There's an old saying: "You pay your money, you take your chances."
When it comes to planning a trip, I prefer: Divide and conquer.
Twenty years ago, I would phone my travel agent, hand her the football -- where, when, my budget -- and tell her to run with it. When she retired to Boca Raton, I reverted to phoning airlines, car rental companies, and hotels separately -- one lengthy, painstaking call at a time. Hey, sometimes I enjoy suffering.
Most people don't have the time -- or interest -- to plan a trip. If you're one of them, you may feel overwhelmed. Where do you turn for up-to-date info and the best deals? Travel agency? The Internet? The telephone? (These are not trick questions. And you may not have what's behind the curtain. There is no curtain.)
I applaud do-it-yourselfers. I encourage them to do their homework and become the family's personal travel agent. If you love the planning and have the time, plunge head first into online research (addictive if you don't watch out), read Frommer's titles, and knock yourselves out!
But if you're like the majority -- moral and otherwise -- you might be in a quandary. If you don't know whether to head north, south, east or west for advice when planning a trip, here's a short list on the pros and cons of using a travel agent v. Internet v. phone:
A travel agent is like a good friend. Sometimes better. But because of the Web and direct access to hotels, travel agents are going the way of the dodo bird. A really good agent has expertise and empathy in equal measure. Agents listen to your changing needs, do the grunt work and put together a plan that meets with your satisfaction. Services include: booking transportation and arranging for a car rental; reserving accommodations (based on your personal preferences), tours and cruises; informing clients about passports, inoculations, sightseeing, restaurants, special events, babysitting, and the weather at your destination. Be forewarned, most travel agencies charge for booking an airline ticket but not for making a hotel reservation. Sometimes there is a fee for booking a FIT (foreign independent tour), yet there is rarely a charge for a tour booked from a wholesaler or an airline. Always ask up front so there will be no surprises.
The Internet affords travelers most of the resources available to travel agents. You already know that, right? Of course, you could drown in the travel-related info on the Web. I've been known to surf, sometimes until the wee small hours, for background info, then move to the particulars -- airfares, hotels and restaurants. (Actually, I research restaurants first and that helps me decide if I really want to visit Destination X.) If you have the time and enjoy the planning, mine the Internet, by all means. If you just dropped in from Pluto, be aware that it can be extremely time consuming and may interfere with your other life.
Ye Olde Telephone suits some personalities. Not mine -- except when I want a better hotel deal. I have found that the rates posted at travel and hotel Web sites are frequently incorrect and/or dated. Or they post the rack rates, which are the highest prices they can charge without going to prison for usury. I utilize the Internet for hotel prices merely as a baseline. And I tell myself, it can only get better. Usually it does. That's where a phone comes in handy. Call the hotel's 800 number and speak to a reservationist. Ask what the rate is for the date and type of room you seek. [Long pause.] Then ask if they're running any specials. [Long pause.] Then ask if that's the best they can do. Say "thank you," then call the hotel directly and run through the script again. Nine times out of ten I bet you get a better rate than the one posted on the Web site or the price originally quoted.
Beth Rubin is the author of Frommer's Washington, D.C. With Kids. She's a travel junkie who's been trying to beat the system all her adult life.
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