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Travel agent--yes or no?

First time traveling to Italy this fall. We usually plan our own trips, but due to the numerous choices and logistics of traveling in a foreign country, I'm wondering if we'd be better off using the expertise of a travel agent to select lodging, arrange tours and/or advise on attractions, and help arrange travel between cities. Also wondering if it would be more or less cost effective--the agent I've spoken to basically puts together a package which includes all costs. Curious if this saves money or comes out about the same in the end. Would love feedback from those who have used an agent and if you were happy with the experience (or not). Thanks in advance!

Posted by
20718 posts

It is very hard to evaluate or compare with out hard numbers. Between high quality guidebooks and the Internet it is very easy to arrange you own schedule. Not much different than in the US. And remember a travel agent has to be paid by someone. The old days of kick backs from airlines and hotels are long gone so you will have to pay someone.

Posted by
1109 posts

Frank is correct - the agent has to get paid by you for their time or service ! There are so many websites which put together "trips" for travelers - these come at a cost to the traveler. You pay someone for their planning services !

A friend of ours went to their AAA office and had them prepare lodging and flights for their trip to Argentina. They spent an inordinate amount of time to explain their desires and schedule. And when they got back, they did not like the hotels the agent chose. And the number of days spent in the different locations was not well planned because the agent had never been to South America and was unable to fully understand the days needed in each region.

I enjoy the research and planning process too much to pass it off to someone else - and I'm too particular !

This forum can help with every question you bring ! But, a wonderful FIRST TIME visit can be great on a Rick Steve's tour !

Posted by
5718 posts

I have been putting together our trips including apartments for over 35 years -- before the internet. I have on a few occasions used travel agents and in my limited experience, they are not particularly knowledgeable and tend to push ridiculous products like the Paris Pass for example and select chain hotels from their catalogues and just generally not do as well as I have done on my own. Now that there is the internet, it is so easy to put together your own plans and I guarantee you will do better on finding attractive hotels at reasonable prices than most travel agents -- Agents get paid by booking you into places that provide fees to travel agents or you pay their fees; these are rarely charming small hotels in lovely spots.

Posted by
773 posts

Keep in mind that you have posted on a forum that's either Rick Steve tour-takers, or independent travelers, so we're a bit biased.

I have not used a travel agent since, I believe, my husband and I went to Europe on our honeymoon, about 30 years ago.

You might get lower prices from a travel agent, or a package that you could get from Expedia, Orbitz or the like. But it's likely to be less personalized, and the hotels may not be in the part of each city that you would want to stay in. They happened with some friends who made their first trip to Italy about 5 years ago. I sat down with him one day, and had a great time providing all sorts of suggestions. Then they decided to use a friend of their who was a travel agent, who (BTW) had never been to Italy. They returned, and while they had a good time, there were parts they didn't like so much. For example, their hotel in Rome was outside of the pedestrian part of the city, so on a street with a lot of vehicular traffic, and not very centrally located. Especially if you like smaller, family-run (or similar) hotels or inns, finding and booking them on your own is the way to go - travel agents may not direct you toward places like that, because they wouldn't get a commission.

And re arranging tours and advising on attractions, that's what you have us for! It looks like you've gotten a lot of great advice so far, and we all can provide much more.

Posted by
3541 posts

I would like to suggest a tour. Perhaps Rick steves or other it will simply everything for you. If RS tours is not right ck out Smart-ours
I have taken many tours with them and have been pleased.
It can be overwelming to

Posted by
307 posts

On our first trip to Italy, we were on a very small (13 person) wine and food tour in Tuscany with friends. Before and after the tour, we put together the first few days in Florence on our own along with a few days in Rome at the end. And we managed quite well. Train travel is easy, we followed the advice and lodging recommendation from RS's books. We've had good luck with booking.com for lodging. Two years ago we did Milan and Piedmont (again a small food and wine tour with friends) which we added on both Lake Maggiore, Aosta, and Cinque Terra.

We haven't used a travel agent in years, found that most specialize in specific travel options (cruises, packages,) and that's how they make their commissions.

