3 Real-Life Ways Travel Agents Save You Money (That Expedia Can’t)
Many an article has been written about why you'd use a travel agent. They usually cite saving you time, the expertise they bring to the table, and knowing you have an advocate if anything goes wrong as the most enticing reasons to use an agent.
Really? I agree whole-heartedly but let’s be honest here, that’s kinda hogwash if you aren’t sold on using a travel agent in the first place. You want tangible, monetary benefits—something that will make an immediate difference (especially in your bank account), and something you can’t get from Expedia, Booking.com, Travelocity, etc.
So, let’s chat about 3 little-known ways you can save money booking with a travel agent instead of Expedia.com (or other OTAS — online travel agencies).
Here's a sneak peek!
Can't believe your eyes? Read more below!
1. You Can Pay in Installments (Deposit and Final Payment)
When you book your vacation online, you can only book with a full payment. When you use a travel agent, you can book by putting down a deposit. Yup, you can reserve your spot for as little as $100 per person1.
When you book your vacation online, you pay in full. When you use a travel agent, you can book by putting down a deposit.
Here’s how paying in installments helps you:
You can budget
Wouldn't it be nice to reserve your flight/room even if you don't have all the money up front? When you book with a travel agent you can do just that: Book your trip with as little as $100 per person and still while still having months to budget and save for your vacation. Best of both worlds.
Even if you're money bags or grandma/pa is footing the bill, and you could pay for your entire vacation up front, consider this . . .
Maybe you’re still a skeptic or don't need to budget for your trip. After all, you’re good with money—you have ample savings to draw from for your vacation.
I’m a saver too, so I’ll speak straight to your thrifty lil' heart. Compound interest.
Keep that money in the bank with the rest of your savings and let it earn you some interest! Depending on the cost of your vacation and how far ahead you book, it can add up. So next time you're tempted to scour the web for weeks, thinking you might find something for $50 less, remember you could earn that in interest and spare yourself a lot of stress.
Credit Card Savings
If you plan to finance your trip on a credit card, booking with a travel agent can offer you huge savings.
If you plan to finance your trip on a credit card, booking with a travel agent can offer you huge savings.
The ability to pay in installments (deposit and final payment) is available to anyone, regardless of credit history. And even more exciting? It has comes with a 0% interest price tag! Paying in installments will save you months of credit card interest that would otherwise accrue on your trip purchase.
BUT, you say, thinking you've caught me, "Expedia.com has a Book Now, Pay Later program!" Here's the thing. Assuming you meet all of Expedia's application and booking requirements, you'd be paying 10% to 30% APR . . . with a repayment term of 3, 6 or 12 months.
When you book with a travel agent, you can get early bird perks. What are some of these early booking perks? Here's just a few:
- Plenty of room availability
- Choicest flights to pick from (those charters fill up fast!)
- Early booking incentives
2) Lock-in the Price and Space on Your Vacation for 24 Hours
When you book online at Expedia or other OTAs, your space/price isn't confirmed until you've paid (in full). Why is this a problem? You could lose your seat during the checkout process. Or prices could change while you're waiting for info or confirmation from you tragically type-B travel partner(s).
We've all suffered the heartbreak of doing hours of research and diligently filling in tedious traveler info only to learn the price isn't available when you go to process your payment. When you use a travel agent, they can put your reservation on hold, without you having to worry things will sell out or prices will change. This is especially handy when you're coordinating travel plans with others.
A travel agent can place holds, lock in prices and reserve your spot free of charge. Online agencies don't offer that option.
But how does a travel agent save you money because they place holds? Basic market principles: when supplies start to dwindle and demand goes up . . . so do prices. A travel agent can put things on hold free of charge, locking your price in and reserving your spot before the inventory sells out. Online agencies don't offer that option.
When a travel agent puts your vacation on hold, it’s typically for 24 hours, or in some situations it could be until the end of the day.
