and especially when it's SEM (Someone Else's Money), having a good travel agent can be essential. No hours on hold, no endless Web surfing, no hassles; just a quick phone call, and your e-tickets arrive in your inbox.

When traveling to an exotic locale or new "resort" area.
I once took a trip to a new resort that hadn't completed its plumbing installation, overlooked a beach at an oil drilling site and was plagued with thefts. I rented a car and disappeared for the rest of the trip, swallowing the cost of the hotel.

A good travel agent has an ear to the ground and will know whether a new hotel in an exotic location is safe and ready to welcome travelers. Many travel agents routinely visit hot new locations (often on the tab of the resort — see potential conflicts of interest below).

Additionally, if any components of your itinerary collapse, your travel agent is accountable to help try to set things right. If you made all your reservations yourself, you're up the creek without the proverbial paddle.

When you don't have time.
You might save a few dollars in fees, while you lose two hours in research. What is your time worth? Travel agents earn their keep by doing work you don't have time to do.

When you have all the time in the world.
If you have a relationship with your travel agent, you can ask them to keep an eye out for good deals to your favorite locations. Sure, e-mail notification services can do the same, but your travel agent might catch something a "bot" might not.

You have the itinerary from H-E-Double Hockey Sticks.
If you have a particularly sticky itinerary — one with stopovers, rented cars in every city, several hotels and the like — you might want to get a pro on the job.

When you have a great travel agent.
If you've found the world's best travel agent right in your neighborhood, throw them all your business. You won't do better anywhere else. She can see everything the booking engines can see, and sometimes more. She'll make a living, you'll become a preferred customer and the world will be a better place. (Well, maybe not, but we can try.)

When to do it yourself
I do believe there are times when you can just make your bookings yourself:

Routine travel.
If you're booking your routine flight, you can probably do it yourself online with your preferred airline. This way, there's no third party "monkey in the middle" if you have to make quick, simple decisions about departure times, prices or other factors. You make a few clicks and it's done. No travel agent is going to make this process simpler or likely even cheaper.

When you're working on word of mouth, or with Mom and Pop operations.
Many small hotels, B&B's, local car rental joints or similar outfits don't register on the average travel agent's radar screen. When a friend tells you about this great and affordable little cabin that you can get by calling the local bait shop, make the call yourself.

What to look for, what to watch out for
A good travel agent will answer the following questions honestly and without resistance.

Do you apply a surcharge to my purchase? How big is it?
I think it is unfortunate that travel agents have been forced to apply a surcharge to get paid for the valuable work they do. And usually they're worth the admittedly small fee. I have no sympathy, however, for agents and agencies that institute a surcharge and don't tell their customers until after the fact.

Does the price quote include all taxes and other charges?
The odd travel agent will quote you the base price on a flight or hotel stay; then when you try to pay, it's much higher. Even online booking engines quote final prices; expect your travel agent to do so as well.

What about incentive programs?
Are agents getting paid to steer you to a specific airline, cruise companies, hotels, or car rental agencies? You want to know.

Are there airlines that do not appear in their computers?
Some airlines are more equal than others. Some airlines, such as Southwest and other smaller discounters, may not participate in the central reservations system. Good agents will know to check those airlines' sites when appropriate.

Do they routinely work with vacation package companies?
The truly creative agent might not just offer you an airfare, but might find a vacation package that could even come in cheaper than the flight.

Potential conflicts of interest
An agent who is paid to find the best airfare, but is simultaneously paid by airlines to steer customers to their flights, encounters a clear conflict of interest. While most agents should be assumed honest, you want to know about these arrangements, as the agent is put in a tough position of saving you a few bucks or making a few more bucks for himself.

It's a conflict of interest, a little like when a real estate agent represents both the buyer and the seller. Whose interests are they protecting? Besides their own, of course. Please understand that I'm not attacking travel agents' right to make a living. But when an agent sells out the customer on the other end of the phone to the airline on the other end of an incentive program, we have a problem.

Familiarization trips
Often called "fam" trips, these are partly educational trips for travel agents, and partly favors from travel companies, who often expect to be "paid back" with sales to that destination. Probably a necessary evil, but when someone recommends a new locale she's just visited and loved, remember that she didn't pay as much as you will to visit there. Again, ask the tough questions.

Overrides
An "override" refers to an incentive program where agents are rewarded, in commission increase or other perks, when they sell a minimum number or dollar amount of reservations for a particular airline, hotel, car rental company, cruise line or the like. The temptation to steer passengers to that company can be overwhelming, even if it's not entirely in the best interests of the traveler.

Overrides are primarily an issue at large companies; your average local company can't get anywhere near the numbers required for most overrides.

Not slamming agents
I'm not slamming agents by highlighting these issues; remember, one just saved me $2,000. I'm merely reinforcing my eternal credo: caveat emptor (let the buyer beware). Do your homework to find that "good travel agent," and you won't regret it.

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