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Book with travel agents/tour operators or on your own?

25th anniversary next March. We have decided 3 nts Venice/2 Florence/4 Rome.
We've been working with a travel agent and I think that's the final itinerary. Now we are working in hotels and tours.
Venice will be pretty much on our own. Looking for good hotel (we will spend the most money here cause it's our actual anniversary date). Wants are balcony/terrace. Location doesn't have to be grand canal but fairly central.
Florence is a stopover for shopping and some art. Maybe a half day tour further into Tuscany.
Originally I wanted some time on Amalfi coast but agent has shown us a 12-14 hour small group tour from Rome to amalfi and positano and Pompeii that we will probably do.
And we wouldn't have to change hotels a 4th time.
My main question is: what should we let agent handle and what can we do on our own? Like hotels. Is it best to book through agent and tour operators or direct to hotel? Rates look close to the same.
We have our itinerary now just need details. Agent suggests using tour operators for booking because they can handle language barriers, currency fluctuations etc.
We are down to details and I'm already nervous about making right decisions. Especially hotel bookings.

Posted by
2353 posts

I always book directly with hotel especially if booking smaller boutique hotels. Most have online booking via website - this way you have instant confirmation.

Post your hotel choices - the kind folks here will share their experiences and likely offer options.

For organized tours make sure your agent has experience with them - once again the folks here are a huge collective resource.

Posted by
7186 posts

Ask your travel agent:
1) Have you ever been to Venice, Florence or Rome?
2) Do you have personal experience with any of the recommended hotels?
3) Are you out of your mind sending me on a 14 hour group tour from Rome when I'm already IN one of THE most culturally significant cities in the world (Rome) where I could spend a month and still not see/do/experience/taste everything???

I'm not a fan of TAs.

Step 1) Book your airfare into Venice and home from Rome.
Step 2) Book hotels in each of the cities
Step 3) Go!

PS - book hotels but don't choose a non-refundable rate and you can cxl if you want. not a big deal.
PS#2 - if the TA tries to sell you traveler's cheques, pre-loaded AAA debit cards, Eurail Passes then RUN for the hills and don't look back!

Posted by
355 posts

I prefer to book hotels on my own, and I do so directly with the hotels, rather than a booking agency. That way if a problem arises, I deal with them directly rather than having to go through a third party. After booking, I oftentimes contact the hotel's concierge for additional information on the services they offer. We have worked with a travel agent in the past, but found that she did not have access to many of the smaller, boutique type hotels or the B&Bs that we enjoy. On our last two trips, I have booked tours on my own after gathering input and suggestions from fellow travelers on the forums. They can provide you with a wealth of information on specific tours, guides, booking etc. I've never encountered a problem with language barriers or currency fluctuations. Enjoy your trip!

Posted by
83 posts

How comfortable and interested are you in arranging details? How much time can and do you want to spend doing this part?

I did all of our planning/arranging... and I enjoyed it. It's part of the trip experience for me. I knew I may screw something up, but was willing to take the chance. And I knew there'd be no one to call and help me if there was a problem.

All worked well for us... though a TA could have probably shortened our 2 day delay in returning (cancelled flights)... part of the adventure!!!

If you get help, as previously mentioned... make sure they've actually "been there done that".

Have a great time!

Peg

Posted by
238 posts

Walks of Italy is great. They limit their tours to 12 people. They have many tours for each of the cities you are visiting.
Check them out

Posted by
6543 posts

There are some places in the world that I'd use a travel agent, but Western Europe is not one of them. When I would use a T/A is if 6 or more people were going, as logistics with groups of people can be difficult. And I'd use a travel agent on a cruise as many are actually consolidators--wholesale purchasers of trips at price discounts.
The internet has essentially done away with most of the travel agencies in the U.S. The travel information on the internet is massive, and so is the feedback from travelers that have been there and done that. Spend a little time reading, and it's easy to figure out what hotels and other accommodations are preferred.
When I hit the ground in any city, I'm already familiar with where our hotel is, and all the businesses and restaurants close by.
We often take the Free Walking Tours when we're in larger cities where they work off tips. And no travel agent is required as they're on the internet telling you where and when to meet.
Very seldom do we have any language barrier as English is the language of the world. And we use our regular credit cards any chance we get--and just use the ATM for the little cash required.
Don't worry about hotels as there are so many recommendations and ratings online. Reservations can be made in a couple of minutes online. We often make our reservations (after the first night) on a Chromebook as we travel from place to place. It just works well.

