Travel agent or book it yourself?

23:00, May 31 2012

Do you go through a travel agent when you go abroad? On my last trip, I had plenty of time before I left to plan the lot. It was fun, it added to the anticipation and when things went wrong I had only myself to blame. But with the number of continents we're visiting this time, it made sense to enlist an agent to get the best round-the-world deal. And kudos - he offered us flights at a super-sweet cost. So I went further: I asked him to sort us out some hire cars in various places. Big mistake.

It may have been marginally cheaper to do it this way (especially in the US where we need to relocate the car from New Orleans to New York) but, oh, the great hassle. And dare I say it, travel agent incompetence. I would rather pay a few hundred dollars extra and do it myself.

The first mistake was mine. I asked to pick up the car the day after we got to New Orleans, thinking it'd be a central city location. But we had to fork out another $36 to get back to the airport: ouch. You couldn't call me a great forward planner; I only thought to check which car chain we were with once we arrived. Our ride had been booked through a wholesaler, who then went to an individual company, the name of which our agent has neglected to tell us. Confusing much?

We traipse around them all - no one's heard of us. It's 6am in our agent's life and he's blissfully unaware of the abuse he's copping on the other side of the world. He's left us no personal out-of-hours contact and the 24-hour toll-free line puts us on infinite hold. After searching for the number of the wholesaler on a phone rapidly running out of battery (adding to the joy of the occasion), we hit some luck.

"I need a credit card for security," says the woman when we finally reach the right place. I hand it over. "Not a debit card, we need a worldwide credit card." I explain that my debit card doubles as a Mastercard and I've never had any problems using it like that before. "Without a bona fide credit card you can't take the car." "But I've already paid for it on this exact card," I say. "You'll have to get your travel agent to sort this out for you," she brushes me off and moves on.

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You can imagine the ropeability. The travel agency wouldn't open until 10am Melbourne time (where we booked). It was then 8am. We called the wholesaler again. They sympathised but there was nothing they could do - their contract was with STA Travel, they told us: "We have to talk to them before we can transfer you to a car company that will accept a debit card."

After five hours waiting at an airport, spending who-knows-how-much on roaming phone calls to Australia and losing a day in a super-cool city I was dying to explore, we still hadn't heard from the travel agent. Had we booked the car ourselves upon arrival it would've been pain-free. Eventually the wholesaler called - they couldn't get hold of the agent either but they felt sorry for us so they'd transferred our deal to a different company.

What are your thoughts - travel agent or no? Have you booked something through an agent you wish you'd done yourself, or have your experiences only been positive?

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