When should you use a travel agent?

That tiresome argument between what makes a 'traveler' different from a 'tourist' is sometimes split along the lines that the latter used a travel agent. A tourist goes where he or she's led by an agent or package tour, the traveler does it all on your own. Yeah, well...

While the number of travel agents have dropped by two-thirds in the past couple decades, the news of agencies' death, per a recent New York Times article, has been greatly exaggerated. The 14 to 15,000 still-active agents have racked up two years of growth, and actually make up a third of the US$284 billion travel market still, particularly regarding 'complex leisure travel' like cruises, per this PhoCusWright study. (According to a 2010 Travelmole piece, travelers aged 16 to 24, often first-timers surely, are the most likely to use an agent.)

When should you use a travel agent? Here are a few reasons why an agents are working for some travelers.

1. Saving time and money

Some travelers just don't have time to plan for themselves, or they hate the time and effort it takes. And at the end of sorting through the myriad options online, it's hard to be confident that you've found the best deal. We wondered how much of the Lonely Planet community would be willing to pay for five hours' of saved online planning time, maybe just $30 to $50, and our poll (below) showed a nearly 50-50 split:

It's worth noting that over half of the US responders (52%) said 'yes,' while just about a third (35%) of Brits would. One of the Americans who said yes was Travel Channel's Samantha Brown, who told me, 'I like planning myself, but if they can save you five hours, sure, I'd pay $30 to $50.'

2. Special access

The Times article suggests that agents with specific niches have the relationships built to offer travelers access to places DIY planners couldn't find on their own, like a special after-hours tour of the Sistine Chapel. That's a temptation, surely. Even if you could find some of these special experiences yourself, they can save hours of research.

3. Building on your research

What's most interesting in the Times article is how agents are changing how they work. Travelers know much more what they want before going in than before. According to one upscale agency network, the better approach today is to say, 'You've done a lot of research, now how do we work together?'

It's frequently like that for guidebook authors when we meet fellow travelers. People sometimes ask what's cool or new, but just as many already know the basics already and ask for a recommendation for a specific need, like a beach hotel with nanny service and oodles of kid-friendly activities so the parents can feel like they're on vacation too.

4. Help with difficult/remote locations

The more challenging the place, the more useful an agent can be. Even intrepid guidebook authors find agents useful in certain circumstances. I've relied on agents for a number of things, such as add-on trips to river lodges and river cruises in eastern Siberia, or transport details and tickets from a private agent in Myanmar. Local agents are often invaluable when there are language barriers or when it takes someone with connections in the local community to facilitate travel or lodging.

How about you? Do you, or would you, use a travel agent?

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