This year’s rocky return to travel has seen many travellers turn to the experts.
There are plenty of benefits to using a travel agent. As well as getting your holiday back on track when things go wrong, they also often have access to better deals than you would be able to find yourself.
But if you’ve previously gone for the DIY approach, you may have some questions about using a professional. Top of your list is likely to be, how much will it cost?
Annoyingly, it’s complicated.
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“It’s hard to put a number on it for several reasons,” says Greg Hamilton, president of the Travel Agents’ Association of New Zealand (TAANZ).
One of those reasons is a recent change in the travel industry – the decision by major airlines to slash commission rates.
Commission has traditionally been one of the main ways a travel agent makes money. Basically, they take a cut from the flights, hotels, cruises, tours and insurance products they sell to their clients.
This year, Air New Zealand and Qantas cut commission rates from 5% to 1% on long-haul flights, and from 3% to zero on trans-Tasman flights and short-haul flights to the Pacific Islands.
Many travel agents have had to make up the shortfall through charging customers a service fee.
“The reality of that is they’re passing on the cost and value of service to the customer,” Hamilton says.
However, if they were arranging a trip that included other elements where commission was still on the cards – like a cruise, or a tour – there may be no need to charge this fee.
Rosann Connolly-George, co-director of Vincent George Travel in Dunedin, says this is something she takes into account.
“If I’ve got a big booking where I’m looking after everything, I don’t add any fees on top, because I know I’ll have a reasonable commission coming out.”
The amount you can expect to pay in service fees differs depending on both the travel agency, and the trip.
House of Travel customer engagement director Celeste Ryall says while they typically don’t charge service fees for booking, it’s determined by each individual store.
Flight Centre NZ general manager leisure Heidi Walker says they have a sliding scale of fees depending on the level of service needed for the trip, which are outlined to customers in the initial consultation.
“For example, a long-haul trip from New Zealand to Europe needs a different touch to a domestic trip to visit friends,” she says.
“The fees we assign reflect this varying between $50 and $150 per person.”
That charge covers end-to-end travel care, including 24/7 support, advice on required documentation and a dedicated travel expert to manage their trip and any changes to it.
Getting a quote
What if you just want to see a travel agent to get a feel for how much a trip will cost? Do you have to pay for a quote?
Again, it depends on the agency.
Connolly-George says while she’s aware of agencies that charge for quotes, hers isn’t one of them. They’d rather help that person knowing there’s a good chance they will return in the future.
“If I walked into a retail store and wasn’t really sure about the shoes, I’m not expected to pay something before I come back and grab them.”
Flight Centre also doesn’t charge a separate fee for quotes.
House of Travel’s Ryall says if a customer needs a quote for a customised itinerary – which may take a lot of research to put together – some of their stores may ask for a non-refundable administration fee to cover their time and expertise.
“However if the customer books the itinerary then this amount is normally deducted from the final price the customer pays for their holiday.”
Should you need to cancel a trip booked through a travel agent, you may also need to pay them a cancellation fee, on top of any fees charged by the airline or accommodation.
Walker from Flight Centre says their cancellation and change fees also follow a sliding scale in relation to the trip.
“Cancellations can vary from $50 to $350 depending on the trip, and we do have capping if the cancelled booking covers multiple people.”
Ryall from House of Travel says they outline in their terms and conditions what happens in the event of a cancellation so there are “no surprises”.
These state any refunds may be less commission or any additional income earned in relation to the booking.
They also charge amendment fees for changes made to bookings, which are $30 per passenger for domestic trips, $50 for trans-Tasman and South Pacific, and $150 for international.
The bottom line
If you’re getting a travel agent to arrange your trip, make sure you’re clear on any additional fees for using their service.
But you shouldn’t necessarily let fees put you off, either. Relative to the amount of money you’re splashing out on your trip, the cost will likely be minimal – and may end up saving you in the long-run.