We wanted to compare travel agents with DIY travel bookings to see which option saved the most money and uncovered the best holiday deals.
So we set up three hypothetical trips to one of the most popular holiday destinations for Australians – Bali – and approached travel agents as would-be travellers looking for prices.
Our three types of hypothetical holiday-maker are:
- a couple wanting a luxury romantic escape
- a solo traveller seeking adventure
- parents with young children needing some time out.
As well as reaching our own verdict, we also checked in with the travel agents to get their take on people arranging their own trips.
It may take more time to DIY your holiday, depending on how computer savvy you are, but it can lead to huge savings.
Doing it yourself
Booking holidays ourselves worked out cheaper than using an agent in all three scenarios. The DIY booking for the luxury holiday saved a massive $2451, more than a third less than the agent's price.
In most cases it was pretty quick and easy to make bookings online, although this was because we knew exactly what we were looking for and the itineraries were fairly simple.
Using a travel agent
If you didn't know what to look for, travel agents' suggestions and advice could save hours of research by quickly narrowing down the endless options of hotels and tour packages available in Bali.
Each agent was knowledgeable about the destination and happy to tweak the itinerary according to our preferences.
Booking holidays ourselves worked out cheaper than using an agent in all three scenarios
Booking through an agent also came with a comforting certainty that all the details were correct, whereas when booking online we had to keep double checking that dates and details all lined up. This would become even more laborious with more complex itineraries.
If you want the best of both worlds, you can always get an itinerary and quote from an agent, do your own search for the cheapest prices online, and then ask the agent to match or beat the prices you've found (although not all offer a 'price beat' guarantee). At the very least, it's worthwhile quickly checking the hotel's and airline's own websites in case they're offering a significantly lower price than the agent.
It's also worth looking at flights with other airlines. Although this introduces many more variables, changing airlines can result in big savings. But make sure you're aware of the airline's safety record and track record for delays and cancellations.
What about hotel comparison sites?
We checked at least one hotel price comparison website for each itinerary, but their price always came in higher than both the agent's quote and the hotel's own website.
Booking a romantic luxury escape ourselves rather than through an agent saved us the most out of the three scenarios. Credit: themulia.com
7 nights' accommodation at The Mulia in a Baron Garden View Suite, including breakfast, flights and airport transfers.
We presented as a couple wanting to stay somewhere luxurious on a total budget of $7000.
The travel agent responded to our online enquiry within a couple of hours, suggesting two resorts: Anantara Uluwatu and The Mulia.
We chose The Mulia in Nusa Dua and the agent quickly sent through a package quote just under budget at $6887.
The package included seven nights' accommodation with breakfast, airport transfers and return Qantas flights, as well as an add-on product ($49 per person) giving extra benefits and services such as price-drop protection.
We asked for the add-on product to be removed and for a price breakdown. The agent sent through a revised quote for $6789, but said a price breakdown wasn't possible.
- Seven nights in The Baron Garden View Suite at The Mulia including breakfast, airport transfers and Qantas flights
- Total: $6789
The Mulia's own website offers hotel and flight packages, so we checked this option first.
A package including the same room (with breakfast, but no airport transfers) and return flights with Garuda Indonesia airline cost $6113 – significantly less than the agent's quote. We emailed the hotel about adding transfers to this package and were told it would cost $84 return (800,000 in Indonesian rupiah, or IDR), taking the total price of the package to $6197.
We then looked at booking the room and flights separately. The Mulia website offered seven nights' accommodation in the Baron Garden View Suite including breakfast and transfers for $3045 (IDR 29,148,000).
We then found the same return Qantas flights for $1293 using a price comparison site. Combined with the accommodation and transfers booked directly through The Mulia website, the flights took the total DIY package cost to just $4338, saving a whopping $2451 on the travel agent's quote.
- Seven nights in The Baron Garden View Suite at The Mulia including breakfast and transfers – $3045
- Qantas flights – $1293
- Total: $4338
Result: DIY is $2451 (36%) cheaper
Booking a solo trip with adventure activities was straightforward without the help of a travel agent.
9-day Intro Travel Bali Intro tour with activities, accommodation and flights, plus one extra night's stay in Bali and airport transfer.
