It Pays To Use A Travel Agent only if you know a good one. A good travel agent will know when a small change in your schedule can save you a lot of money. If you buy direct from the airline, you may not find out such information, since they will only quote you the rates for the times you ask. So if you're going to use a travel agent, make sure that you find one who is willing (and able) to search through the morass of fares and restrictions to find a good deal for you. A travel agent who just punches your data into the computer and tells you the prices is no better than the airline's 800 number. A good travel agent can probably save you about 10-15%.
An obstacle in getting good service is agent inexperience and ignorance. The agent you encounter may well be an ill-trained part-timer who works in the agency more for the fringe benefits (notably discounts, subsidized, or free travel) than to make a living. Such agents can probably book a package tour or a point-to-point flight, but they are unlikely to have the expertise to use a complex computer system to construct low-fare itineraries.
Tip: Do Your Own Homework. No one, not even a travel agent inclined to keep your best interests in mind, can know about all the deals and discounts available, so do your own homework. Scour the newspapers, get all the brochures, and look for deals in unlikely places: through direct-mail pro-motions and from frequent-travel plans and travel clubs. Always ask about packages: wholesalers who bundle the separate components of travel into an all-inclusive package usually offer the best value for the money.
Membership in either of two principal travel agency professional associations, the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) and the Association of Retail Travel Agents (ARTA) is a plus in establishing the solvency and integrity of the agency. ASTA members are supposed to follow certain Principles of Professional Conduct and Ethics, and also runs a mediation/arbitration service between member agencies and their customers. But an ASTA or ARTA affiliation does not ensure the competence of every agent in the office. One indication of an individual agent's ability is his or her qualification as a "certified travel counselor" (CTC). To become a CTC, an agent with at least five years' experience must complete a two-year graduate-level program offered by the Institute of Certified Travel Agents.
There are several major differences between using a travel agency and using the airport (airline) ticket agents:
A travel agent can look at all the airline fares, not just those of a single carrier. A good travel agent will check fares on at least three carriers. Airlines can only give you their own best fares. Then again, you can always call up three (or more) airlines yourself to discover the best fares on each.
A travel agent can check for special deals with consolidators. Airline ticket agents can't. Airlines sell heavily discounted tickets only through consolidators, not direct to the passenger.
Given the frequency of fare changes these days, a good travel agent can often find you some real bargains. A bad travel agent, on the other hand, may miss getting you the lowest possible fare. So it is best to find yourself a good travel agent.
If you don't care for consolidator tickets, the travel agents get the same pricing information as is available from most of the on-line reservation services and the airlines themselves. So you can do your own legwork if you wish by calling the airlines themselves. But why do it when a good travel agent can do it for you? After all, when you buy a ticket direct from the airline the airline still keeps the commission, so why not give the commission to a travel agent, who'll do a little leg work to make sure you get the cheapest fare?
Note that some travel agencies try to funnel all their business to a specific airline, because the more tickets they sell to a single airline, the more money they get. Airlines have incentive programs to encourage this practice. The travel agent may also know how to look up fares on only one airline. This means that your travel agent may be checking the fares on a single airline, instead of hunting around for the best fare from several airlines. This is especially true for travel agencies near airports that are dominated by one carrier. Your best bet may be to call several airlines before you go to your travel agent, doing research on your own, or to tell the travel agent to check fares on two or three specific airlines. (Don't tell them to check on all airlines — nobody is going to do that much work just for a $20 commission).
Also, airlines sometimes sell bulk tickets to large travel agencies at bargain basement prices if they think they cannot fill the seats. So depending on the travel agency, you might be able to get a really good deal. Travel agents sometimes get complimentary tickets (e.g., one free ticket for every 25 sold), which they can sell as they wish. (These are called "Promotional Tickets," and are for standby travel.)
Most travel agents will try to find you the cheapest possible fare, because they want your repeat business. But that's the only incentive for them to try to hunt down an inexpensive fare, so they may not be as thorough on the cheaper routes. All computer reservation systems provide a method of displaying the applicable fares in order of price, from cheapest on up.
Since discount flights have restrictions on day of week and flight times, make sure that you let the travel agent know you are flexible and will change a day either way if that will save you money. Also, don't be shy of stating the obvious — that you're looking for the cheapest possible fare — since (most) travel agents aren't mind readers.
Airport ticket agents tend to be better informed than the people at the toll-free reservation number, since they often have to deal with special situations (missed connections, bumped people, etc.) that require really knowing the reservation system's ins and outs.