It makes sense. "You wouldn't walk into a lawyer's office and expect them to give you free advice," said Chris Russo, president of the American Society of Travel Agents, or ASTA, a trade group based in Alexandria, Va.
But some travel agents do give free advice. Because they earn sales commissions of 10% or more from certain cruise and tour companies, they often charge nothing to book these. Not so with airline tickets, which generally don't earn commissions, and some complicated itineraries that may take hours or days to assemble.
Median fees for a travel agent
Airline ticket: $32.09 Cruise: $20 Hotel: $20 Rail ticket: $25 Rental car: $17.50 Tour package: $25 Trip planning: $100
Source: "2007 Service Fee Report" by the American Society of Travel Agents
Travel agents, who sell nearly 40% of all travel in the U.S., can be helpful. But knowing when to engage one and what to pay can be confusing.
I contact my agent to book cruises and vacation packages, for which he charges nothing, and foreign trips, where his services are invaluable. I book my own domestic air tickets and hotels. (To find an agent, try the database at www.travelsense.org.)
For more money-saving advice, go to our budget tips page.
As suppliers tighten up on sales commissions, more agents are charging. Depending on the agency and the service, you may pay nothing, a flat fee, a percentage of the trip cost or by the hour. The chart with this column shows median fees charged last year by members of ASTA.
Here's what to expect and why:
Air tickets: Nearly all travel agencies charge fees, typically $25 or more, to book these. That's because major airlines stopped paying sales commissions on domestic tickets in 2002.
Issuing a ticket isn't cheap, said Russo, who runs Travel Partners in Broomfield, Colo. It may cost about $30 per booking, he said, when he factored in salaries and overhead such as office leases, insurance and fees to access the ticket clearinghouse.
Cruises and tours: Last year, less than a third of agents charged fees to book these trips. But that number may be increasing for cruises as agents get caught between falling fares and sales commissions.
Cruise lines have begun deducting port fees, fuel surcharges and other items from the total eligible for commission, said Joe McClure, president of Montrose Travel in Montrose. With some fares less than $100 per person per day, it may not pencil out for the agency.
An agent who books a $299 weekend cruise may earn a commission on only $99 of it, or about $12, McClure said, but the transaction may cost his company $30.
Some agencies charge fees to make up the difference. McClure said he sends customers seeking cheap cruises to his company's website, where transaction costs are lower.
Hotels: More than half of agents last year charged service fees to book lodgings. Whether you're likely to be charged depends on the type of hotel.
Because big chains and luxury lodgings often pay sales commissions, your agent may book these for free. But small independent hotels, budget places and bed-and-breakfast inns may not pay commissions, so expect a booking fee for those.
Trip planning: Last year, two-thirds of agents charged for this service, one of their most valuable.
McClure and Russo said they let individual agents decide whether to charge, depending on the trip. For itineraries that require significant research and don't bring in enough commissions to cover costs, McClure said, the charge would be $30 to $50 an hour.
Russo said he charged $100 per hour, which was nonrefundable but could be applied to the trip cost.
The bottom line: Feeling exploited? Don't. The average travel agent makes less than $29,000 per year in this thin-margined enterprise, ASTA says.
When you pay a service fee, "we're not getting gold rims for our Escalades or Mercedes," Russo said.
And you may get priceless help.
Engle is a Times staff writer.