Customers who left their travel agents in favor of budget websites such as Travelocity or Kayak are coming back, says Aja Stallworth, a leisure travel consultant in San Diego. "Travelers want to have the people they can call and say, 'I'm at the hotel, my room is not good, what do I do?' They want to have a person who help them out."
And it's no wonder. Flying has become more complicated, hotels more competitive, and the best deals and perks increasingly harder to find. But for the average traveler, the ins and outs of working with a travel agent, and knowing when such a relationship is more helpful than not, remains a mystery.
Leaving on a Jet Plane... or a Cruise Ship... or a Road Trip
Have a trip in mind? No matter your tastes, there's a travel agent who caters to them.
According to the American Society of Travel Agents, travel agents still book 85% of all cruises, 70% of all tours and packages, 50% of all airline tickets, 30% of all hotels and 25% of all car rentals. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there are 63,500 travel agents in the U.S., many of whom specialize in niche areas of travel.
Many believed that travel portals would wipe out travel agents. Yet that hasn't happened: Agents booked $95 billion in travel sales in 2011 -- approximately one-third of the overall $284 billion U.S. travel industry.
Most of those bookings were for corporate clients; agencies specializing in business travel recovered more quickly from the recession than those focusing on leisure travel.
But leisure travel is also making a comeback, and individuals and families are seeking the same level of service as their corporate counterparts.
When You'll Pay Extra (and How Much)
How and when an agent is paid, and by whom, is one of the most important things for first-time and potential customers to understand. Visions of hidden charges and fears of overpaying linger. But unlike the various hidden charges on air travel imposed by the airlines directly (such as for checked baggage, food, and taxes), agents' fees are fairly transparent.
The average travel agent charges approximately $35 for what are generically termed "airline services," which can be anything from booking a flight to being on hand if there are rebooking needs for inclement weather or cancellation issues. Since the U.S. legacy airlines no longer give a commission to travel agents, customers might see that $35 as part of their overall charge when they book a flight through an agent.
Sometimes the extra fee is worth it. Randi Sumner, an association executive from New Jersey, says that she always uses a travel agent when flying between November and February. "During that time of year, I know there's a very good chance my flight will be delayed or canceled due to inclement weather," she says. "Even I'm already at the airport, it's easier to call my travel agent to be rebooked than compete with all the other passengers fighting for an airline representative's attention."
Agents have similar relationships with international airlines, which still pay commissions. Agents can frequently get a client a preferred flight, lounge access, preferred boarding, and other perks, all for no extra charge.
When You'll Save
The leisure traveler booking a standard package of flight, hotel, and rental car will rarely see a fee, Stallworth says, and booking them together through an agent will often offer substantial savings. Many agents have relationships with the larger hotel chains, which pay the agents their commissions directly. As a result of these relationships, agents can frequently arrange late check-outs, airport pick-ups, breakfasts, and other perks free of charge to you.
And, Stallworth says, more often than not the savings will more than offset any fees the client might see.
Motley Fool contributing writer Molly McCluskey does not own positions in any of the companies mentioned. Follow her finance and travel tweets on Twitter at @MollyEMcCluskey.