What are travel agents good for?

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Are travel agents still worth using? As Christopher Elliott (the Travel Troubleshooter) pointed out in a recent column, it's definitely not a growth industry. The number of travel agents in the U.S. is down 30 percent since 2000.

Bucking the DIY trend in some respects, Elliot comes down firmly in favor of agents: They can be "your greatest asset when you're planning a trip." But that's only if they're competent and not fly-by-night. Among his four "secrets" for finding a good agent are looking for those certified by the American Society of Travel Agents, and opting for agents who work nearby and are easily accessible. Online agents, connected to you by little more than a web address and a phone line, may be hard to track down later, when and if there's a problem. (For simple flight and hotel bookings, of course, online agents such as Expedia and Travelocity work just fine.)

I agree with Elliott that meeting an agent face to face is still hard to beat when you have something complicated in mind...

Agents usually aren't worth it for my own bare-bones style of traveling. But for a long, complicated trip to Asia, for example, or for somewhere equally far-flung, an agent can be a great idea. The many time zones and linguistic and cultural differences you'll be confronting can make booking such trips on your own too time-consuming to be practical.

When I was living in India, I booked most trips myself—but I didn't hesitate to call in an expert for trips with lots of stops, starts, and complications, such as a visit I was planning to Agra, Jaipur, and Delhi (the so-called Golden Triangle). In addition to streamlining my ambitious itinerary so that it made the most geographic sense, my agent got hotel upgrades whenever possible. And he also got us a good deal.

I suppose, ultimately, it's a matter of personal taste: Some people find it rewarding to plan their entire itinerary, others are pressed for personal time and need someone else to step in and take care of the details. In the end, I think it's premature to talk about the demise of the travel agent. There's clearly a place for them, still, and with lives getting busier, I don't see that ending anytime soon.

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