Travel agents can help steer you right

These days, everyone’s a do-it-yourself travel agent. There’s no shortage of websites that let you take care of everything, from point A to point B and back again. For some, spending hours making arrangements and getting the best deal is a fun challenge. But in some cases, it can make sense to hire a professional travel agent.

The agents who have survived and thrived since the advent of the Internet have mostly done so by offering superior advice and service, and many have expertise on specific countries or regions. Fees that hotels and airlines used to pay to have vanished—so agents charge fees. But for more exotic, unfamiliar excursions, of if you want to save your own time surfing seemingly endless travel sites, hiring an agent can be worth the fees.

An agent who specializes in your destination area, and who travels there regularly, can gauge your travel preferences and offer advice on accommodations, seasonal considerations and activities, and may be aware of money-saving promotions. An agent can also alert you to security warnings, unique travel documentation requirements and other practical details. And having an agent on your side can help in resolving problems with hotels and other service providers.

If you decide to use an agent, be choosey. Checkbook surveyed customers and found that not all travel agents provided the same level of service. While lots of surveyed customers rated their agents very favorably, others indicated that hiring an agent may not have been not worth the money.

To find the right agent, Checkbook has this advice:

•Find an agent who has recently visited your destination, or has contacts there. Ask about how many trips and how frequently the agent books travel there. The more the better.

•Check whether the agent is a certified travel associate. To be certified, an agent must have 18 months’ experience in the industry, complete an educational program, pass an exam and meet continuing education requirements.

•Make sure you understand what an agent’s fees are for. And avoid an agent who steers you to one chain or supplier — the agent may be biased toward suppliers that pay higher commissions.

•Treat your communication with a prospective agent as an audition. You should expect prompt responses, as well detailed and articulate answers to questions. If you aren’t satisfied with initial communications, move on.

•Before you talk to an agent, do some preliminary research on your travel options and destination so you can better evaluate an agent’s answers to your questions. If you work with an agent, it’s still worth doing a little shopping on your own to be sure you’re getting a good deal — especially if your flight arrangements are especially complicated.

•If you rely heavily on one agent, consider using a different agent to help you with trips that require special expertise. And let your agent know that you regularly check other options.

Finally, Checkbook offers its editors’ favorite travel tips:

•Always pay by credit card so you can protest the charge with your card issuer if there is a problem.

•Use Checkbook’s bidding strategy to save on hotels.

•Understand what insurance you do and don’t need when you rent a car.

•Recommended websites: BestParking to find the lowest rates on parking, especially in big cities. Skyscanner for discovering low fares and places you can fly cheaply if your travel destination is flexible. AwardWallet to keep track of award and loyalty points. CruiseCompete to generate a competitive cruise booking process among travel agents.

•Consider renting houses or apartments — it can be cheaper than booking hotels.

Editor’s note: The Chronicle is partnering with Bay Area Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and, a nonprofit consumer group with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. Checkbook is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. You can see ratings of local travel agencies, advice on choosing and working with an agent, and tips on planning travel yourself until May 31, 2017, at