The fees paid to travel agents aren’t always cut-and-dry.
Anyone who has worked with a great travel agent will tell you that they’re worth their weight in gold. Aside from taking the stress out of travel planning and dealing with snafus while you’re on the road, they can also open doors to reservations, experiences, and activities that you might otherwise not be able to find on your own.
But all of that great service comes at a cost.
How much travel agents get paid varies from agent to agent. Their income is typically a combination of fees paid directly by the client and the commissions paid to them by the companies they work with to create extraordinary trips for those clients.
For the most part, agents make the majority of their money on commissions paid to them by hotels, airlines, tour operators, and cruise ships. Those relationships take years to establish and the big travel companies also give agents access to special deals and discounts that you normally can’t find yourself by searching on Expedia, Priceline, Booking.com, or any of the other online travel agencies and meta-search sites.
Additionally, some companies, especially within the cruising industry, offer agents special incentives — such as free trips — because travel agents typically drive more than 60 percent of their business.
Many agents also charge clients a fee that’s separate from trip expenses, and that may range from $100 to $500 and up. That fee can be charged up front as a security deposit and can either be returned to you at the end of the planning process or, more commonly, applied to the cost of the trip itself.
“In many cases, the fee may be applied to the cost of the trip depending on the work involved in the request,” Rubin told T+L.
In other cases, an agent may charge a special fee for a la carte services, such as booking airline tickets, making hard-to-get restaurant reservations, or securing rooms in smaller independent hotels that, unlike large international chains, don’t pay commissions to agents.
Travel advisor Betsy Donley of Camelback Odyssey charges a $250 “Plan to Go” research fee, which is not applicable to the trip, however, she "discuss[es] the trip with the client and gives them an outline of a plan before charging the fee.”
Some travel agents, especially those who deal in high-end luxury travel, do not allow you to apply fees to the cost of a trip. A-Lister David Lowy of Renshaw Travel said his agency’s fees vary depending on the scope of requests and the itinerary.
When in doubt, ask an agent for clarification about their fee structure before proceeding with your plans.