Your travel options these days are close to infinite (vacation on the International Space Station anyone?). And, while driving to a nearby city and booking a hotel room for two nights may be within your comfort zone for planning on your own, making all the reservations for a trip to a place you’re not familiar with may cause you some sleepless nights. For those looking to book a cruise, all-inclusive vacation, or other type of packaged getaway, your choices of where to go for help are numerous. The challenge is figuring out which service is the most reliable and offers the best deals. To help you to find the one that’s right for you, here’s a rundown of the top options for booking a vacation package, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of using an online service versus a human travel agent.
Virtual vacation planning
Expedia, Priceline, and their competitors offer the simplest—and often the most affordable—way to book a vacation package; and if you’ve ever bought an airline ticket or booked a hotel room through one of them, the way you reserve a packaged deal will feel familiar. In fewer than five minutes I booked a (sadly hypothetical) trip to London with airfare, accommodations, and car rental included. In terms of convenience, speed, cost, and user-friendly navigation, these companies are hard to beat.
There are downsides to using online travel agencies (OTA), however. If you encounter a problem while traveling, receiving help from the OTA is unlikely. Instead, you’ll have to work with the airline or hotel, which—knowing that you reserved your trip through another company—may not provide you with the same level of care it gives customers who booked directly with them. Also, for the most part you’re likely to only be booking the nuts and bolts of travel, leaving you on your own to find activities and restaurants.
As for booking a cruise with an OTA, “If you have cruised often, know the destinations well, and feel comfortable with online booking, then it’s an efficient way to go,” says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic, a cruise review and information site that’s visited by more than 5 million people a month.
While the number of OTAs may seem daunting, industry consolidation means you have fewer options than you think. Expedia now owns Hotwire, Travelocity, Hotels.com, and Orbitz Worldwide, while Priceline, Booking.com, and Kayak are all part of Booking Holdings.
The personal touch
While OTAs spelled the downfall of many travel agents (between 2002 and 2012, their numbers in the United States decreased by 32%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), those who remain can often trump their online competitors when it comes to customized packages, full-service offerings, and troubleshooting any problems. That’s why, when it comes to complex vacations or higher-end trips, many people still look for that expertise.
“Even after 300-plus cruises, I really like the extra services we get when we book through our travel agent, whether it’s onboard credit or access to private tour operators in ports,” Brown says.
“I think the discounts or perks an advisor can offer are great, and for high-end brands, we can usually match any offer you will see online,” says Erin Trager-Kusman, the co-founder of Gypsetter, a travel specialists firm. “But the real reason to use an advisor is for the personal touch and service, and our ability to take your preferences, style, and budget and make recommendations accordingly.”
Also, should something go wrong, hiring a travel agent to book your packaged getaway means you have a single point of contact to remedy the issue.
As for how to find a travel agent, outlets such as Condé Nast Traveler, and Travel + Leisure, maintain annually updated lists of top-rated agencies. The lists allow you to find an agent based on geographic area or interest (like cruise or safari). These specialists can arrange everything from mundane airport transportation to white tablecloth dinners atop the Great Wall of China.
Brown suggests assessing agents based on their credentials, experience and knowledge, and industry connections, which can help you land better deals or upgrades.
The downside to using a travel agent, especially ones offering bespoke, or custom, travel packages? Cost. Be sure to discuss fees upfront. “Additionally, don’t be shy about bringing up prices you’ve seen elsewhere. They may be able to meet or beat them,” Brown said.