When you want to go on a vacation that requires a flight, you have two main options for purchasing that ticket. You can purchase the ticket from the airline directly or from a travel agency. For decades, purchasing a ticket from the airline was the best option for many, unless they planned an entire vacation package with a travel agency. Even if you do not intend to do any other vacation planning with an agent, you can still sometimes get a flight through them. But what is the difference, really, and is one option better than the other?
To answer that question, you must first define what services a travel agency offers. Today, the Internet is a premier way for ordering tickets for many people. Websites sell thousands of tickets every day. Are these travel agencies? Some say yes, because they serve as a third party helping you to plan your vacation while others say no because these websites do not actually have vacation packages similar to those offered by your local travel agency. For now, let’s assume that these are not travel agencies and look at a comparison just between airlines themselves and travel agencies that plan vacation packages for travelers.
When you buy directly from an airline, the price of the ticket will depend most on your date and time of travel. Usually, you can get a cheaper price if you travel on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays. You can also save money, for the most part, if you are willing to travel during times that other people usually do not want to travel, like very late at night. With an airline there is no middleman, so you do not pay any kind of commission fee along the way.
That’s not true when it comes to travel agencies. When you book a flight through an agent, you are paying them a commission for their time. This does not necessarily mean that you will pay a more expensive price overall though. Travel agents usually buy tickets in bulk. That does not mean that they purchase all of the seats on a single flight necessarily, though that can be the case in some situations. What it usually means is that the travel agent commits to selling a certain number of flights or a certain dollar amount from that airline every month or every year. In exchange for their business, the airline sells them seats at a lower price. So, even when you add a commission on top of that price, in many cases, you are still paying less than you would pay to buy directly from an airline.
When you buy a flight from the travel agent, you may also be getting a deal because you are paying more in a different area. For example, maybe your travel agent puts together a vacation package that costs you an even $1000. When you see an itemized list, you might be charged $300 for the flight, $400 for the hotel room, and the rest of the money is for activities you have planned as well as the commission. Had you planned the trip on your own, both the flight and the hotel room would have been $400. So, you are not saving any more on the hotel, but you’re saving a whopping $100 on the flight. The travel agent might have used her connections to save just $50 on the flight, but he or she was able to give you a bigger savings because they charged you full price for the hotel room, even though that room was secured for half price. This is a misplaced savings, but a savings for you nonetheless, and your travel agent also made money on the deal. Do not automatically assume, however, that if you just book a flight next time, you will get the same low price. When you are dealing with a vacation package, the savings you see are not always specifically associated with the flight ticket price.
Sound confusing? Just think of it this way: with an airline, you buy a ticket with no price changes, and with a travel agent, you buy a ticket with multiple fees and discounts attached. Who has the better bottom line? It varies from situation to situation.
You can then factor in “travel agencies” that are websites selling discounted tickets. They do the same thing as typical travel agencies in that they have a lower price, but some may charge a commission. With sites such as these, that lower price comes from their ability to sell seats at the last minute, though, so the real advantage here is usually to last-minute travelers. Basically, no matter where you buy your ticket, make sure to do a lot of price comparison shopping.