Scenario 1: 'Romantic escape'
7 nights' accommodation at Ayana Resort Bali in a deluxe ocean view room, including buffet breakfast, flights and airport transfers
Our first couple wanted to stay somewhere luxurious with a total budget of $7000.
The agent asked for a rough overall budget, as well as any specific hotels they'd seen or an area they'd like to stay in. The mystery shopper mentioned they liked the Ayana Resort and Spa, but was open to other options in Nusa Dua, an area of Bali well-known for its luxury resorts. The travel agent responded within a few hours with a package below budget. Garuda return flights ($2440), return transfers ($78) and seven nights with breakfast daily at Ayana Resort and Spa ($3516) added up to $6034. The agent also provided a cheaper option, staying at the Melia Bali hotel ($2750).
- 7 nights at Ayana Resort and Spa including Garuda flights, breakfast and transfers
- Total: $6034
We then looked at reserving the deluxe ocean view room on the same dates at Ayana on its own site and on booking.com. The best rate we could find was through the hotel's own site, at $3118 for a room only, with a bonus $15 of resort credit per night and 20% off the spa. Our mystery shopper emailed the hotel to find out how much breakfast would cost in addition to the room rate. The hotel replied within a couple of hours and said it would be about $41 per person per day including tax, meaning the room with breakfast would cost a total of $3692. With the $15 per day resort credit going towards breakfast, the cost would come down to $3587. Using booking.com, our mystery shopper was able to find a slightly cheaper room-only rate – $3096 – but with the cost of breakfast factored in, sans the $15-per-day-credit, it worked out slightly more expensive than through the hotel's website ($3670).
We were able to get direct flights on Garuda for $2439. The total cost for a room with breakfast booked directly through the Ayana website and the same Garuda flights was $6026 – about $5 cheaper, but without transfers.
But a Jetstar return flight with 20kg of luggage and meals was significantly cheaper, working out at $1940, bringing the cost down to $5527 – roughly $507 cheaper than via the travel agent.
The travel agent responded the same day to the request and within a few hours had a package deal to stay at Ayana. When the mystery shopper booked themselves, it meant trawling a few different booking websites, emailing the resort directly to get a quote for breakfast (and following up to clarify tax rates) then booking the flights separately. But while it was more time-efficient to book through a travel agent, our mystery shopper was able to get a much better deal doing it themselves.
Which is cheaper?
- 7 nights at Ayana Resort and Spa deluxe ocean view room – $3118
- Buffet breakfast $41 per person per day – $574
- Resort credit for booking directly through website – $105
- Flights – $1940
- Total: $5527
Scenario 2: Solo traveller
9-day Intrepid Beautiful Bali tour with activities, accommodation and flights
The second enquiry was for a solo traveller who had a budget of $3000. Our mystery shopper requested adventure activities and the chance to meet other solo travellers.
The agent responded quickly with an Intrepid Beautiful Bali package for $1210 sharing with a like-minded traveller of the same sex ($260 extra for a single room). The package included a nine-day tour around Bali with accommodation, all breakfasts and a couple of other meals, plus organised activities including snorkelling, hiking and visiting traditional Balinese temples. He bundled in some flights (on Garuda) for $946, bringing the total cost to $2156 – well below budget.
- Intrepid Beautiful Bali tour – $1210 twin share
- Flights – $946
- Total: $2156
Booking the same holiday DIY online was straightforward. Our mystery shopper was able to book the Intrepid Beautiful Bali package directly through the company's website, with an optional deposit of $1 to save a spot.
Using Garuda's own site, our mystery shopper found a return flight on the same dates for $859. Flying Jetstar would cost $660 return on the same dates, including 20kg of luggage and meals.
Overall it cost $285.88 more to book through the travel agent.
Which is cheaper?
- Balintro package – $1210
- Flights – $660 (Jetstar)
- Total: $1870
Scenario 3: Family holiday
9 nights at Westin Resort Bali including buffet breakfast, flights and transfers.
