Are Travel Agents Worth the Bother?

Traveling Low to the Ground

The nature of our travel style – what we call “traveling low to the ground” – does not conjure up images of luxury hotels, first class airline tickets and limousines. And for good reason.

It’s not that we’re opposed to these things, in fact we quite like them, we just can’t see forking out the money for perks that don’t feel so perky when it comes time to pay the bill.

We are suckers for every tip and trick that will save us money while traveling. After all, we have embarked on a roadtrip that can only last as long our bodies and our mutually agreed upon funds hold out. Therefore, we have vowed to stay in shape and be as frugal as possible.

Plane tickets are funny things. It slays us how wildly the price for seats on the same flight can vary. Not just the difference between first class and coach, but the fact that the guy we’re sitting next to could have paid a thousand dollars more for his seat than we did for ours. We’re not about to spend a penny more than we have to.

There is a downside to this lifestyle choice – for us anyway – we’ve never been able to book tickets without cursing our computer, the airlines, and several websites. It is so frustrating booking online (there’s often a discount for that), dealing with hidden fees (recently we got popped for a “seat fee,” $10 to get a seat – standing wasn’t an option), finding seats together and because we have flexible schedules, checking every possible flight within every possible time frame.

Then, when we’ve finally finished the research, have chosen the perfect flight and clicked CONFIRM, is seems like 9 out of 10 times the scream-inducing “this fare is no longer available” notice pops up. GRRRRRRR.

We are spending a good chunk of our summer in South America this year and because we wanted to see The Galapagos and Machu Picchu, we felt a guided adventure would be perfect for that portion of our journey. To protect The Galapagos, people aren’t allowed to go trudging around all willy-nilly, so an experienced guide must hired.

After a bit of searching – and some stalking of them on Twitter and Facebook – we discovered an amazing program, Road Scholar was the perfect solution for us – they provide educational travel programs with like-minded folks wanting to learn as much as they can about the area they are visiting.

One of the most appealing features – and for us, the swaying factor – was that there are no hidden fees with Road Scholar. EVERYTHING is included in the published price, no surprises!

The icing on the cake was that trip we will be taking in June will have only fourteen other fellow travelers, so we are very excited that we can take participate in a program like this AND still feel like our low-to-the-ground selves.

When the time came to book our flights to South America, we decided to run a sneaky little experiment. We had learned that Road Scholar had a team in place to book our flights, but we figured that because we were so good at finding great deals, we would do better on our own.

Besides, since we would be going on to Argentina and Uruguay independently after the Road Scholar portion of our trip, we weren’t sure they could help us out.

So we did the legwork, cussed A LOT, and got the “fare is no longer available” notice FOUR times in the process. We checked for flights leaving different days, leaving from various cities and searched with four different online booking sites.

By the end of the process, the best price we found was $1600 each for flights back and forth to South America from Chicago and a flight in the middle from Lima to Buenos Aires. Good price, but didn’t include all the hair we pulled out to find it.

Armed with the certainty that Road Scholar was not going to be able to top that deal, we gave them a ring. The phone was answered by the friendly Etel, and after five easy minutes of explaining our extended travel plans, we could hear Etel’s fingers flying over her keyboard.

We loved her happy banter as she researched the best flights for us – and how she didn’t flinch when we told her that price was the only factor in our decision making. We didn’t care about changing planes or long layovers, we just wanted to get there as cheaply as possible.

Then something occurred to us, Etel actually ENJOYED doing this. When we teasingly mentioned that we didn’t hear her cussing in frustration, she said that she had way better access to information than we would and that she did this everyday. It was easy for her. That’s all well and good, but could she get us a better deal?

Yes she could, $80 off each flight, without a single syllable of swearing. We told Etel that we didn’t want to sit over the wing because we like to take video from the plane – boom – perfect seats chosen. Every single need we had was met quickly and with a smile we could feel through the phone lines.

But wait – there’s more. Etel made the reservation, then told us that she had twenty-four hours to change the ticket, and if the price dropped further during that time, she would reissue the ticket and get the better price. Right.

In the meantime we were transferred to Laura, who answered all the questions we had regarding the trip, she knew the area well. We wore Laura out with questions – How do we deal with altitude at Machu Picchu? We want to live-blog the trip – where are we going to have internet service? At one point she even left a message with a friend in Peru to double check on a question we had. Wow.

