Is it cheaper to book online or through a travel agent?

Clara V.
Clara V.Published on

So, you’ve figured out where you want to travel to, you’ve booked your leave, and settled on (at least approximate) dates - now what?

When planning a trip away, you can either book through a travel agent or do-it-yourself by using comparison websites. While the proliferation of websites like Skyscanner, Expedia, and have made it easier than ever to make your own travel arrangements, many Aussies are still after the personalised assistance of a travel agent to assist them before and during their trip.

But which of these options is cheaper? We go into the costs of a travel agent and how you can keep costs down, regardless of the type of trip you’re going on.

A world map on the wall with pins marking destinations to visit around South East Asia.

How much does a travel agent cost?

There are agents for every traveller’s needs and budget. You can find anything from large chain agencies that can find great deals for shoestring adventurers to high-end agents who specialise in creating bespoke luxury itineraries for their clients.

That’s why costs vary from agent to agent. Some travel agents don’t charge you anything for their services, instead getting commission from the flights, accommodation, and tours you book. Flight commissions have been dropping steadily for some years, so if you’re just booking flights with an agent, they may charge a fee, but may waive it if you’re also booking your hotel, cruise, or activities with them.

Some agencies will charge a booking fee, usually starting from around $100 to $150 for overseas travel, while others will charge a small percentage of your trip. Generally speaking, the more complex the trip, the more you should expect to pay an agent.

A travel agent can provide:

  • access to unpublished fares and rates.
  • expert guidance on where to go, where to stay, and things to do.
  • confirmation of all aspects of your booking, including ensuring that all your travel documentation (such as any necessary visas) are secured.

So, which is cheaper?

That depends. Contrary to popular belief, booking through a travel agent won’t necessarily cost you more than booking online. While some travel agents charge a nominal fee for planning your trip, many agencies don’t charge anything extra, instead earning commission off the airline, hotel, or tour they book for you. If they do charge a fee, they may also only do so for certain trips depending on the type of trip and the level of planning needed for it.

At the same time, in most cases, you can access the same flights and accommodation as a travel agent. Some airlines, hotels, and online booking services also often offer price matching to a rate you find elsewhere and lowest price guarantees.

This all means that there are some instances where booking a travel agent may be cheaper, and some when booking yourself may be cheaper.

When booking online may be cheaper

When you want to get off the beaten path

If you don’t want to stay in a hotel, or you want to go to places that no tours operate in, then you’ll probably be better off booking your own travel, as these types of trips typically aren’t a travel agent’s area of expertise. If you don’t want to do any package vacations, then you’ll save a lot of money booking yourself, and you’ll have more flexibility when it comes to doing what you want.

When you’re looking to book low-cost providers

If you’re open to booking budget airlines like Jetstar and Tiger Airways or budget accommodation like hostels or cheaper Airbnb stays, then you’ll likely save money booking yourself. That’s because these cheaper vendors are usually not part of a travel agent’s portfolio. Booking online lets you access any airline or hotel, budget or luxury, that a travel agent can. Plus, because airlines and hotels are online, they’re able to hold sales and offer their own deals, without needing an agent.

When you don’t have a confirmed itinerary

If parts of your trip are up in the air, then booking yourself will probably let you pocket more savings. If you book with a travel agent and there’s a change of plans, you may also have to pay a cancellation fee to the travel agent, on top of paying to change or cancel a flight. These fees - if any - sometimes follow a sliding scale, depending on the trip.

Ensure you take out appropriate travel insurance for the type of trip you have, particularly if you expect to be changing your flights.

Find out exactly what it’ll cost you if you cancel

Whether you’re booking online or through an agent, check the fine print to see what you’ll be charged. Airlines will typically charge you to change or cancel flights (unless it’s COVID-19 related and you have travel insurance that covers this cost), but some providers, such as certain hostels, let you cancel up to a day before your stay.

When booking through a travel agent may be cheaper

When you don’t want to track flight prices

Travel agents know what to look for and when the best time to book travel is (and go travelling) is. If you don’t want to keep on top of price changes and still have plenty of time before your trip, then it will likely be worth using an agent who can do that work for you, as you’ll probably get a better deal than if you had just booked on the spot.

When you have a complex itinerary

Travel agents have relationships with providers that they can use to leverage better deals for their customers. That’s why if you have a complex itinerary and a big budget (or if you’re celebrating a special event) where you’re looking to splurge on flights, accommodation, and things to do, then travel agents can sometimes offer package deals that pass on more savings to you than if you had booked all the separate components yourself.

However, if you’re enlisting the help of a travel agent to plan a complex trip that requires extensive planning, they may charge a service fee. Some travel agents, however, may not charge a service fee for taking care of big bookings, because they’ll have a reasonable commission coming out of it.

When things go awry overseas

Let’s face it, there’s no way to know ahead of time what kind of curveballs will be thrown your way during your travels.

However, if you want to help ensure that you’re as minimally out of pocket as possible if events like this occur, travel agents can help you out in situations like lost luggage, flight delays, weather disruptions, and more. They can also suggest the most appropriate type of travel insurance to take out for your trip.

Essentially, a travel agent acts as your advocate while you’re away, so if you experience a problem, they’ll be able to help you get your trip back on trip in the quickest way, and likely at the lowest cost to you.

Money-saving tips for when you book your trip

  • Compare, compare, compare. If you’re booking online, don’t just compare flights on one comparison website, check multiple. Flights that are listed on one site may not be shown on another. Similarly, if you’re enlisting the help of an agent, shop around, because different travel agents will offer different deals.
  • Book at the right time. There are specific times that you can book flights to get a cheaper price. According to Skyscanner, the best deals for international flights are scored 22 weeks in advance (but this varies from city to city), and the best time to book domestic flights is 21 weeks in advance. Annoyingly, it pays to be organised.
  • Set a price alert. Price alerts let you know when the fare you’re tracking drops in price. You can set this up on Google Flights by using the toggle to turn on price tracking, as shown in the image below.

How to track prices on Google Flights.

The bottom line

Generally speaking, booking online works out to be cheaper than using a travel agent, but only when you know what you want to do and your itinerary is fairly straightforward. While sometimes you’ll have to fork out a service fee for a travel agent, you do often get 24/7 support during your trip, and that may be worth the cost for many.

What gets you a better deal depends on factors like the type of travel you’re doing and how far in advance you’re booking. Regardless of which route you choose, there are plenty of ways to save a bit of extra cash while planning your trip.

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