The first, and last time I booked a holiday through a travel agent was in 2008.
It was a small shop, overlooking my local bus station.
If your eyes were good enough, you’d just be able to make out the felt tip penned proclamations of ‘ALL INCLUSIVE’ deals in a ‘SUNNY KAVOS’ as your – normally late – Arriva Wales bus pulled out of the depot.
I can’t remember how much it cost but that summer, my friends Emma, Anna and I would embark on our first ‘girls holiday’ to Zante. Or ‘Zakynthos’ as the agent had proudly called it, pressing receipts for our £50 deposits back into our hands.
I have many stories from that week away (galactic sunburn/KOing on the beach at 6am/the reason why I still to this day cannot shot sambuca) but what I didn’t realise at the time was that I would never again use a travel agent.
Never again would I agree to a holiday based on three handwritten bullet points, sellotaped to the inside of a shop window. Bullet points which, if written in retrospect, would read:
- EAT CHIPS FOR A WEEK
- LEARN ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ABOUT GREEK CULTURE
- COCKTAIL + A FREE SHOT FOR ONLY TWO EUROS
To be fair, the last bullet point alone would have clinched the whole holiday for me at the time!
So, when I was asked by a producer at BBC Radio 5 Live to talk about the reasons why people still choose to book with a travel agent – either in person or online through their site – the concept seemed so alien to me at first.
Yet, whilst I love the thrill of finding a cheap holiday for half the going rate, I appreciate that it’s not for everyone.
So What Are The Perks of Using a Travel Agent?
- Payment protection– most major travel companies are ATOL protected meaning if they go bust, you wont lose your money or become stranded abroad – whether you book with them in person or online. As shown by the collapse of Thomas Cook in September 2019, it may take a while to get your money but customers did get their cash back in the end.
- Deposits and monthly instalments – holding deposits and monthly instalments can really help when you can’t quite part with hundreds of pounds in one go
- Price matching – some travel companies, such as Travel Republic, do offer a price match guarantee so if you book and then see the same deal elsewhere for cheaper, they’ll refund the difference.
- Face to face help – booking a holiday can be totally overwhelming and travel agents are used to giving advice on where to go, what to do and practical things like how to get to your hotel from the airport
- Printing – as someone who has to go to an INTERNET CAFE to do all her holiday printing this is a perk – albeit one that doesn’t hold much sway!!!
- Time saving – travel agents can save you a lot of time and effort so if you’re after a chilled out approach to booking a holiday, this could be the biggest perk of them all!
How do Travel Agents Compare to Rates Found Online?
As is often the case when it comes to booking travel, there’s no hard fast rule here and so this is what I do if I want to check that I’m getting the best deal possible.
1. Find the deal you're interested in
Whether it’s online or in a physical travel agency, take note of the dates, the duration, the airline, what luggage it includes, the accommodation and any other extras.
2. Try and duplicate the holiday for yourself
3. Compare the prices
Add it together and see what you get! Sometimes you can genuinely save hundreds of pounds by doing it yourself, sometimes it’s a few quid, and other times the package wins out.
4. See if the agent can price match
Even if they don’t have a price match guarantee in place, it certainly doesn’t hurt to show them that you’ve found the deal cheaper elsewhere and ask them to match it. It means you get the best price possible and ATOL protection – though do always check the agent has this.
5. Decide whether the price difference is worth it
If the travel agent can’t price match, the last important decision is based on the fact that if you book your flight and hotel separately you will not have ATOL protection meaning if the company goes bust, you’ll have to rely on your own travel insurance policies instead.
Having this protection has been something that has really helped package holiday customers during COVID-19 as when the Foreign Office advice says it’s unsafe to go to a country, they’re automatically due a full refund but DIY holidays aren’t.
So it all comes down to whether the saving is worth this element of risk or at least checking that your travel insurance covers you for any potential issues.
Travel Agents or DIY Holiday?
For me, the winning perk about using a travel agent – either online or in person – is that it takes the stress out of booking a holiday. As much as I love searching for a bargain, I have lost many hours to the endeavour and if I didn’t enjoy it so much I can totally understand why I would be tempted.
As well, many travel agents have been doing this for years so they do know their stuff! So if you are going to book with them make sure you make the most of their skills and expertise by asking for help and recommendations to take your holiday to the next level.
However, if you are tempted to try and book your own DIY holiday, I definitely recommend using the steps listed above as a really quick and simple trial. Once you’re comfortable with that you can start swapping out that hotel for an Airbnb, or booking your last couple of nights in a 5 star hotel so that you can really tailor your holiday to exactly what you’re after.
Lastly, nothing quite beats that finding a deal for cheaper than you’ve seen it elsewhere so don’t blame me if you get hooked on that feeling!!