If you're booking a simple plane ticket or a room at a hotel you know well, you may not need an agent. But for complex itineraries, tours, cruises and expensive trips, an agent can save time, heartache - and yes, even money.

The trick is finding one who suits your needs.

How it works

First, how do agents get paid these days?

We surveyed several. For travel categories where commissions are still paid - such as cruises and some tours - most agents will advise you and book your trip for free.

But when a customized itinerary is required, or when no commission will be paid by suppliers, many agents charge a consultation or booking fee that can range from $25 to $250 (though most seem to be $100 or less). When you book the trip, consultation fees are often applied to the cost of your trip.

Booking simple plane tickets through an agent probably isn't worth it; some charge as much as $50 per ticket. But increasingly, travelers are willing to pay $50 to $100 for an agent to arrange a free frequent-flier ticket that can involve a few hours on the phone, says Nina Meyer, leisure travel manager at TraveLeaders in Coral Gables, Fla.

Her advice: Ask about the fee schedule before you arrange for the work.

Services

Most agents specialize in a type of travel or in a few destinations, so they can offer knowledgeable advice and personalized service.

And so they have connections. Those connections might get you a room in a "sold-out" hotel, a hotel upgrade, a discount. And they may get you a lower hotel price than you'll find on the Internet.

"A few countries, like Italy, Spain, Britain - they have really lowered their rates to travel agents to promote the destination. We've seen Web-only fares that are more than $40 higher than what I can get as an agent," says Gabrielle Conea of Corporate Leisure Specialists in North Miami Beach.

How to find one

Ask around. Your best recommendation is likely to be from a friend or fellow traveler who approaches vacation much as you do.

If your travel tends toward the upscale, try members of Virtuoso (

» READ MORE: www.virtuoso.com

) and Ensemble (

» READ MORE: www.ensembletravel.com

). These are consortia whose agent-members specialize in luxury travel and invest in ongoing education to keep themselves up to date.

But what about someone traveling at the moderately priced level? Yes, agents will take you on - but again, you'll pay a fee.

How do you find them? Remember that in an age of e-mail and cell phones, a good agent doesn't need to live nearby.

The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) hosts two Web sites. At

» READ MORE: www.astanet.com

, you can search for an agent near your location. At

» READ MORE: www.travelsense.org

, you can search for an agent by area of expertise.

The Travel Institute, which offers specialization courses for agents, also lists professionals who have qualified with it. Go to

and click on "Info for Travelers" at the top of the page.

The Cruise Lines Industry Association also lists agents with that specialty. Go to

» READ MORE: www.cruising.org

and click on "Take a Cruise" at the bottom of the page.

And don't forget AAA. Personalized TripTik maps are just one service - AAA offices also have standardized maps, sell guidebooks (and often luggage), can snap your passport photo, and issue an international driving license. For a fee, they can speed up your passport or visa application, spokesman Mike Pina says.

AAA agents often specialize in cruises. And they offer member-only Disney packages that include a free storytelling experience, special fireworks viewing areas, preferred parking, and discounts for dining and lodging. Membership also includes discounts at many hotels and attractions.

The right agent

Just because an agent is qualified in a particular subject doesn't mean he or she is the right one for you.

Twice, I've had experiences where I thought I was communicating clearly - but in hindsight, I wasn't. Once we ended up on an Alaska sailing that was too staid for my baby boomer husband and three older teens. The agent had cruised on the ship - but not on that particular itinerary.

A second time, the agent steered us toward a ship because she could get us upgrades - not understanding that we valued a smaller ship more than we cared about upgrades on a big ship.

The key is communication.

Ask questions, suggests Cheryl Hudak, president of ASTA. And expect the agent to ask you questions. If the agent talks more than he or she listens, this might not be the agent for you.

Finding the Right Agent

Finding the right agent is like finding a doctor or therapist: He or she may be terrific for someone else, but not for you.

Don't expect an agent to give away his or her time for free. Understand that if he isn't being paid a commission by suppliers, he'll need to charge you. And even when he is getting a commission, you want to feel comfortable that the advice is what's best for you - not what's most lucrative for him. A fee helps level that field.

At a larger agency, meet first with the leisure manager. He or she can steer you toward an agent who's a good fit.

Here are questions

you should ask:

Has the agent been to the place you want to go?

What specialized knowledge does he have about that place?

Has he traveled the way you want to travel (on a cruise, escorted tour, via package, or on your own)?

What professional organizations and affiliations does the agency and the agent have?

How long has he been in the travel agency business? How long has the agency been in business?

Are most of his clients casual travelers? Families? Sophisticated travelers?

What is his personal idea of a great trip?

Is he familiar with your price range?

What services does he offer and what fees does he charge?

Are there companies he doesn't do business with as a matter of policy?

Is he compensated by the service provider, and if so, does he get more compensation from one cruise line than another?

Can the agent's relationship with the supplier earn you benefits, such as upgrades or resort credits?

Can the agent help you after hours when a problem arises, and how can you contact him? (Save it for true crises.)

Communication is key.

The agent should ask you a lot of questions, just to be sure you're on the same page. In that conversation, you should share this information and be as specific as possible:

Ages and preferences of your party.

Financial commitment for the trip.

Primary goal. (Bonding with family? Visiting every European capital? Rest and relaxation?)

Style of travel you desire. Talk about your favorite hotels and why you liked them; explain your least favorite travel experiences and what went wrong.

Pace of your trip. Do you hate downtime, or do you want to take things slowly?

Trip ambience. This is a combination of service attitude, decor and programming (music in the lobby, programs aboard ship or at the resort).

Hassle factor. Are you the kind of traveler who will travel two days to get to a remote destination - if the experience is exactly what you want? Or do you want to stick with direct flights? Be sure the agent understands your comfort level.

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Jane Wooldridge