There are real experts here on the forum who are much more familiar with Italy than most travel agents and are happy to help with specific questions/lodging/travel.

You might try a little research on your own and pick up RS's books. Do some looking on the internet, consider an itinerary and then post some questions here. How many nights do you have, specific cities you want to visit, what you want to see and do, etc.

Happy travels!

Posted by
6438 posts

Just curious: Since you usually plan your own trips do you have a travel agent in your town that you know others go to for help fro this type of trip?

Posted by
2353 posts

If a trip encounters problems a great travel agent can be priceless. A great one takes the worry & frustration for you and works to solve any issues you might be having - nightmare hotel, hotel lost reservation, hotel over-booked, flights changed, etc.

That being said there are very few who have vast experience in Europe beyond organized tours. They will also limit their hotel search to those that pay a commission. As far as them being able to save you money - that is highly unlikely. If dealing with the details of travel is a chore for you then you might consider using one but if you enjoy the research I think you will be happier in the end with making the choices yourself.

Posted by
1018 posts

After traveling in Europe, primarily Italy, for the past 36 years I've always done my own planning and traveled independently. However, this past October we used a AAA travel agent to book our transatlantic cruise because I didn't feel like doing the necessary research. We used the same agent to book our Alaskan cruise this July.

Before the internet we relied on tour books, primarily Fromm and Rick Steve's. They were both very helpful, but now the internet is my first choice for fact finding.

Over the years we learned two lessons: 1. if we want something bad enough we will pay for it, and 2. once we buy a plane ticket, or whatever, we stop looking because it will make you crazy.

Go and have fun no matter which course you choose.

Buon viaggio.

Posted by
3341 posts

For a number of years we've used a travel agent for cruises but not for European travel. Even though our TA lived and worked in Europe, most have not so using one will be like buying a pig in a poke. From your earlier post I found that you are flying into Rome and out of Milan and want to do the CT and Florence. With the time available, I'd suggest restricting yourselves to just three areas: Rome, the CT, and Florence. You always lose more time repositioning yourself than anticipated. And use the train system -- a car is just too much hassle. Since your trip is not until Sept., you have six months to get everything in order -- but you do need to start now. This forum can and will answer your questions and give better advice than most (not all) agents. Start laying out what you think you want to do, where you want to stay, and etc. Then ask for input about your draft plan and refine it from there. You will probably find planning the things on your own will just add to the enjoyment of the trip.

Posted by
1101 posts

WWhen i flew to italy with friends, we ended up using an agent to get us from our various gateway cities & converging in O Hare within an hour of each other to prep for our Swiss Air flight. It was easier than figuring it out ourselves, and allowed a neutral 3rd party to put pressure on our procrastinator, who is also the one who was coming from the west coast

Posted by
7284 posts

"If a trip encounters problems a great travel agent can be priceless."

They can also cause the problem. Last time I used a travel agent was 1989. This was pre-Eurostar. We wanted to go from France to England, agent booked us into a hotel in Cherbourg, France, for one night and booked us on a ferry that was to depart at 6am. We got up at 5am, checked out of hotel, walked with luggage to the ferry. Everything was dead, no one around... we finally found out ferry left at 6 PM not 6 AM. I was pregnant and not feeling well, it was cold and breezy, and now we had no hotel room. Cherbourg, where the harbor is, was not a bad area but not an area we would have chosen to spend 11 hrs hanging out in. We lost an entire day of precious time b/c of this TA's blunder and I've never used a TA again.

Posted by
2353 posts

@Susan - I did qualify with a "great travel agent" - yours - not so much!

Posted by
7284 posts

christi, sorry, was not slamming what you said... you're right, a great travel agent is the key. But if you don't already have one that you've used a lot, you don't know if they're good. A TA can be good at say, cruises, but not in other areas. As others have said, it is so easy now with internet to do everything yourself that I'd never take a chance with a TA ever again.

