If you're booking a simple air ticket or a room at a hotel you know well, you may not need an agent. But for complex itineraries, tours, cruises and expensive trips, an agent can save time, heartache -- and yes, even money.
The trick is finding one that suits your needs.
HOW IT WORKS
First, how do agents get paid these days?
We surveyed several, both locally and nationally. For travel categories where commissions are still paid -- such as cruises and some tours -- most agents will advise you and book your trip for free.
But when a customized itinerary is required, or when no commission will be paid by suppliers, many agents now charge a consultation or booking fee that can range from $25-$250 (though most seem to be $100 or less). If you do book the trip, consultation fees are often applied to the cost of your trip.
Booking simple air tickets through an agent probably isn't worth it; some charge as much as $50 per ticket. But increasingly, travelers are willing to pay $50-$100 to have an agent arrange a free frequent flier ticket that can involve a few hours on the phone, says Nina Meyer, leisure travel manager at TraveLeaders in Coral Gables.
Her advice: Ask about the fee schedule -- before you arrange for the work.
Most agents now specialize in a type of travel or a few destinations, so they can offer truly knowledgeable advice as well as personalized service.
And so they have connections. Those connections might get you into a ''sold-out'' hotel, a hotel upgrade, a discount. And they may get you a cheaper hotel price than you'll find on the Internet.
''A few countries like Italy, Spain, Britain -- they have really lowered their rates to travel agents to promote the destination. We've seen Web-only fares that are more than $40 higher than what I can get as an agent,'' says Gabrielle Conea of Corporate Leisure Specialists in North Miami Beach.
HOW TO FIND ONE
Ask around. Your best recommendation is likely to be from a friend or fellow traveler who approaches vacation much the same way you do.
If your travel tends toward the upscale, try members of Virtuoso (www.virtuoso.com) and Ensemble (www.ensembletravel.com). These are consortia whose agent-members specialize in luxury travel and invest in ongoing education to keep themselves up to date. ''Our agents are very well-traveled themselves,'' says Virtuoso spokeswoman Misty Ewing.
But what about someone traveling at the moderately priced level? Yes, agents will take you on -- but again, you'll need to pay a fee.
How to find them? The American Society of Travel Agents hosts two websites. At www.astanet.com, you can search for an agent near your location. At www.travelsense.org, you can search for an agent by area of expertise.
The Travel Institute, which offers specialization courses for agents, also lists professionals that have qualified with it. Go to www.thetravelinstitute.com; click on ''Info for Travelers'' at the top of the page.
The Cruise Lines Industry Association also lists agents specializing in cruising. Go to www.clia.org; click on ''Take a Cruise'' at the bottom of the page.
(Remember, in an age of e-mail and cellphones, a good agent doesn't need to live nearby.)
And don't forget AAA. Personalized TripTiks maps are just one service. AAA offices have standardized maps, sell guidebooks (and often luggage), can snap your passport photo (free to members) and issue an international driving license. For a fee, they can speed up your passport or visa application, says spokesman Mike Pina.
AAA agents often specialize in cruises. And they offer AAA member-only Disney packages that include a free storytelling experience, special fireworks viewing areas, preferred parking and dining and lodging discounts. And AAA membership includes discounts at many hotels and attractions.
THE RIGHT AGENT
Just because an agent is qualified in a particular subject doesn't mean he or she is the right one for you.
Twice, I've had experiences where I thought I was communicating clearly -- but in hindsight, I wasn't. Once we ended up on an Alaska sailing that was too staid for my Baby Boomer husband and three older teens. The agent had cruised on the ship -- but not on that particular itinerary.
In another case, the agent steered us toward a ship where she could get us upgrades -- not understanding that we valued a smaller ship more than we cared about upgrades on a big ship.
The key, as with any relationship, is communication.
Ask questions, suggests Cheryl Hudak, president of ASTA. And expect the agent to ask you questions as well. If the agent talks more than he or she listens, this might not be the agent for you.