Posted by
981 posts

When you say a "tour operator" are you talking about an outfit that deals as a third party retailer of tours?

I booked directly with the tour company:
Florence: Walkabout Florence "Best of Tuscany Tour" was fabulous. All day tour to the Tuscany countryside that includes lunch at an organic farm.
Rome: Walks of Italy, many different tours to choose from, small groups, rick steves discount.
Rome: Eating Italy walking food tour, they offer day and night tours...small and great food and history.

We were also considering an all day Amalfi and the cost was wayyy too much for us and we don't want to just "stop at a scenic point and take a picture", SOO we decided to save that for another trip...which is happening this in May.

Posted by
6236 posts

Hotel bookings are very easy to do on your own as far as scheduling a trip. I'm not sure what an agent can add (and if they have any conflicts by steering you to certain hotels where they get a commission). I use www.booking.com or www.venere.com and everything is very straightforward, it would be like booking a hotel in the states. Most sites have translations in English so there are hardly any barriers left. I don't know what "currency fluctuations" have to do with anything...you lock down a price that you're comfortable with and just know that it will cost roughly whatever the exchange rate is on the day the transaction goes through electronically. Travel agents don't have any influence over small changes in the exchange rate.

Your three chosen cities are very straightforward. All that's needed is a good guidebook.

Posted by
31055 posts

Catherine,

I always book my European flights through a travel agent and recent experience has proven that to be a really good policy! I always book hotels myself, usually using the listings in the guidebook. I prefer that as it gives me a choice in terms of location, "comfort level" and price.

Unless you're planning on taking some kind of organized tour while there, I'm not sure why "tour operators" would be needed.

Posted by
23851 posts

12-14 hour small group tour from Rome to amalfi and positano and Pompeii

In my opinion that's just nuts.

Rome to Amalfi is around 3 and a half hours each way. But the driver is required by law to have a break every 2 hours. So figure 4 hours each way. That's 8 of your 12 to 14 hours gone already.

You need at least 3 or 4 hours at Pompeii for any sort of a decent overview. So where is the trip to Positano and Amalfi coming in, plus the hour drive from the Amalfi Coast to Pompeii? Drive by?

If your travel agent wants to hook you up with certain big tour operators is that for your benefit or because they will make money out of it?

Posted by
11437 posts

I haven't used a travel agent for decades.

I always book all my flights and hotels.. and I usually book my hotels on their websites. .but I have used booking.com many times also. Sometimes I use it just to get ideas and names of hotels.. then I check the hotels actual website. I book on which ever is cheaper.

I use review sites to find hotels.. sometimes booking.com reviews.. and always check tripadvisor.com reviews.. I read them carefully and try and get a general concensus on best deal and whether hotel is right for us.

I don't trust travel agents. And.. get this..I have a good friend who is one.. but thankfully she doesn't live in same town as me so I don't feel obligated to use her.. lol. See.. travel agents are not paid by you.. they are paid by the hotel, so travel agents book hotels that pay them commission.. it may not be the best deal or location for you.. but its good for them.. and as noted.. most travel agents are not recommending hotels they have personally stayed at.. so their research is no different then what you can do yourself.

Start this way.. go on forums.. this and others.
Post a question like this " Good hotel for under ___ euros per night in good location" or something to that effect. When people post names.. google them for reviews and websites.. there you have an easy start.
Try and explain in post what your priorities are.. location, close to sites, views, quiet area, party area etc etc.

Have fun, I love the planning phase.

Posted by
11437 posts

I haven't used a travel agent for decades.

I always book all my flights and hotels.. and I usually book my hotels on their websites. .but I have used booking.com many times also. Sometimes I use it just to get ideas and names of hotels.. then I check the hotels actual website. I book on which ever is cheaper.