When Etel called back the next day (!) with an even deeper discount, we were floored. When Laura e-mailed us with the exact places we’d have internet in The Galapagos, we swooned. AND if that’s not enough…

-We received a great list of books we might want to read before our trip.

-A phone number to call should we need assistance during the duration of our trip.

-Road Scholar has its own social network, we can meet some of the folks on our program before we go!

-An amazingly in-depth itinerary.


We get one of those sign-holding-up guys at the airport when we get to Quito! We’ve never had that before – and to us – nothing says luxury like a sign that says “Mr. & Mrs. James” when we’re THAT Mr. and Mrs. James.

All told, we saved over two hundred dollars, got some heavy perks and, best of all, had fun booking our tickets, something we didn’t even know was possible. Not a bad lick.

Next time we need flights booked, Etel is getting a call.

David & Veronica,

YOUR TURN: What is your method of booking tickets? Are perks important to you? Do you have any money saving tips for us?

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16 thoughts on “Are Travel Agents Worth the Bother?”

  1. We took 2 Road Scholar tours last year on the same trip, a sightseeing one in Australia and a more active, hike, bike & paddle one on NZ’s South Island. There was a two week interim between them, which we used to visit places in NZ that weren’t on either of those tours. Had planned to rent a car or camper but in February there were none to be had without booking far in advance, so we booked a local package from Auckland Tourist Inf Center that included hotel, charter or city to city coach transport, taxi transfers and a few attractions such as a Moari cultural show and dinner. Spent 2 nights at a great Airbnb in Auckland. It worked out fine, what a trip over that 6 week period! The air travel was complicated though, as besides flying into and between Sydney and Auckland, we also wanted to stop in CA for 4 days going out, and 2 coming back. I did ask Road Scholar for help with the booking but did not get Etel, got a young man who seemed confused by our proposed itinerary and who was unable to come up with an acceptable flight schedule and price as he didn’t look beyond the Quantas and Air New Zealand contract deals that Road Scholar has set up. I booked on my own with 4 airlines, UA for cvg-lax round trip, Fijian Air for LAX-Sydney, LAN Chilian airline one way SYD-AUK, and Air New Zealand for Invercargill-Christchurch-AUK-LAX. I think total fares came to around $1200 each, more than $30o less than what Road Scholar had quoted just from/to LAX without the flights to and from there to CVG or the SYD-AUK flight! Didn’t learn till later, though, that the 15 he flight on ANZ didn’t earn ANY flier miles though a UA partner, due to that one being booked on cheaptickets with a booking code not qualifying for miles! Anyway, I am hesitant to ask Road Scholar to book flights for us for an upcoming 8-week SE Asia trip next winter that will include their RS Timeless Cultures tour, plus one G-adventures Mekong River Cruise/tour and two Intrepid tours (Best of Vietnam and Sapa Adventure trek). Also want to stop over for a few days somewhere enroute both ways to break up the long flight times, and try to get seating in exit row near a door where people aren’t crossing the cabin over our legs. So might try one of Affordable Tour’s travel agents, as they do book Intrepid and G-adventures tours at better discounts than you get buy them directly. I don’t think Road Scholar will go through them, though. I suppose I could ask them to quote the air travel, too, but do some searching myself to compare. Do you think I should ask RS to quote it, think they would they refer me to Etel upon request?

  2. I love this story! The shame is that if you want to JUST buy an airline ticket, unless you are in a major gateway, us agents can’t really get much of a deal beyond what you can get. I know quite a few agents who do not even deal with air unless it is part of a package. The shame is the airlines have gotten so stingy, agents are not given much if any commission. And that is how we get paid in most situations.
    We do have a good bit of information that we can share about where to go and what to do and how to do it. Our expertise and service is what we try and sell. But give us Travel Agents a chance, you might be surprised!
    BTW, love your tweets and hoping to enhance my business by going a little gypsy ourselves in a few years.

  3. I’m a regular Road Scholar (Elderhostel) traveler — it’s way more than a travel agent. I think it’s the best “bang for the buck” around and it’s a great way for a single to travel. Groups are always inclusive and full of interesting folks. On international trips, I’ve always contacted the flight arrangements arm of the outfit to see what they can get for me. All but one time they found less expensive flights than I found for myself. And BTW, Etel wasn’t the exception. Anyone you get is fast, efficient and friendly.