The third enquiry was for a family of four (two adults, a five-year-old and a three-year-old) with a budget of $7000. The family was seeking a family-friendly resort that had child-minding or kids' club facilities.
The travel agent called our mystery shopper back quickly, asking a series of questions about their needs. She recommended the Westin Resort Nusa Dua, which she said she'd been to personally and believed would be a good choice because of its kid-friendly facilities, and suggested the Novotel Bali Nusa Dua as an alternative.
The agent then promptly emailed an itinerary, which came in under budget. She provided a quote for the Westin, including breakfast, and the Novotel, without breakfast, both with late checkout. She also quoted return flights with Jetstar with 20kg checked baggage per person, return airport transfers and travel insurance.
- Westin Resort including buffet breakfast – $2896
- Flights (Jetstar, 20kg baggage) – $2396
- Transfers – $168
- Total: $5460
When we tried to book the same room (a premium double) directly through the resort's website, we weren't able to – the room type appeared unavailable for the entire month we were shopping. Sensing something was amiss, our mystery shopper rang the hotel directly. The receptionist informed her rooms were in fact available, and quoted a rate that was about $75 cheaper than the travel agent's price (but didn't include a late checkout). She couldn't explain why our shopper hadn't been able to book the rooms online, chalking it up to a technical problem. Transfers booked directly through the hotel were also cheaper, while the Jetstar flights were slightly more expensive.
Which is cheaper?
- Westin Resort including buffet breakfast – $2821
- Flights (Jetstar, 20kg baggage) – $2408
- Transfers – $105
- Total: $5334
Booking holidays DIY worked out cheaper in each of our three scenarios, but it's hard to say whether DIY will always be the way to go. If you're happy to do the research yourself, you can always take the prices you've found online to a travel agent and ask them to match or beat them.
So choosing between a travel agent or DIY may just come down to your appetite for research and need for control.
Overall, booking through a travel agent can potentially save hours of research. We found there were so many accommodation options in Bali it was hard to know where to begin. Each travel agent catered to our specific requests, they responded quickly, and were attentive, friendly and personable. The agents also asked specific questions, which helped with decision-making.
On the other hand, researching and booking your own holiday gives you the flexibility to browse lots of options at your own leisure. You're in control instead of needing to trust someone else, and you don't have to deal with two sets of terms and conditions (the travel agent's plus the airline or hotel's policy).
Booking websites often have customer reviews on hotels and packages instead of having to rely on an agent's opinion. However, if you use an agent you can always check customer reviews online for the options your agent has put forward.
What the travel agents say
The Australian Federation of Travel Agents says booking with an accredited travel agent has many benefits including:
- Professional and personal travel specialists. A professional travel agent is trained to make your entire experience – from start to end – hassle free. They also tailor the itinerary to suit specific requests and find packages and products that suit your unique wants and needs.
- Customer advocacy. If you experience a problem while travelling, your agent will act on your behalf, and is there to rectify any travel-related issues you encounter.
- Expert guidance. Agents are trained destination and product experts and know how to sort through the myriad of travel information available. Their knowledge and network means they also have access to the best deals.
- Time saving. An agent has a world of travel information at their ﬁngertips, saving you countless hours of online searching and frustration.
- Convenience. Travel agents are a 'one-stop shop' that can handle every aspect of your travel – from booking airline tickets, ground transfers, tours and activities to arranging travel insurance.
- A personal touch. A travel agent will ensure the accuracy of your booking details, advise with visa applications, assist with travel documentation, and provide valuable travel hints and tips.
Your rights and travel agents
In 2014 the Australian travel industry became deregulated as the Travel Compensation Fund (TCF) was abolished, backed by industry and government. The TFC had ensured consumers were compensated when travel agents went broke, but under new rules travel agents no longer have to be licensed. It means you could be left stranded and out of pocket if a travel agent goes bust. There's now only the voluntary Australian Travel Accreditation Scheme (ATAS), run by the peak body Australian Federation of Travel Agents (AFTA), which vets travel agents to make sure they meet certain standards such as being reliable and properly trained.