Either way, putting a hold on your purchase gives you time to think it over, and coordinate with the other travelers. The best part? All the while, you can sleep easy knowing the pricing isn’t going to fluctuate and you won’t lose your space.
It’s also worth mentioning a hold is something agents do as part of their services, there is no charge.
Now, let’s talk air-only bookings because that’s a little different.
3) Airline Tickets Can Be Put On Hold
If your air is a part of your trip package (part of the tour/ cruise/ vacation package), see #2 above! You're good to go. But, if you're booking a flight only, not every agent will offer that kind of booking service.
Why not? Booking air-only travel is a whole different animal and not all agencies are equipped to (or want to) deal with it.
I mention this because if you call an agency and they say air really isn’t their thing, I don’t want you to be disheartened. Just like you'd check out different websites, check different agencies.
Agents can put you airline tickets on hold, which reserves your seat and guarantees the price until 11:59pm.
So, what can a travel agent offer you that you can’t get from Expedia.com? With online agencies, you can't guarantee your seat or price of your flight until payment has gone through.
This is where the travel agent magic happens: agents can put your airline ticket on hold, which reserves your seat and guarantees the price until 11:59 pm that day (or, more accurately, the end of the agent’s business day). There is no charge for the hold2.
If you’re booking full-fare tickets like Y Class, Business Class or First Class, an agent can typically reserve your seat with no money down for much longer than the end of the day—sometimes even up to the day before departure. 3.
How is a hold different from the dot 24-hour rule?
Okay, here's a long (but important) side note: The hold perk we talked about above? That's different than the DOT 24-hour rule.
What is the DOT 24-hour rule? The DOT requires that, as long as a ticket was booked seven days before departure, the consumer can cancel within 24-hours without penalty. You might have seen something like this on an online travel agency website:
While it may look like a perk, it's actually a regulation. All travel agencies are required to follow the 24-hour rule, including online travel agencies like Booking.com and Travelocity.
This regulation is not the same as the holds agents can put on your flight. An agent holds your seat and fare without money down.
Using a travel agent hold allows you to skip the hassle of booking, paying for, and then cancelling the ticket the next day . . . and after all that, you still have to wait for the refund to process. One thing to be aware of is that it may take awhile to get your refund. It's not instant. And if you're really unlucky, like this traveler that Chris Elliot helped out, you may end up in a black hole of OTA support trying to get your refund.
You Need Proof? Okay. Here's Some Data
You want some hard numbers. I don't blame you.
Here's some info: In 2016, ASTA's report Best of Both Worlds: Quantifying How Travel Agents Save Consumers Time and Money, stated, "Consumers report that travel agents save them an average $452 per trip 4 plus four hours in travel planning, and help them avoid costly mistakes."
Expedia's research indicates the average America spends 22.95 hours booking a trip in the 6 weeks before departure.
How much is 4 hours of time worth? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics 5, the average hourly wage in the U.S. as of Sept. 2019 registered at $28.09/hr. Over four hours, it'll save the average American $112.36, which is nothing to shake a stick at.
But 4 hours is a very shy estimate of time savings: Expedia's own 2017 research6 indicates the average American spends 22.95 hours booking a trip six weeks before departure, leading to a total of $644.66 in time savings if you book with a travel agent.
Why OTAs No Longer Offer the "Best Deal"
Travel agents had a huge setback in the 1990s when airlines cut commissions. You may have heard of it? To put it simply, with the commission cuts and emergence of OTAs, everyone thought travel agents were dead.
Excuse me for a second, we need to have a little mood music playing quietly in the background for this next section . . .
No, but for real, you need to press play to get the feel I'm going for here! Don't be a fun-hater. Go ahead and press play, I'll just wait.
Okay! We're ready!!!
Ahem . . . times have changed though, my friend.
CHANGE IN Competition
Similar to the shift travel agents went through in the 1990s, the OTAs and aggregators landscape is currently changing, resulting in dramatic reductions in commissions and aggregate deals.
