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Michael Bennett is the former Senior Producer of the Travel Channels west coast operations and is currently a travel writer for Savoy and Black Enterprise Magazine. Michael is the host of Globetrotting on BET's BET on Jazz Network. For travel question write to

Do You Need a Travel Agent?

The travel business was already confusing, misunderstood and complicated, thanks in part to advances in computer technology. And now with the horrific events of September 11, 2001, the travel industry is in a state of chaos the likes of which we have never seen before.

In the coming weeks, as the travel industry gets back on solid footing, consumers will be inundated with choices like never before. And thatís where a good travel agent comes to the rescue. Itís virtually impossible for the average consumer to keep up with myriad of travel options. Not only are the airlines drastically reducing their prices, airline prices change literally thousands of times a day, and thatís not an exaggeration.

You have several hundred tourism operators offering to sell you every possible combination of air, hotel, auto and cruise package to destinations you never even heard of. You have passport and visa requirements, travel insurance, and complicated itineraries to deal with. When is the best time to travel? Whatís there to do when you get to your destination? How do you get around? How do you handle your money or the language barrier? Starting to get the picture?

A good travel agent will ferret through the barrage of information that might take you weeks to figure out. Travel agents have changed the way they do business over the past five years in one very important way. They have become specialists. Itís virtually impossible to be an expert on travel to all parts of the world. As a result, many travel agents have become niche providers focusing on the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, the South Pacific and Europe.

Some focus on adventure travel, others on cruising. Most travel agents have visited places or taken the very trip you are planning. When searching for a travel agent itís important to figure out where their area of expertise lies.

Iíve got friends who have two or three travel agents. Some of the larger travel agencies have agents who specialize in different areas to give you a one-stop shopping of sorts to keep your business. Even though the airlines have cut commissions they pay to travel agents, travel agents can still be useful in finding discount bargains on air travel.

In fact, many travel agents have what is called "secret override commissions" or "preferred supplier" agreements with the airlines. These are monetary incentive agreements above and beyond the normal commission structure to get travel agents to send business to a particular airline. Itís important to ask this question when shopping for a travel agent. Be warned, a travel agent may shuttle you to one of these preferred suppliers so the agent can make a higher commission rather than save you money. Most cruises these days are booked through a travel agent with the blessing of the cruise line industry.

Those "secret override commissions" or "preferred supplier" agreements exist with cruises as well, but unlike the airline industry; these agreements can actually save you time and money. I would strongly recommend using a travel agent instead of calling the cruise line direct.

A travel agent will be more focused on your individual needs and can help you with visa requirements, trip cancellation insurance, shore excursions and provide you with tour guides and special services at different ports. Is there a time when you wouldnít use a travel agent? YES. I fly to Washington DC several times a month. These are relatively uncomplicated itineraries that I just book online. If you book airfare seven-days in advance, which for the most part I do, cheap fares are easy to find.

As members of the news media, you are entitled to fly at a special media rate, which many airlines offer, but the travel agent wonít have access to. Call the airlineís press or public relations office to get that information. In some cases youíll be directed back to the reservations line, but at least ask.

Before booking the media rate check around to see if thereís something cheaper. Finally, itís important to let your travel agent know if you had a good or bad experience while on vacation. If thereís a problem, you need to let them know. In many cases, they can got to bat for you and resolve a conflict with an airline, cruise line, hotel or tour operator. If you had a good time left them know that as well. Travel agents put their reputations on the line and your repeat business is very important to them. Without you, they have no business.