I use review sites to find hotels.. sometimes booking.com reviews.. and always check tripadvisor.com reviews.. I read them carefully and try and get a general concensus on best deal and whether hotel is right for us.

I don't trust travel agents. And.. get this..I have a good friend who is one.. but thankfully she doesn't live in same town as me so I don't feel obligated to use her.. lol. See.. travel agents are not paid by you.. they are paid by the hotel, so travel agents book hotels that pay them commission.. it may not be the best deal or location for you.. but its good for them.. and as noted.. most travel agents are not recommending hotels they have personally stayed at.. so their research is no different then what you can do yourself.

Start this way.. go on forums.. this and others.
Post a question like this " Good hotel for under ___ euros per night in good location" or something to that effect. When people post names.. google them for reviews and websites.. there you have an easy start.
Try and explain in post what your priorities are.. location, close to sites, views, quiet area, party area etc etc.

Have fun, I love the planning phase.

Posted by
11700 posts

I use www.booking.com or www.venere.com and everything is very
straightforward

We do the same although we've booked a couple directly through the hotels when they have websites with English options/booking capabilities. Venice, Florence and Rome are very easy to explore on your own; we haven't felt the need yet for professional guide services in Italy (we're not fond of sightseeing in a group) although some travelers enjoy those. If that's something you prefer, you've been given some good suggestions by some of the posters above; no need to have an agent do the booking.

Currency fluctuations have nothing at all to do with using an agent or not: they are what they are for everyone, and there's not a thing an agent can do about them. If you were told that they can, that's a red flag not to use them, IMHO.

Originally I wanted some time on Amalfi coast but agent has shown us a
12-14 hour small group tour from Rome to amalfi and positano and
Pompeii that we will probably do.

With only 4 nights in Rome (3.5 days of sightseeing time, after subtracting transfer time from Florence), I would strongly advise against this. You'll spend way too many hours in a tour bus without doing/seeing much else, and barely scratch the surface of Rome as it is in the short amount of time that you have. The AC really demands 3-4 days: a one-time shot leaves you seeing it out the window, and that one day possibly rainy or otherwise inclement. Really, there are much better things to do than spend the bulk of 14 hours on a bus!

Posted by
1728 posts

I really enjoy the planning as well, and have gone it alone (with my wife) for two European trips, with a third coming up next February. And isn't that why we're here on this forum, to be empowered in that regard? The folks on these threads are the most sane & experienced in the business, not a lot of BS or hidden agenda here. Can't count the number of valuable tips I've gotten along the way.

To each his/her own, but there is something about planning in advance the right way, and by that I mean not choreographing everything down to the last minute, but to have done enough research to have options at every turn. More like, 'OK, what do we want to do today?' or '...where do we want to eat tonight?' And you check the board, on your tablet or Smartphone. I usually have a bunch of links and data on an Excel worksheet I've compiled. It's self-travel in the 21st Century.

Certainly, there are things that have to be nailed down upfront. The flights, the hotels/apartments, maybe book a museum like the Vatican or Uffizi. But other than that, man, I'm open to suggestion. Rent an apartment, sleep off the jetlag, then open up the window and see what's out there. I love that. Granted, this tactic might not work that well in high season with throngs of crowds in popular locales, but we travel off or shoulder season so I can only go by those experiences.

Any of my friends who've used TA's or gone on tours that ask me how to do it on their own, I just tell them to let their fingers do the walking. Access a good online map, like Rome2rio. See what's feasible logistically. And read this forum. Learn and do. With each successive trip, I've done it better and less expensively. When your own plans turn out right, you feel great. Heck, even the screw-ups are fodder for good stories when you get home.

Posted by
11613 posts

I, too, have not used a travel agent in about 30 years.

I sometimes take a site-specific tour, but otherwise I read as much as I can about a place and tour it on my own. RS has some podcasts that are good. I still like to stop at the TI office to get a map and see what's going on.

