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Travel Agents Can Score You Hotel Upgrades, Better Flights, and Free Beer — and They're Surprisingly Inexpensive

Julia Glum

MONEY recently launched Dollar Scholar, a new personal finance newsletter written by a 27-year-old who’s still figuring it out: me.

Every week, I’ll talk to experts about a money question I have, whether that’s “Are online banks sketchy? or “How many credit cards do I need?” As I learn, I’ll share simple ways to improve your financial life… and post some funny memes.

This is (part of) the fifth issue. Check it out below, then subscribe to get future editions of Dollar Scholar every Wednesday.

Confession: I’ve got wanderlust. I feel like every single person on my Instagram feed is winding down the summer in an exotic locale, and I’m so jealous I refuse to give even a halfhearted “like.” I can’t stop daydreaming about planning a leaf-peeping trip to Maine or a bucket-list sojourn to Italy. I’d even settle for spending a gameday at my alma mater in Gainesville, Florida. (Go Gators!)

While fantasizing about these hypothetical vacations, I’ve been reading about travel agents. I’ve always assumed they’re only for rich people — that the services are way too expensive for my budget, so I shouldn’t even bother — but now I’m reconsidering. Can someone like me, who’s not rich and relies largely on Google Flights to plan trips, use a travel agent?

I called Erika Richter, the communications director for the American Society of Travel Advisors, to get some answers about how travel agents work and why I might want one.

I learned something within seconds of talking to her: Nobody calls them “travel agents” anymore. The preferred term is travel advisor because they’re specialists in destinations, customer preferences, and the logistics of travel itself. Huh.

“Time is money, and that’s why we need to talk about travel advisors like financial advisors,” Richter says. “They’re like asset managers, in that sense.”

She told me that when considering whether to use a travel advisor, I should ask myself what the purpose of my travel is and how much I’m willing to risk putting that experience in my own hands. If it’s a low-stakes trip to see my mom in Orlando, I can probably handle it. If it’s a once-in-a-lifetime backpacking trip through Europe, I could likely use the extra help.

Richter said that a travel advisor can help me stick to my budget, because they know what bus tours and hotels are worth the splurge and which aren’t. Even if I want to do my own research, a travel agent might have suggestions for my itinerary.

And then, of course, there are the perks.

Cheryl Bunker, the vice president for global member partnerships at Virtuoso, explained that her company has a huge amount of buying power — it accounts for $26.4 billion in annual sales. That means hotels, spas, tour guides and other companies reeeeally want their business.

“Our travel advisors have access to exclusive benefits, products and services that people can’t get on their own,” Bunker says.

For example, Virtuoso has 1,400 preferred hotels that give clients free room upgrades, complimentary breakfasts and more. Some properties offer more out-of-the-box amenities, like a private coffee tasting in Costa Rica, a horse show in Argentina or a pub visit in Ireland. (I don’t know about you, but beer would definitely add value to my trip.)

Now, about actually affording a travel advisor. Bunker said the fees for consultation and research can vary based on the complexity of a trip and an advisor’s experience level. They can charge a flat fee — a 2018 survey from Host Agency Reviews found the median flat fee for consultation was $75 among agents who charged — or one-off service fees, which averaged $35 to book a domestic flight and $45 to book a cruise.

Occasionally, using a travel agent is free, because some advisors work off commission. But even if I have to pony up, Bunker argued it’s a good deal.

“If the fee is a couple hundred for the trip, and you get $500 or more in room upgrades, it’s worth it,” she says. “You only get so many vacations a year, so why not make it the best you can?”

Bottom line? Travel agents — ahem, advisors — aren’t just for the wealthy. If I’m planning a complicated trip that involves multiple people or a unique destination, I should seek one out. Not only will they take care of a lot of legwork and score me some sweet perks, but they’ll also be there in case something goes wrong.

For example, if my flight gets canceled, I don’t have to start frantically Googling in the airport… someone will rebook me automatically.

“The internet doesn’t call you back, but your travel advisor does,” Richter says.