Even though I'm a travel writer, I sometimes use a travel agent. His savvy advice and careful research save me time and money. Like any professional, he charges fees. It makes sense. "You wouldn't walk into a lawyer's office and expect them to give you free advice," said Chris Russo, president of the American Society of Travel Agents, or ASTA, a trade group based in Alexandria, Va.
But some travel agents do give free advice. Because they earn sales commissions of 10 percent or more from certain cruise and tour companies, they often charge nothing to book these. Not so with airline tickets, which generally don't earn commissions, and some complicated itineraries that might take hours or days to assemble.
Travel agents, who sell nearly 40 percent of all travel in the U.S., can be helpful. But knowing when to engage one and what to pay can be confusing. I contact my agent to book cruises and vacation packages, for which he charges nothing, and foreign trips, where his services are invaluable. I book my own domestic air tickets and hotels.
As suppliers tighten up on sales commissions, more agents are charging. Depending on the agency and the service, you might pay nothing, a flat fee, a percentage of the trip cost or by the hour.
Here's what to expect and why:
Air tickets: Nearly all travel agencies charge fees, typically $25 or more, to book these. That's because major airlines stopped paying sales commissions on domestic tickets in 2002. Issuing a ticket isn't cheap, said Russo, who runs Travel Partners in Broomfield, Colo. It might cost about $30 per booking, he said, when he factored in salaries and overhead such as office leases, insurance and fees to access the ticket clearinghouse.
Cruises and tours: Last year less than a third of agents charged fees to book these trips. But that number might be increasing for cruises as agents become caught between falling fares and sales commissions. Cruise lines have begun deducting port fees, fuel surcharges and other items from the total eligible for commission, said Joe McClure, president of Montrose Travel in Montrose, Calif. With some fares less than $100 per person per day, it might not pencil out for the agency.
An agent who books a $299 weekend cruise might earn a commission on only $99 of it, or about $12, McClure said, but the transaction might cost his company $30. Some agencies charge fees to make up the difference. McClure said he sends customers seeking cheap cruises to his company's Web site, where transaction costs are lower.
Hotels: More than half of agents last year charged service fees to book lodgings. Whether you're likely to be charged depends on the type of hotel. Because big chains and luxury lodgings often pay sales commissions, your agent might book these for free. But small independent hotels, budget places and bed-and-breakfast inns might not pay commissions, so expect a booking fee for those.
Trip planning: Last year two-thirds of agents charged for this service, one of their most valuable. McClure and Russo said they let individual agents decide whether to charge, depending on the trip. For itineraries that require significant research and don't bring in enough commissions to cover costs, McClure said, the charge would be $30 to $50 an hour. Russo said he charged $100 per hour, which was non-refundable but could be applied to the trip cost.
The bottom line: Feeling exploited? Don't. The average travel agent makes less than $29,000 per year in this thin-margined enterprise, ASTA says. When you pay a service fee, "we're not getting gold rims for our Escalades or Mercedes," Russo said.
And you might get priceless help.