In a breakdown of the new OTAs landscape in a 2017 article in WIRED, it explains that aggregators (OTAs) used to get their their discounted prices from vendors trying to dump empty rooms, seats and off-season inventory. In return, they'd make a pretty penny on the deal. But this was when there weren't so many OTAs in the game.
The hospitality industry realized OTAs were a bit like playing with fire. They could move inventory, but in return they required 20-30% commission . . . and weren't great at customer service. That's a steep price considering hotels pay travel agents 10-16% commission on bookings.
With the cost of their distribution channel commissions nearly doubling, hotels are fighting to rein in costs. Major chains are doing this by guaranteeing the best pricing when travelers book direct (vs. an OTA).
Here's Hilton's promise:
So . . . how can travel agents save you money? Seems like it's just best to book direct, right?
Wrong. Check this out:
Accredited travel agents are listed as having access to the best pricing right in Hilton's Price Match Guarantee!
I already hear you asking, "So what? Traditional travel agents can access the lowest rates for Hilton. Not to point out the obvious, but online travel agencies are travel agencies, too!"
SURPRISE! OTAs may technically be travel agencies but not according to Hilton's definition of an Accredited Travel Agent:
What does all this mean? That travel agents are just as competitive as OTAs (or maybe even more so) when it comes to pricing.
There isn't a secret database of deals that only OTAs like Expedia, Booking.com, or Priceline have access to. In fact, we've seen that in some cases, like Hilton, they are specifically excluded from deals.
In the end, vendors realize that paying traditional agencies a 10-16% commission makes sense. You only play when they make a sale. When you consider the agent brings the client, sells the product and provides service and follow-up, it's quite a deal!
And for the win . . . let's be honest, it's hard to deny that the customer service experience a travel agent provides leads to much happier travelers.
63% of consumers polled said using an agent makes their overall trip experience better.
In fact, in the ASTA article mentioned above, "63% of consumers polled said using an agent makes their overall trip experience better." If you've ever called into an OTA's customer service line, you know you won't have a 63% chance you'll end the conversation feeling like they made your trip better.
Too often people have the notion that online agencies are superior to travel agencies. Not so, I say! The perks above are little-known (but super snazzy) and offer a compelling reason to try using a travel agent if you aren't using one already!
Here's where you can find some great travel agents that can save you money:
If you still aren't convinced, check out another article, "Using a Travel Agent vs. Booking Online."
Special thanks to the following agents for their insights: Bonnie Lee, Colleen Preston, Alyssa Schulke—you're awesome, thank you!
The Fine Print
Lots of fine print. It's not because I'm trying to mislead you (I would have a guilty conscience forever if that was my MO) but because travel is complex and far from one-size fits all—there are multiple variables to take into account for each situation. But, I promise you, the bottom line is travel agents can do some really nifty stuff for you that an online agency cannot. Try one out.
- Down payment perk: It can usually be found when you book this type of travel: cruises, vacation packages, tours. The amount of the down payment will vary based on your booking. If you’re purchasing close in (let’s use booking within 45 days of departure as a guideline here), you’re going to have to pay it all up front. No perk for you. ↩
- Air on hold perk: Travel agents may not be able to do this on every single airline, but can do it on the majority of airlines. Flights close to departure may not be able to be put on hold. There is typically no fee to put the flight on hold but most travel agents charge a service fee for booking air only reservations. ↩
- Full-fare ticket holding perk: This perk holds the space, but does not guarantee the fare. The rule of thumb is that the higher the ticket class, the longer the agent can hold your seat without payment. ↩
- Source: "New Study Finds Travel Agents Save Consumers an Average of $452 Per Trip." Travel Market Report, June 2016. ↩
- Source: The Bureau of Labor and Statistics, 2019 ↩
- Source: "The American Traveler's Path to Purchase." Expedia 2017 ↩