Now that you can get great offers and deals on hotels or flight/train tickets on multiple websites and apps, is there any added advantage of going through a travel agent. Do they have any cheaper fares or promotions or any hidden benefits that is not commonly known?
It depends on many factors.
Many people find that booking cruises with travel agent gives you a lot better deals (e.g. on board credit). But still a lot of people book directly with the cruise line: to have full control.
With a good travel agent (which known you), you may get a lot less surprises: e.g. hotel not on touristic center of a city, etc. But it come with a huge cost.
Organizing a long travel may take a lot of time. With a good travel agent, you may give away some part of organizing.
Some location are very difficult to get for normal travellers (right moment to book, paperwork, local language, permits, etc.). This is seldom for hotels (but e.g. in some remote island), but for entry on parks, monuments, etc. it may be a relevant factor.
Visa: some countries requires a local travel agency document (or formal letter from hotel), e.g. Russia
Visa: you may live far from a consulate, and the visa gent may not accept remote (e.g. per post application/sending passports). Travel agents have often own channels to get the visa.
And travel agent could be your best friend, in case of problems: you speak in your language, and s/he known a lot better (from experience) how things will go, and so it could reassure you. [we get here some such near-panic question].
Employers often require it for a variety of reasons (see What reason does an employer have to mandate all travel booking be via the same travel agency? on The Workplace). Some advantages for the traveller include:
- If something goes wrong, it may be up for the travel agent to solve (depends on what goes wrong and why, of course).
- Travel agent will bill employer directly, so that employee does not need to claim potentially large out-of-pocket expenses back later.
For the booking part when you know what you want? No, book online.
But I have a travel agency that I'm still using for my holidays, and have used for many, many years. The #1 advantage is that they know me, have all my previous holidays on file and even remember (or wrote down) what I liked and didn't.
That means that I can literally call them and say "I need a holiday. Any suggestions?" - and I will get suggestions fitting to my taste and past experiences. And they'll build the package for me (flight, transfer, hotel, other transfer, other hotel, etc.) so I save a lot of time.
I'm ready to pay for that saved time in planning the details and figuring out good locations that I don't yet know. If you want mostly cheap, standard holidays or trips, go book by yourself. If you want an unforgettable holiday in a small resort that's great but not well-known, a good(!) travel agent is essential.
Among the things I found thanks to my travel agency: A private 2-house place in the Caribbeans, a small 8-bungalow hotel in the jungle with incredibly good service, a small 20-room hotel right on a private beach in Asia and a small resort on a private island also in Asia. Half of those aren't even on the Internet, and the other half I would've never found by myself even if I had looked.
(the same travel agents have also found me flights where the company travel agency told us it's impossible for that day, and instantly re-booked me on a local flight when a ferry transfer fell through, etc.)
The best routing might not be the fastest or the cheapest, and these things are hard to encode into search engine rules.
For example, Delhi airport does not allow you to even enter the building until four hours before your flight, and the airport subway starts later than most of the flights to Europe leave in the morning, so with the flights recommended by search engines I ended up having to find an auto near Delhi central station at 2 AM, and despite them being ubiquitous during daytime, that was somewhat challenging.
In Madrid, terminal 4S is connected to T4 by a subway, and access to the subway is combined with Schengen border control. If your overseas flight arrives at T4S, which most of them do, and your connecting flight leaves from T2, then a connection time of three hours is pretty much the minimum. It can be done in one, but that requires that immigration is fully staffed, the train system is running at full capacity, you get onto the first train, you know the way to the T4-T1 bus, the way from T1 to T2, and you pass through security quickly. This also requires a visa, because there is no airside transfer from T4 to the old terminal building.
A good travel agent knows all of these things, and might suggest a different routing.
Agent can help you apply for a visa, if your destination country requires one. If you are booking a package tour of some sort, they will take your passport and handle the communication with respective embassy. They can even apply you for an individual visa for a small fee.
They also still have good deals on all things packaged (such as, beach hotels/charters/transfers). Many tourists ignore those options, but they are still useful to older travellers and those traveling with kids.
Last time I booked a flight through an (offline) agent ten years ago I figured they must have a much better search engine than usually provided via websites. I was looking for some hidden city for my return flight, and while I had already spent like half an hour finding a cheap flight to my airport of origin, the agent came up with a cheaper flight to a different airport on a later date within minutes.
We were searching for flights from Europe to Argentina and found some ourselves online, but we went and spoke to a travel agent who told us about a special offer by KLM that would let us travel business class for much less than normal (low season).
Importantly, he was also able to put a 4 day hold on the tickets, so we could think about the extra cost (of business over basic) without losing the ticket option. He was also able to show what the online companies were offering to reassure us.
I don't think that would have been easy doing it ourselves. We're not novices, having booked our own trip around Columbia a few years ago. But for the small fee we found the experience quite positive.
It's worth remembering that in the same way insurance comparison websites are acting in the same role as an insurance broker, many travel booking sites are actually "online travel agents" ("OTAs" in industry jargon).
To truly cut out the travel agent, you need to book directly with each supplier - the airline, the hotel owner, the local taxi firm, etc. Doing so may well save you money because agents and aggregators will often make their profit by adding commission. The most immediate cost will be in your time, and the increased risk that you don't spot an option that an agency would have offered you.
Beyond that, there is something of a spectrum of benefits that an agency might or might not offer:
- Exclusive deals with some suppliers that you can't access directly
- Personalised expert service, most valuable if you have unusual tastes or needs
- Bonding / protection schemes like ATOL, which offers you protection in the event of supplier failures, which you otherwise need to insure against yourself
- A contact number for someone who speaks your language and can help when something goes wrong
For a "bucket and spade" or "city break" holiday to a common destination, you might decide the travel agent doesn't offer enough value, and finding a low-cost flight and local hotel or apartment is fairly straight-forward. For a more unusual trip, such as an overseas walking tour or round-the-world trip, you might decide that a travel agent's expertise is still valuable.
A travel agent might have more possibilities: for example, some years ago, I booked a trip with my wife. She wanted to stay in holidays a week longer than me, but we wanted to travel there together. No booking website allowed this constellation (as in: booking the arriving flight together and to seperated departing flights), but the travel agent was able to do it. Besides, that offer was way cheaper than anything we found online.