The Brancatelli File



April 15, 1999 -- Ever wonder why you need a travel agent? Ever wonder why you shouldn't just surf on over to a booking engine like Travelocity or Expedia? Go ahead, try it. Just try booking yourself a flight between New York and Los Angeles, the nation's busiest skyway.

Thirteen different airlines fly between the two cities and serve a total of nine airports in the New York and Los Angeles metropolitan areas. When I looked this week, there were no less than 364 separate fares from which to choose. Every fare had a unique--and often indecipherable--set of travel restrictions. And the price? You'd be trying to book a one-way ticket that cost as little as $99 or as much as $2,198.

Now that you understand why you need a travel agent, here are some tips to help you deal with one.

REMEMBER FOR WHOM AN AGENT WORKS Generally speaking, travel agents make nothing unless they sell you something. Worse, you don't pay the agent's salary. In most cases, a travel agent's compensation comes from the commissions paid by airlines, hotels and car-rental firms. The higher the price of the ticket, the costlier the hotel room, or the more pricey the travel package, the better the agent's commission. Like it or not--and, frankly, most agents don't--a travel agent works for the travel supplier, not you.

THE OVERRIDING REALITY For better or worse, travel agents are near the bottom of the travel food chain. The standard commission on an airline ticket, once a meager 10 percent of the total fare, in now capped at an appallingly low $50. That ensures the average agent is chronically underpaid and always under-appreciated.

In fact, agents live and die on "overrides" and other commission incentives. Some airlines, for example, have been known to offer a 30 percent commission to boost sales on a particular flight. Keep that in mind the next time an agent is pushing a booking that doesn't seem to be your dream itinerary. The agent may be suggesting it because they can make a few extra bucks. You have the right to say no and request something else.

FEE, FI, FOE, FUMBLE The airlines, which have been gleefully and gratuitously slashing the commissions they pay to travel agents, have surreptitiously raised your fares. That's because many travel agents, desperate to replace the lost commission revenue, have resorted to imposing a fee on you for travel services once rendered free of charge.

Now you may not want to pay the travel agent $10 or $15 for the "privilege" of buying an airline ticket. But that brings you back to surfing the Internet booking engines and trying to make sense of the hundreds of airfares, dozens of competing airlines, and battling airports. Or, worse, you call one airline and mistakenly assume it offers the same low fares as its competitors. Worst of all, you start calling five or six airlines, wait on hold for ten or 15 minutes every time, then call back the first airline that offered the lowest fares, only to find out the price has changed while you were making all those other calls.

So do yourself a favor: Don't consider the travel agent your foe. Pay any reasonable fee he or she charges. But minimize the amount you pay by being clear on what you want and how much you're willing to pay for a trip when you start the buying process. If you fumble for weeks, continually request changes and alterations and generally make a pain in the ass of yourself, the agent is going to charge you more.

SOMETIMES YOU'RE THE EXPERT Even diligent travel agents don't know everything. In fact, a seasoned traveler knows more--and has experienced more--about a particular destination then a travel agent. An agent's theoretical expertise usually ends where your practical experience begins. A travel agent surely knows the best way to book you into a London hotel and the best way to get you a cheap room at that hotel. But, if you visit London regularly, you're more likely to know which particular hotel is nearest to your client, your favorite restaurant, your favorite museum or the little shop you visit every time to go to the British capital.

LOYALTY GOES A LONG WAY A travel agent will always work harder for a regular customer than for a stranger who only calls during a fare war. The more of your travel business you give to an agent, the better the service. So rather than book your next hotel stay or car rental on your own, throw that business to your travel agent instead. You're building a relationship that will come in handy next time you're stuck in a blizzard at the Denver airport or are desperate for a good deal on a beachfront hotel next winter.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.