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A good travel agent can help your vacation go swimmingly

Here's one thing to keep in mind when you book your own vacation via the Internet: If you inadvertently screw things up, you have no one to blame or scream at. It's the best reason I can think of to turn to a travel agent, especially if your trip is complex - multiple destinations, carriers, hotels, tour operators you're unfamiliar with. You get the picture.

Another thing to keep in mind: Ignore those spam e-mails that congratulate you for winning a free trip. Do you believe in the tooth fairy?

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This is not a blanket endorsement for travel agents, but a good agent can save you time and most likely money by doing the bookings for you. These days you can expect to pay some fees - $25 to $50 per airline ticket - to have the reservations done by an agent. Few businesses do work for nothing. And, should something go amiss with your trip, you have someone to perhaps bail you out.

Some years ago, I interviewed a president of the American Society of Travel Agents, an organization of more than 20,000 members. When I asked about trip planning, he said something like: "Go to a travel agent. I just hope ... you get a good one."

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Most travel agents are members of ASTA or the smaller Association of Retail Travel Agents. Both have standards and codes of ethics their members should adhere to. Since neither organization really polices its members, it is possible to find a lousy agent.

For starters, ask friends and colleagues for recommendations. Lists of ASTA agents also can be found on the organization's Web site (www.astanet.com).

Ask about the agent's experience, the agency's fee schedule, how payments are processed, what kind of consumer protection the agency offers and how your vacation investment should be protected.

Beyond this, how can consumers best protect themselves?

Use a travel agent and pay only with a credit card, said Richard M. Copland, ASTA's president. One of the advantages of a credit card, he said, is that under the federal Fair Credit Billing Act, if services are not delivered, the consumer has 60 days from the billing date to dispute the charge.

In the case of a cruise, where you might make a deposit six months out, Copland recommended travel insurance from an independent firm.

A lot of people are encouraged to buy insurance from the travel supplier, Copland said, "but if you buy insurance from the supplier and the supplier goes bankrupt, what about his insurance?

"These are little things the traveling public quite often learns the hard way by trying to save a couple of bucks, to do things yourself," he added.

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Thousands of do-it-yourself travelers love to look for bargains on the Internet, but it's often tough to know if companies are legitimate.

"One thing you'll find when you're using travel agents ... is that they are fairly familiar with most travel sellers," Copland said. "ASTA has its own chat room where agents can talk back and forth. Let's assume you're sending a couple to San Diego. You have some vendor out in San Diego, but no idea [about the operation]. You can find an agent in San Diego that might be familiar with that operation."

More good advice: Go to a local travel agent with a fixed address where you can talk face-to-face with a person, and get everything in writing.

Nancy Kelly, president of Kelly Cruises, a cruise-only agency in suburban Oak Brook, Ill., who has been in business for 24 years, offered this insight:

"Today the majority of people, more than 80 percent, pay by credit card. They give us their credit card number - generally in our business it's over the telephone - and we call the charge [for deposits and final payments] into the cruise line. If the client is not in our office, we send them paperwork, asking them to sign a universal credit card form authorizing the use of the card and the amount to be charged. If they pay by check, they send the check to us. The check goes into an escrow account. We turn around and in 24-48 hours send the money to the cruise line."

"When I first came into the cruise business, people were very concerned about who we were and if their money was going where it was supposed to go. Today we rarely have anybody that even asks."

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Perhaps the best advice for consumers comes from the Federal Trade Commission. It echoes, if not emphasizes, the warnings that come from ASTA: "You get what you pay for."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Dealing with agents

A lot of devious travel operators would love to get you on the hook for "a dream vacation" or a "free vacation." Don't be a sucker. The Federal Trade Commission urges people to:

Buy your vacation travel packages from a business you know.

Verify arrangements in writing with your travel agent before you pay.

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Use a credit card to make your purchase.


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