Hotel bookings: sometimes I surprise myself in a good way, sometimes it turns out to be a place that I will not stay at again. This happened once in 30 hotels last summer. I use booking.com, filter by what I want (breakfast, no prepayment, free cancellation, wifi, view, etc.), then look at the map (I like to stay in historic centers, near a major sight), then read reviews. Booking.com's reviews are done by recent guests; booking.com sends guests a review link a few days after their stay is completed).

Rome2rio.com is good but prices are not necessarily correct, and better options may be available only seasonally. But it's a place to start to find out if your itinerary is feasible in terms of travel time.

Posted by
6236 posts

Consider planning this on your own. If nothing else, it will sharpen your skills and convince you that, for very straightforward trips (where you're staying put for a number of days in a limited number of cities and transport between them is easy to plan), there is really no need for a travel agent. Plus, you'll gain confidence you can use for future trips. Travel information is so bountiful and democratized that there is no nugget of information that a travel agent has that's not also accessible for any average joe with a book and internet connection. There are plenty of "templates" in books that lay out precisely how you can spend your time in the very cities you're looking into.

When I was in my late 20s, I planned and booked a solo trip to Italy that was much more complicated than the three cities you have outlined with no involvement from anyone else (maybe it's a generational thing but I've never used a travel agent because they were a dying breed when I was in college). The only aspect of travel planning that's a little harder now is that there is too much info out there and you need to cut through a lot of stuff/noise and make decisions that are in line with the time and budget you have available. That implies being able to estimate, doing simple math, using nothing more sophisticated than a calendar where you can lay out your itinerary day-by-day, using all the tools at your disposal (Google maps, books, websites, blogs, etc.) and being judicious in parsing what to "leave out" as much as what to "leave in". I would argue that cutting things down to a feasible plan from a wish list is the hardest part (in your case, I agree that a day trip to Amalfi makes little sense given the number of days you have). Booking hotels and flights is literally like booking them here at home...no difference.

Posted by
1728 posts

Hi Zoe--

I use Rome2rio only from the standpoint of timing logistics as you say. It solves a lot of the issues that come up so often on this board like the one above, Rome to Amalfi Coast on a daytrip. When 60% of the time for a daytrip will be spent in transit, it's not a good idea. You can find that out on Rome2rio. I always will proceed to the actual travel website--plane, train or ferry--to verify schedules & cost.

But it's a great place to start your planning, as you say.

Posted by
2426 posts

Me personally.......I would stop right now and stop using the travel agent or making any more bookings with small tours or hotels.

Stop. And look at the 2017 Italy Tours that Rick Steves offers. These are the very best option for you, in my opinion. The whole trip is put together by Rick's travel experts, and everything is planned so that all goes smoothly.https://www.ricksteves.com/tours/italy

Take a good long look at Rick's tours, and the itinerary for each one. This is the way to have a great trip.
If you see a Rick tour you like, I would simply cancel all other plans, hotels, etc. You have plenty of time to do so.
And then sign up right away for the 2017 Italy tour you want, because Rick's Tours fill up fast. They are the best and most reasonably priced you will find. This is just my opinion, and what I would do.

I want you to have a great trip, and I know one way to do that is to trust the Rick Steves Tour Company, and let them (the real experts!) take care of all the details. No language barriers; you will have a great tour guide with you. No hassles over transportation. Here is a tour that would be great for you "Venice, Florence and Rome In 10 Days":https://www.ricksteves.com/tours/italy/venice-florence-rome

Book your Rick Steves Tour here on this website. You would do it yourself, no travel agent, no middle-man.

If a tour is not what you want, you can book your own hotels. Look at the ones you are considering on Trip Advisor. There is usually a website given for most hotels, and you can click on that to book.

Posted by
6907 posts

You've gotten excellent advice to consult the Rick Steves book for Italy and to look at his tours to get the most out of your time frame. Friends of mine just got back from Italy and felt the travel agent they had used had booked hotels and excursions that cost too much. From what they told me, I agree.

Posted by
5164 posts

Rebecca is right. If you are not comfortable arranging this yourself, a RS tour is a good way to go, and they can help with the air arrangements. You can always stay longer or come earlier, and do a bit extra on your own if the itineraries don't exactly suit you. If you are not experienced, it can be overwhelming and drain the fun out of a trip.

