Should I book my own airline and hotel reservations, rely on a travel agent, or use an Internet service?

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Answered by: Alan, An Expert in the Tips for Traveling Category
The internet has changed the way we do business, with many industries being dramatically changed as a result. The ability to download music in lieu of purchasing a CD has forever changed the way we interact with the music industry. Online shopping as virtually (pardon the pun) transformed the retail shopping experience, as well. In the 21st century, booking airline and hotel reservations is no different. Where travel agents used to be the service of choice for travelers, they have all but been replaced by internet booking services such as Expedia, Priceline,,, etc. Yet, as with anything, there is always a trade-off when balancing cost with value.

Before we dive into the discussion, I want you to keep a concept in the back of your mind as we talk about the pros and cons of booking airline travel and hotel reservations: it's all about Control (and Control costs money). The less you pay for your airline and hotel reservation, the less control you have over your itinerary and travel flexibility.

Ok. You want to travel actoss the country for a 5 day vacation. For help in arranging airline and hotel reservations, there's the time-honored "concierge" approach of using a travel agent. They're still out there, but in the age of the internet and cost-cutting, they primarily cater to those for whom convenience is most important, with economy coming a close second. Truly a one-stop service, they can package all of your logistical needs, from flights to rooms to rental cars, even suggesting restaurants at your destination and frequently hooking you up with discounts to local attractions or events. This service comes at a price, however. Belt-tightening at airlines and hotels have reduced the profit margins formally enjoyed by travel agents, so they have less an opportunity to pass these diminishing discounts on to the customer. Travel agencies still provide valuable services, and are a relative bargain, but with websites such as the ones mentioned above, if you're wanting to save money, you can do just as good a job yourself as a travel agent can. Many if these websites, and in fact, many airline and hotel websites, offer plenty of these same discounts and opportunities.

Control is valuable. With online services such as Expedia and Priceline, huge discounts can be gained by being flexible in your schedule. The downside of these services, is there is a bit of a "Russian Roulette" experience. You go to the website, enter in what kind of hotel you want on what day(s), then you are shown a yet un-named property for a given price. It is only after you've booked the reservation that you find out the name of the hotel. Less control, more savings. Many times, searching hotels in your destination area, you can find prices very close to the price offered by an online service. The benefit of booking directly through the hotel? Control. No blips, no question marks, and you arrive/depart on the days that are convenient to you. On the other hand, let's face it: 50 bucks is 50 bucks. If you're on a tight budget, and if giving up some control for a big discount means the difference in going on vacation or not, then obviously Control will have to take a back seat.

The same applies to airline reservations. If you are flexible in your travel plans, you can save a lot of money by allowing the booking service to choose a day within a window that you specify (3 days up to a week-wide window). Most of these reservations come with some severe restrictions, and many are non-refundable. To regain the Control of refundable tickets and flight times that are more convenient, again you pay for it. Ironically, airline companies seem to be in competition with the online reservation services. Most of the major airlines now also offer considerable discounts if you're willing to be flexible regarding your itinerary. To be fair to the online services, you will still have to give up some control and accept a non-refundable ticket when dealing directly with the airline, along with other restrictions, in order to receive the discounted fare.

Airlines and hotels save millions of dollars when we use their online reservations systems when booking our flights and stays. They encourage us to use these online systems by endlessly reminding us to use their websites: when first connecting on the phone, while on hold, and through television, magazine, and internet advertising. Their computerized reservations systems are already paid for, while their flesh and blood reservation agents are on salary. But again, it's about control, and how much of it you can maintain over your very valuable days off. The cost differences between online fares and "talking-to-a-real-person" fares are so nominal that it isn't worth the amount of Control we're asked to give up. For instance: if you make a reservation yourself via the airline's website, or use an online booking service, you have to pay for the ticket right then. With a human reservation agent, you have up until midnight the following evening to pay for the reservation (more control, and allows for greater planning and scheduling options). Fortunately, with hotel (and even rental car) reservations, full payment isn't required until you arrive (cancellation period windows vary from hotel to hotel). Online services also require payment upon placing the reservation for a hotel or rental car. If you're comfortable with giving up this amount of control, go for it. However, a lot can happen in 30,60, or 90 days, and coughing up that amount of money all at once can be painful (and risky).

Ultimately, when making airline and hotel reservations, you first need to decide how much Control you need or want to have over all your travel plans. If saving money is more important than having complete control, then online reservations services can yield impressive discounts. Travel agencies can still package a decent bargain while allowing you a modicum of control. But before you choose one or the other, why not try contacting the airline or hotel directly? Go to their respective websites to locate the flight or property you want, note the prices, then give them a call and let a real-live human being book your reservations for you. You can many times land the same deal you would have gotten from an internet reservations service, obtained the same rental car, local attraction, and event discounts/packages a travel agent would have arranged, and have relatively full control over your entire vacation.

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