April 29, 2001

By, Tom Parsons

Even as dot.coms crash, online travel firms are growing. But human travel agents are still a precious resource for smart travelers.

In my company, we champion these survivors, who can be your ally not only in bargain-hunting but also in knowledge, efficiency and specialized services.

Good travel agents do more than supply vacation details and make reservations. A travel professional tailors a trip to your needs. You can find agents who specialize in areas such as cruises, adventure and eco-tourism. Good agents sometimes will refer you to a competitor with expertise on a particular topic.

An agent should be able to help you save money. Package tours generally cost the same wherever you buy them online, but a travel agent may be able to offer perks or extras.

Discount travel agencies specialize in finding the cheapest rates. If you're paying the agent a fee to book your ticket, make sure you're getting something for your money. A good discount broker should be well versed in money-saving strategies such as using alternative cities, low-cost and niche carriers, companion fares, rebates and promotions. Creativity counts.

Still wary? Make a tentative reservation on your own, then consult a travel agent to comparison-shop. After booking, get your agent's name and direct telephone number. If problem arises en route, the agent may be able to help you. There are several sources for agent listings:

The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) has more than 26,000 members in more than 170 countries. Members follow a strict code of ethics, and the organization offers informal mediation to consumers experiencing problems. Search for an agent by ZIP code and other criteria on www.astanet.com.

The Institute of Certified Travel Agents (ICTA) educates and certifies agents. Its Web site (www.icta.com) lets travelers search for agents by several options.

The online travel agency directory www.travelnetusa.com has more than 10,000 listings. The site also features travel specials throughout the United States, as well as a free newsletter.

Webeenthere.com (www.webeenthere.com) provides a database of travel agents worldwide. Don't rely on brochure descriptions when you can get the scoop from someone who has actually been there.

Tom Parsons is publisher of Bestfares.com. Contact him at www.bestfares.com/contact.asp.