  4. I have always been curious about booking flights through a travel agent. It seems with each passing day, flights are quickly becoming more and more unaffordable. It’s nice to have someone on the inside that knows all the tricks it seems.

  5. I’m glad that I read through all of these comments. I’m usually quick to assume that the price I see is the price I’m going to get — largely because I dislike having to deal with all of this/ travel agents.

    Thanks for the link! Will definitely keep this in mind the next time I’m traveling somewhere.

  6. Very interesting – article AND comments. I mostly fly Southwest when possible due to their wonderful flexibility with changing flights. As a baby boomer in the Sandwich Generation, I have often had to make flight changes due to caregiving needs and other family issues and that is my top priority. The last time I flew a different airline and wound up having to change, I lost over $150 to make the change! Southwest allows you to change for no penalty – course you can’t pick your own seat ahead of time, Sigh. Nothing is perfect.

    I will say, though, we used AAA travel agents to book tickets to go to a destination wedding out of state many years ago. We were getting ready to head home after a lovely trip when we turned on the TV to discover 9/11! It took us several days to be able to rebook the flight and get home – and our travel agent worked with us tirelessly, every step of the way. Thanks to her, we got home a day or two earlier than many, which was vital due to my senior parents being alone back at home at such a frightening time! They are definitely a wonderful resource. I’ll keep these folks in mind. Thanks for the info 🙂

  7. I have never used a travel agent just good ole fashion grunt work and research. I did check our roadscholars though. Nice site. Thanks for the link.

  8. As I’m sure you know, Road Scholar is what used to be called Elderhostel. We recently did a 10 day trip to central Mexico for somewhat less than a 7 day similar itinerary costs according to the Road Scholar site. Our lower price included airfare from Philadelphia. We stayed at comfortable B&B’s (all with en-suite rooms) and went on tours booked in country. Admittedly, I speak Spanish which made some aspects of the trip less foreboding. Do think you are spending more or less for your Road Scholar trip to the Galapagos and Peru than you usually would if you traveled independently? Is this a sponsored gig because of your blog? [If it is, more power to you. You obviously put a lot of effort into your blog (I’m a regular reader) and I certainly wouldn’t begrudge you a free or reduced price trip.]
    I agree that booking flights is time consuming and frequently grrrr-producing and that a good travel agent can be worth the commission on airfare—although the last time we used one to book airfare to Hawaii from Philly, we ended up with seats that backed onto a bathroom bulkhead (and didn’t recline). I guess travel agents are like all other professionals–some are better than others. One thing that experience taught me is to be diligent about using Seat Guru (–even for a travel agent arranged flight.
    Have a wonderful trip. I look forward to your posts. We went to Peru for our honeymoon–30 years ago.

    1. Hey! The link you shared doesn’t work – can you try again? We’d love to see your experience. It would be really hard to know if our trip would be cheaper if we tried to do everything on our own – it covers so much ground and having never been to Peru, we weren’t comfortable with being able to book things fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants like we usually do in a decent amount of time. I guess we were lucky to get one of the “good ones” with Etel – she didn’t flinch when we started asking for the perfect seats, etc. Can’t imagine taking a flight to Hawaii and not being able to recline my seat. Nothing like showing up in paradise with a crimped neck!

  9. I’m glad you had such a wonderful experience. Sounds like you got a very sweet deal!

    One suggestion: when you are looking for flights online, be sure to clear your cookies in between repeat searches with the same website. Many airline and reservation sites are known for jacking up their prices artificially in order to frighten you into buying NOW before the price goes up again. Could explain some of the “fare is no longer available” messages you got.


      1. My methods are simple and perhaps a bit boring. Like you, I search every possible site on the web. But when booking airline tickets I always search after midnight and usually 01:00 AM Tuesday or Wednesday morning when they often release previously held tickets. However, I will keep Road Scholar in mind because they are pro’s for sure. One item you havent mentioned is frequent flyer miles. I am no long in South Florida, but is South China. I found a cheap ticket from Ft Myers to LaGuardia, then RT to Shanghai (Pudong) for $33.00 Yes…I used 90,000 frequent flyer miles. On multiple tickets at my destination, I never book in advance and certainly not from USA. I can always find cheap domestic tickets (like Shanghai to Nanning Guangxi $45.00. “You gotta be a night owl to get the bennies”.

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