Wellington, New Zealand
sbiddle: In the old days the commission paid by airlines and hotels was great, margins were good and staff were paid well. The opposite now applies, meaning that in some big brand travel agents you have the same situation as Dick Smith - unskilled staff earning peanuts.
Always be yourself, unless you can be Batman, then always be the Batman
E3xtc: I will split my opinion 50 50 :) When looking to travel I usually go online, do all the digging and work out best price etc from various sites. Then I contact my local Flight Centre with what I am wanting to do; tell them the prices I have found myself and they (to date) always match/better the prices.
This way I have the booking completed through an agent (which realises the added benefits should things turn pear shaped), whilst also getting the price I was happy with through independant research.
The last time, they had to contact the wholsalers who had to contact the hotel I was wanting to stay in to negotiate a better rate - and it all came back favourable....so i rekon this approach is a win win... :) for me at least
sbiddle: The one advantage of a travel agent is they have the ability to effectively hold a ticket (normally for ~48 hours). The airlines that offer services such as this typically charge for it.
Wellington, New Zealand
Tinshed: Seconding those who say travel agents are really, really worth their while, especially when things go wrong. A few years ago we booked a holiday in Europe online and while away family member passed away. Boy, did it take some sorting out. Lots of phone calls and when you are already under stress, the last thing you need. Have used a travel agent ever since. Wouldn't do it anyway way and have never found them anymore expensive - at least for the travel we have booked. It is an old adage but bears repeating: you get what you pay for.
Conversely, I had booked through a travel agent for a trip to Europe in 2010 with a few days in Korea on the way back. Then North Korea started blowing things up and tensions in the area ramped up considerably. The agent was less than useless and came back with offers that would have cost us considerably more. I walked into the airlines office in Paris, told them what I wanted, and fifteen minutes later walked out with tickets changed at no charge. The agent was left to cancel the Korean hotel booking and organise a refund. I ended up doing that when I got home.
One online site I recommend staying away from is Orbitz. They can, and do, sell cheap tickets that the airlines won't honour. I spent a month in arguments with Orbitz last year (first and last time I used them) trying to resolve ticketing issues over a ticket I bought for my daughter. To get help you must phone them in the US so it turned into an expensive exercise. Stay clear!
What I do when researching international flights is I start the search by finding which airlines fly into my destination. Then I look at routes and basically trace the deals back from end point to where I am leaving from. Being prepared to change airlines can often be the way to save a lot of money. For example, when booking a ticket to get my man back to Palmy from Montreal between Christmas and New Year had prices come up varying from $2-$3 thousand each way. AirNZ's site came back with total costs of over $3,000 for the inbound fare. I got him on American Airlines from Montreal to Honolulu for a couple of hundred dollars to hook up with AirNZ from Honolulu to PMR via Auckland. On that one route I saved almost $2,000 (mainly because I noticed that AirNZ was heavily discounting seats from Hawaii so decided to see which airlines flew there from Montreal).
So, my suggestion - be creative. If you find out which airlines land at your destination its easy to trace the hops needed back to departure point and find the best deals.
Also, if you switch airlines make sure you leave plenty of time. If the first flight is running late and you are worried about missing a connection, ask the airline to contact the other one to let them know you are coming in late - most will do this and most airlines (in my experience) that know they have an inbound passenger connecting will make allowances and not treat you as a no-show if your incoming flight is too late. Allowing three hours minimum between flights is usually enough. I always cover myself by checking airlines rescheduling policies. Generally, if you contact them in advance to let them know which flight you are connecting from and ask for information about what happens if that flight is late/delayed/cancelled, the airlines note this against your booking. Many won't charge a rescheduling fee if they know in advance that you are reliant on another airline.
alasta: I'm considering a trip to the US later this year, probably flying into San Francisco and visiting one or two other locations. Because I've never taken a long haul trip before I was thinking that a travel agent might be a safer option so that I can avoid any gotchas but now I'm thinking that a DIY job through Expedia might be cheaper and more flexible.
Apart from travel insurance are there any other things that I could get caught out on? e.g. what, if anything, do I need to do to arrange a visa?