Posted by
11981 posts

All I can say is the following:

  1. Just because someone works as a travel agent it doesn't mean s/he knows what s/he is doing. More often than not, they are clueless and they don't always have your interest at heart. They want to make a quick buck on commissions. I have friends here in Calif. that needed to go from Rome to Florence, and a local travel agent booked an Alitalia flight for them from Rome to Florence and back. Any person on this forum could have told them to go by train at a fraction of the cost and in less than half the time, but my friends trusted a so called "professional". I also had several experiences with these professionals (long time ago as I don't use them for personal travel anymore). Even when I travel on business, and have to use the company travel agency, first I do the homework on my own, then I tell the company travel agent what I want.

  2. My advice is to plan your trip on your own. Ask lots of questions in this forum, long before you purchase any air tickets or book any hotels. You will do a better job than most "professionals" and it will be very rewarding. Planning the trip on your own is half the fun of traveling.

Posted by
31055 posts

adriem,

I normally use a "combination approach" and use a travel agent for things like international flights and travel insurance but book hotels on my own using information from the guidebooks, as well as local transportation. I've found that's an approach that works really well for me, so I don't have any plans to change it.

While it is certainly possible to book flights online with one of the agencies such as Priceline, Expedia, Trivago or whatever, I've found that having a travel agent is extremely valuable, especially if problems occur (as they did on my last trip). Having an experienced travel agent to help if problems occur is well worth the small extra fee. Good luck getting help like that from one of the online agencies!

Posted by
34 posts

First timer here... and I still won't be going through an agent. Considering 8-9hr time difference from here when I want help agent would be sleeping most likely. And I'm a particular traveler I would do the leg work anyhow! So I need to read, watch, and learn all I can so I am savvy on the ground there and know what I'm getting into.

I am thinking about doing a "travel consult" phone with the rick steves folks though if I want to speak with an agent I'm sure knows more than me.

Posted by
7284 posts

I'd never buy plane tickets from a third party like Priceline, Expedia, Trivago, etc. I always buy directly from airline after researching. That way, if there is a problem, I can deal directly with the airline. It's in their best interest to help me solve the problem asap. I don't think a TA can do any better than I can.

Posted by
442 posts

I am planning a trip to Italy without the help of a travel agent. I have never been to continental Europe. I might or might not be sure I know what I am doing. Whether I book guided tours or see places without tours, which hotels I stay in, is all a crap shoot. I will just assume my trip will work out fine. I am a single man traveling alone, so I don't have any fellow travelers to consult with. Other posters are right that you can use the internet and guidebooks to plan your own trip.

Posted by
66 posts

Roberto, he hit the nail on the head (along with the fact that one doe not need a travel agent to plan a trip). To me, the planning and research on where to go, what hotel to book, how to get from A to B is the most fun part of the trip! I would plan trips for others just because I love doing it!!

Used Trip Advisor a lot for my planning. Loved Virtual Tourist (now shut down - great forum, much like this one).
So glad I got onto this Forum. So informative, far beyond what many travel agents have the knowledge of to give.

Figure out where you want to go, what your interests are and go from there.....so much fun to plan!!

Posted by
7284 posts

Rick Steves guide books are geared toward a first time visitor. He explains in detail how to do everything you need to know. What places to tour on your own, what places benefit from a guide, recommended guides, hotels, restaurants, trains, subways, what entrance to go to, what line to stand in, what passes to buy... and so much more. Everything you need to know is in his guide books, including his "Europe Through the Back Door" book.

Posted by
11981 posts

The best travel agents are the frequent contributors who volunteer in this forum.

Come to this travel Forum, read the many entries relevant to your intended travel plan (you can use the Search function), ask us many (detailed) questions long before you book anything, and before you know it, you will be a travel pro.

Posted by
1856 posts

In years past, I have posted often on this forum. created a website (RoninRome) which assisted more than 5 million visitors, lived in Europe for 15 years, and at times, worked as a guide. That said, I am now a Travel Advisor living in Vienna. (I don't see myself as a "travel agent" and semantics are important). My initial thought is, You're working with the wrong people.

Are there "bad" travel agents out there? Sure, just as there as poor performers in all professions. All travel support is not created equal! The key to a successful trip will often depend more on the relationship you have with your travel representative; perhaps more than their experience level, as a good advisor will ask a lot of questions and be a good listener.