The second enquiry was for a solo traveller who had a budget of $3000. We asked for adventure activities and the chance to meet other solo travellers.
The agent asked some questions about what kind of activities and experiences we were looking for before talking us through three different tour packages.
We chose the Bali Intro tour and the agent sent through a quote several hours later for $2204, which included the tour (eight nights' accommodation, one-way airport transfer, eight meals and activities), return flights with Virgin, two nights' stay in a hotel before the tour and one night after it.
After some discussion about the extra accommodation, we decided to remove the two-night stay before the tour but keep the post-tour stay, as the agent recommended allowing plenty of time to return to the main island for the flight the next day.
The revised quote was well under budget at $1984. A $2 charity donation was added to the bill, which the agent hadn't mentioned.
- Bali Intro tour – $1099
- Flights – $797
- Departure transfer – $35
- Post-tour hotel – $51
- Charity donation – $2
- Total: $1984
Booking the same holiday online was straightforward. We booked the Bali Intro tour directly through the company's website for the same price ($1099). Using Virgin's own site, we found the same flights for $777. The Virgin flights were also available on a flight comparison site for $723. Flying with Jetstar on the same dates would have cost $629, including 20kg of luggage, entertainment and meals.
The post-tour hotel (with breakfast) was available on Agoda for $54, $3 more than quoted by the agent. We emailed the hotel and were told an airport transfer would cost $21 (IDR 200,000).
Overall, it cost $181 more to book through the agent. And although some people use agents for the perceived convenience, all the emails back and forth actually ended up taking up more time than the DIY option.
- Bali Intro tour – $1099
- Flights – $629 (Jetstar)
- Departure transfer – $21
- Post-tour hotel – $54
- Total: $1803
Result: DIY is $181 (9%) cheaper
We saved $585 by booking a Bali family holiday ourselves. Credit: booking.com
9 nights at Bali Mandira Beach Resort and Spa including 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. We said we wanted a family-friendly resort that had child-minding or kids' club facilities.
The travel agent responded to our online enquiry with two flight options and detailed information on three resorts, along with pricing for each package.
We chose the Bali Mandira Beach Resort and Spa and flights on Malindo Air, which the agent said was $350 cheaper than flying with Garuda.
The agent sent through a package including return Malindo Air flights (with 20kg baggage per person but no meals), nine nights at the Bali Mandira in a Superior Room with breakfast, and two-way airport transfers – all for a total of $6570.
The accommodation came with a number of extras or 'value adds', including a 10% discount at an on-site restaurant, a half-price kids' meal at a buffet and theme dinner, free meals for kids when dining with their parents from the à la carte menu at the main restaurant, and $11 spa credit for each adult. The agent said they weren't able to break down the package pricing.
- Nine nights at Bali Mandira Beach Resort and Spa including breakfast, flights and transfers
- Total $6570
We found the same room on the hotel's website including breakfast and return airport transfers for $3349. This room also came with some value adds: 10% discount at an on-site restaurant, 15% discount at the main restaurant, 10% spa discount for one treatment, and 20% discount for pre-booked signature spa treatments.
The flights on Malindo Air's website cost $3481, which, combined with the accommodation found on the Bali Mandira's website, would take the total package to $6830 – higher than the agent's quote. But flights on the same dates with Jetstar (with 20kgs luggage, no meals) cost $2636, although the outbound flight arrived in Bali at 9pm rather than 4.50pm, which might be less convenient for people with young children. The total for the DIY package with Jetstar flights was $5985.
- Nine nights at Bali Mandira Beach Resort and Spa including buffet breakfast and transfers – $3349
- Return flights – $2636 (Jetstar)
- Total: $5985
Result: DIY is $585 (9%) cheaper
A professional travel agent can make your entire experience hassle free.
The Australian Federation of Travel Agents (AFTA) says booking with an ATAS (AFTA Travel Accreditation Scheme) accredited travel agent has many benefits.
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.
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.
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.
An agent has a world of travel information at their ﬁngertips, saving you countless hours of online searching and frustration.
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.
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 (although if you act fast, you can ask your bank for a credit card chargeback.)
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.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.