It’s always tempting as a first time backpacker to book through a travel agent, and I completely understand the attraction.
The main benefits of booking your trip of a lifetime through a travel agent are:
- It takes out the hassle. You don’t have to book flights, accommodation and tours all on your own, trawling through the internet to find the cheapest deals. Instead everything will be done for you and you will have one single itinerary on one piece of paper.
- A specialised travel agent can offer great advice. When I booked my trip I was assigned someone who had travelled all over South America and he knew plenty of great spots that I would like.
- They may have great deals. Sometimes an agency will have that amazing 50% discount on an awesome tour you’ve been looking at.
- All of this takes the stress off of you. You’re already loaded with heavy fears about getting lost abroad and terrified of leaving home, so travel agents become something of a guiding light in your hour of need.
Even though going through a travel agent will generally cost you more than booking everything yourself, if you have a relatively generous budget and enjoy a more structured style of traveling, paying someone to take out the stress may be a small price to pay.
However, I don’t always recommend booking through a travel agent for the following reasons:
1. Travel agents work on commission. This means that not all agents have your best interests at heart and may take advantage of your naivety, persuading you to purchase tours and packages that you either don’t really want or could purchase more cheaply elsewhere.
I learned the hard way and booked much of the beginning of my trip through an STA agent. I was a visibly terrified first time backpacker booking a big expensive Round The World Trip. Whilst I saw someone who would help me, my agent saw pound signs. The result was that I walked out with a bunch of overpriced tours, such as my Bamba Experience package, that I came to regret buying.
2. You can usually get the best deals on the ground. Unless there is a special offer on, it’s going to cost you more booking activities and tours from home than at the destination itself. Don’t feel like you have to book everything before you get there!
3. Pre-booking locks you in. I started my trip in Brazil but had two tours already booked for Peru, which meant that I had to rush through Brazil and Bolivia. I missed places that I would have loved and tours that sounded amazing as I raced to reach Cusco in time.
Pre-booking may seem like a stress-buster but it actually takes out a lot of the spontaneity and can cut you off from great opportunities, so think carefully before you lock yourself in.
4. Some agents won’t be honest. I know that there are many agents who really do give the best advice they can. However, my agent told me all sorts of things to get me to buy my tours. For instance, he assured me that it would be near-impossible to book my own buses in South America in order to persuade me to buy a Bamba bus pass. He also told me that I would struggle to book my Amazon Rainforest tour on the ground as everything would definitely be fully booked and that I was guaranteed to be ripped off. Both of these points turned out to be gross exaggerations that cost me an awful lot of money.
4. Even if you have done your research, you may still be vulnerable. I did a thorough Google search before I paid my visit to the travel agent. However, with such little first-hand knowledge (for instance, I really had no idea just how easy booking activities and transport on the ground was), I was at a huge disadvantage from the moment that I walked in. I had more questions than I had answers and – being a good salesman – the agent knew exactly how to exploit this.
5. Organising your trip is part of the process. I don’t mean to sound like your mum, but learning how to deal with these hassles yourself is the first step towards independence.
But it is definitely worth going to a variety of travel agents for information and advice:
Travel agents around are great for advice and information. My travel agent was honest in terms of suggesting how long I should spend in each country on my budget, and he was also passionate about the places that he loved.
There are also times when you do have to book a particular tour or activity well in advance – like Peru’s Inca Trail and New Zealand’s Milford Sound.
Follow these 4 tips:
- Research before you pay your visit. Find out average costs of flights and tours. Whilst some agents really will have your best interests at heart, others won’t and you need to know when you’re being taken for a fool.
- Think before you buy. Don’t purchase there and then if you can. Go away and think about it. Do some more research. Ask some of your friends and online bloggers. Whatever you do, don’t panic buy.
- Be cautious with your budget. If the agent thinks that you have a big budget that you’ll be willing to part with, then they will do their best to sell you the most expensive tours and activities. You need to constantly ask yourself whether it really is worth the money and if there isn’t a cheaper alternative.
- Don’t take all positive (or negative) reviews to heart. I booked through STA because I met so many young backpackers who couldn’t speak highly enough of them. However, your experience will depend very much on the individual representative that you deal with. I know people who had great agents who scored them good deals and gave heaps of advice for free, and I know others who didn’t. Don’t be so cynical that you miss a great deal, but equally don’t be suckered into a bad deal just because your friends had a positive experience with that company.
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This post is part of my First Time Backpacker Series where I cover all of the backpacking planning and preparation basics. I want to make your first time backpacking adventure as fun and stress-free as possible!