Are Travel Agents the best option for ALL trips? No, they are not. And much of the decision to use a travel advisor will depend on your level of travel expertise, knowledge of the destinations, the time you have available to plan, and your budget.

The goal of a Travel Advisor should not be getting you the "cheapest" vacation, but the BEST vacation. Might you find less expensive pricing on a 3-star hotel on the internet with a nonrefundable rate - probably - if you look or wait long enough. At the same time, with knowledge of advance train purchases, current hotel promotions (3rd night free), Airline flash sales (like Delta's currently), a good agent can save you money!

If you have the time, energy, resolve, and enjoy the planning process... then you should plan your own travel. It's fun to do. We build 100's of trips annually and it's our passion. For most folks on this forum, it's also their passion! For many, the planning stage is almost as much fun as the travel stage. That's me, living in Europe, where every weekend is an adventure! I enjoy figuring out where to go next - it's why I am in the business.

If you're staying in an upscale property that belongs to a consortium (like Virtuoso) then you really SHOULD use a travel advisor. Our clients in these hotels enjoy amenities that often they can't get booking independently - such as free breakfast, a F&B beverage credit, a Spa credit, free upgrade of their room to the next category, one-way transfer to the airport, specialized hotel activity, free internet, a welcome amenity, etc. Yes, we're talking The Hassler, Hotel De Russie, Portrait Roma, Gritti Palace, Il Pellicano, and similar hotels.

Travel advisors have access that the average traveler cannot get... How about a private tour of the Colosseo underground? A one-on-one with a mosaic artist at the Vatican? A personal tour of a winery with the owner? A private boat tour with guide of the islands of Venice - or on the Amalfi?

So you have access, support, guidance, behind-the-scene opportunities, and expertise when working with a good travel advisor. I am working today on trips in Italy, France, Japan, Australia, Iceland, England..... and more. Am I an expert on ALL these locations? NO, but I do have access to locals (on-sites) who assist me to provide the BEST experience to my clients. And when we don't know, we get with other travel advisors for support.

Many clients working with a TA for the first time don't realize how they are paid. It's primarily in fees and commissions. A good travel advisor DOES charge a fee; their time is valuable. These planning fees are all across the board, often determined by the expertise, experience, performance, and demand for that travel advisor. And they do work more often with hotels they have a relationship with as that creates a better experience for their clients.

If your concept of travel support is a part-time employee, sitting in a cubicle selling packaged tours, who has never been out of their hometown, then you don't know travel advisors. I, like many of my fellow TA's, travel monthly to gain knowledge that creates the BEST experience for our clients.

Posted by
1856 posts

My favorite "independent" versus "TA support" experience happened years ago. As she is avid RS forum reader... she will probably laugh when she reads this.

This couple was going to China and we planned an in-depth trip for them. On their last days in China, they wanted to stay in central Beijing. Based on their budget, their location preference, and the type of experience they preferred, we recommended a hotel adjacent to the Forbidden City - which was a Virtuoso Hotel.

They had friends who lived in Shanghai who planned to meet them in Beijing and stay at the same hotel. We offered our services to book the hotel, but their friends said no... they could save money booking on ****ing.com. So they booked their own room and probably saved $20-25 a night over a 4-day stay.

Through our relationship with the hotel, I contacted various persons (including the GM and Director of Sales) and we "coordinated" the stay for our clients. Originally, they were in the same room category as their friends - A Landmark Room - but through our connections, conversations, and the Virtuoso amenities, they received a triple upgrade to one of 9 specialized suites (with 1.5 baths) on a top floor of the hotel, AT NO ADDITIONAL COST. We also coordinated with our contacts that they would have the best view possible. In addition, they got the free American breakfast daily, a welcome gift, the opportunity to do a free high tea experience, and a VIP greeting by the hotel manager upon arrival.

When you add in the costs of Breakfast, the room upgrade, the welcome gift, the high tea... their savings averaged perhaps $450-500 per day. Oh yeah, all this and we also had them booked at a rate where they received the 4th night free!