Tim's statement is true. I've worked with travel agents, and I doubt many at all have actually been to those places, or did anything but pre-packaged tours, staying at American-style business class hotels. Usually, they are just looking things up on a computer like you can, and going with what they assume you will be comfortable with.

I do use TAs for some air arrangements sometimes, or something like a cruise or beach vacation package, but not for Europe.

Posted by
9 posts

I thought I replied to this post last night but don't see it. I had my top three choices of hotels and was gonna ask for feedback on those. Now I'm not at home and can't remember. I may do it later but to address some of the questions y'all have raised:

1- Im very comfortable booking things on my own. I used to be a travel agent 30 years ago when people actually used them.

2- this will probably be our only trip to Italy so We can't plan on "next time". We don't have the means to do trips like this often. Germany almost 8 years ago and that was only because we had a relatives apartment (who was working there for awhile) to use as a base so we didn't have to pay for hotel.

3- I get what you all are saying about the long day trip to the coast and Pompeii but that part of the coast was on my "list" and Pompeii is on both our lists. I figured the small group tour would be a good way to see it and not have to change hotels. It stops in amalfi and positano then a 2 hour tour of Pompeii.

Per your suggestions I'm probably going to book hotels on my own. I'm good with that and good with research.
If you have hotel suggestions here are a few musts for each city.
Venice - this is where we will spend the most money cause it's my dream city and we are there on our actual anniversary. Up to $200/nt. Maybe a little higher. Water view of course. Quiter neighborhood but with good dining and bars nearby and easy walking distance to many things. Really would love balcony or terrace in room.
Florence - around $125-150/nt. Central location.
Rome- same as Florence.

We like comfortable beds, good service, rooms don't have to be big. (I don't expect that after going to Germany anyway.) a bar in hotel would be nice for night caps. Rooftop terrace or bar maybe? Breakfast included (as it seems it is in most hotels) a plus. And not just coffee and pastries. We don't even drink coffee.
I will keep doing my research and checking in on this forum and others. I appreciate you all taking the time to respond.

Posted by
11700 posts

Catherine, I think it was the numbers in front of your paragraphs but I could be wrong.

Posted by
17088 posts

I'm not thrilled about breakfast south of the Alps, either. I'm another non-coffee drinker. But be aware that if you find a hotel that offers a more American-style breakfast, you are paying for it. It may be buried in the room rate, or it may be an optional add-on, but it's by no means "free". I mention this since you're on a budget.

Posted by
981 posts

Catherine-in the end you have to be happy with your trip, its your money and time. If you want to do the day long trip to Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast then do it! When I was planning that leg of our trip I saw many small tour groups with great reviews, sometimes all you want is a "taste", in the end we decided against it but not to say I would not rule it out in the future. I have never used a travel agent (And I studied to be one back when they were the only way to book airfare). I may play around with the idea of using one for our next trip for airfare only. I use RS books and forums for hotel/apartment bookings and I read tons of travel blogs and just start making note on my excel spreadsheet, the trip starts to shape up day by day.

Posted by
11613 posts

Catherine, I recently found a nice hotel in Roma, it has bar service (they even sell their own wine), nice breakfast (bacon and eggs as well as the usual buffet stuff). There is a rooftop terrace but I did not go up to see it (weather was not good). It is family-run, very helpful staff. It is Hotel Fori Imperiali Cavalieri and it is on a back street between Via Cavour and the Colosseo. I just booked it again for next summer, a single is about €75/night, so a double should fit your budget.

In Firenze, I like Hotel Bigallo, around the corner from the Baptistery. Haven't been in two years, but it was lovely, about €110 double with a good breakfast. The day manager helped my friend get her camera back when she left it in a taxi.

sorry, no recs for Venezia.

Posted by
9 posts

Thanks again for the replies.
I don't think the RS tours are for us. Too much organization and too big of tour groups.

I may let TA book transfers and the few tours we want to do but book hotels on my own. The tour operators can't give me what I want. Research and reading will continue.

Thanks everyone.

Posted by
11700 posts

Happy planning, Catherine! Give a shout back if you need help, hear? :O)