Are Travel Agents Gone?

It was once a routine part of travel.

If you wanted to book a flight, a rental car, a hotel or a cruise you walked into your neighborhood travel agency and waited while the agent punched up availability and price.

The ease of booking travel over the Internet has virtually done away with the bread-and-butter business of travel agents, whose numbers in the U.S. shrank over the past five years from 142,000 to 91,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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But don't count travel agents out. Agents are increasingly finding niches, like adventure, ethnic and eco-travel, to entice customers to book with them. And while nearly all agents now charge fees to offset the commissions they used to receive from airlines and hotels, prices remain relatively low, in part because agents still receive commissions for booking cruises, package tours and group travel.

On average, travel agents charge $27 to book flights and $65 to plan a trip, according to the American Society of Travel Agents.

Don George, global travel editor for guidebook publisher Lonely Planet Publications, says that for trips to remote destinations or complicated itineraries that depend on being in the right place at the right time, a travel agent with expertise in that area can be a good buy and might even save you money.

"If you're going to visit your grandmother's condo in Palm Beach, what do you need me for?" asks Richard Nigosian, president of Bond Street Travel, a deluxe travel agency in Manhattan. Domestic business has dried up, but Bond Street's customers are spending more than ever on overseas vacations and traveling further abroad than at any time since 9/11, he says.

Bond Street's fees range from $50 to $500 for complex, custom-tailored trips like an upcoming African safari for a couple of newlyweds.

"If you're spending $20,000 or $30,000 for a trip, why wouldn't you spend the extra few hundred dollars to get the expert advice of someone who's been there?" adds Nigosian, who has visited 100 countries.

STA Travel Inc., which has long specialized in travel for students and people under 26 years old, still offers special discounts that aren't found with do-it-yourself travel, says Scott Hyden, the company's president.

STA now charges fees of $5 to $25 for bookings and does a strong business at its branches in student unions and near college campuses.

"This tends to be experiential travel," like open-ended or multiple-country backpacking trips by college students or people studying abroad, says Hyden of STA's typical bookings.

If you think your next vacation could benefit from the service of a travel agent, ask for an up-front estimate of an agent's fees so you can decide if it's worth it, advises Lonely Planet's George, who likes to book his own travel.

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