Their friends saved a few dollars, but the "extras" were not included and their room had NO view at all... just the side of another building. In the end, the free breakfast alone which my clients received offset the price difference of their room versus their friends' booking on a third-party website. (They did invite their friends up to see "their" room).

As an agent, did I book a hotel we had a relationship with? You Bet, it helped my client!
Did I earn a commission at this hotel? I did - but only on the original cost of the room booked - not on all the extras and BETTER room my clients received. That was done all for them.

Are there hotels which agents tend to shy away from? Sure, we have information that the average consumer may not see.

Do we shy away from hotels which do not pay commission? I am sure some agents do. Many say "I can book hotels that you prefer, but because the accommodations you are selecting do not pay a commission or a minimal commission, our planning & consulting fee will be this." Travel Advisors who know the area, provide the support you want, SHOULD get paid for their time and expertise.

If you've had a bad personal experience with a travel agent.. go find another one - preferably, a Travel Advisor! Let's not castigate an entire industry.

There ARE great travel companies AND great travel advisors. This Forum is built by a successful travel company. Based on your specific needs, different trips may require different levels of support. On my travels, I could do Italy in my sleep and would not need a Travel Advisor. But when I go to China, I will appreciate the support!

My impression is that most folks posting on this board are fairly savvy travelers. In our business, we deal with "newbies" daily and often through their questions I am reminded of just how much I've learned about travel logistics - and forgotten about "feeling lost and alone in a foreign country."

There is no "one" answer if you need a travel advisor. But let's not throw all travel advisors under the bus as everyone has different needs, travels differently and requires unique levels of support and assistance. Good luck in your travel planning!

Posted by
2334 posts

Do you know or know who to ask to find a GOOD travel agent? I have never used one, but I have heard that a good one, with experience in your destination can be a great help. However, many are not especially good - they may be great with African safaris but you are going to Italy, or they may be just average, or a few are actually bad, just like in any profession. Some friends of mine used one for Italy and they had a perfectly nice trip, but everything they did I could have arranged for the same overall price. But sometimes the connections of a great agent can be immensely helpful.

Then there is your philosophy of travel. Do you want to sit back and leave the planning to someone else? Or do you get a lot out of the planning process? I would never use an agent for the US, Europe, or South America even if I could be promised better deals simply because I find the planning an integral part of my trip. I just learn and experience more if I am doing the planning and thinking through what to do. If you feel this way, you can plan it yourself. Read the book Europe Through the Back Door, ask questions on here or other places online, read other books and websites - thats all part of the fun for a certain type of traveler. Italy is indeed a foreign country but it is not hard to plan - there is a ton of English information, all major sights and many minor ones have English web pages, the train system is well explained online in English, much of the food is familiar, the hotels work in a similar way - really planning is not that different than at home.

If, however, you prefer to not worry about the details or planning, a good travel agent could be the best choice.

Posted by
1856 posts

Thanks Zoe - wish I had more time.
I miss posting on the RS forum, but just crazy busy! Take care, Ron

Posted by
2353 posts

Well said Ron - as most things - it is not a black & white question.

When you find a really great TA they can be worth their weight in gold.

Posted by
11701 posts

Ron (good to see you, Ron-not-in-Rome!) makes some really good points. We used a local agency some years back - when we were real newbies - for pieces of a trip and it provided some nice benefits, like an upgraded room with a sea view in one location for the same price as a smaller rear room with no view.

This particular one has been in business for 40 years - no small feat in today's market - and is a member of the Virtuoso consortium. They tend to handle high-end trips but had no issue taking on this mid/lower range range traveler willing to do most of the footwork myself. In fact, applauded that effort/research as most of their clients just want all of the details taken care of. They were pleased to work with someone who actually knew something about the place they were going to! HA! But a lot of their clients are executives with crazy schedules and no time to plan vacations so I get that, and they do what they do very well for them.

Anyway, their advisors are assigned to specific areas of the world and/or methods of travel - such as cruises - and they ALL have traveled to those places/via those methods and are expected to do so. Some even lead tours, and the owner has a 2nd residence in one of the countries she specializes in.

So there are agents and there are advisors, and paying the fee (yes, I paid one) is well worth it for experience, knowledge and level of service.