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Before You Shun Your Travel Agent...

Personal Business: TRAVEL


With spring just around the corner, many Americans are getting the travel

itch. If you're one of them, and you plan on using a travel agent to write up your airline tickets, you may be in for a surprise. One of the last great service freebies is about to end this month as many agencies start imposing flight-booking fees of up to $20. The move is an attempt to recoup revenues lost by a recent change in the commission structure: Instead of paying agents a flat 10%, the major carriers have instituted a $50 cap on all round-trip domestic tickets and a $25 max on one-way fares.

Before you scrap your flight plans and load up the car, consider this: Travel agencies can't afford to let you go it alone just to skirt their fees. Many haven't yet figured out how to respond and may choose to absorb the lost commissions or waive ticketing fees for frequent customers. The American Automobile Assn., for example, will continue to write airline tickets free of charge for its members.

Those agencies that have announced changes are generally holding down the extra costs to $10 to $20 per ticket, and in some cases, they're throwing in travel discount vouchers to ease the pain. But make your reservations with care: Many agencies will also charge an additional service fee for changing and reissuing tickets.

If you do business with one of the 900 U.S. offices of the nation's largest travel agency, American Express Travel Related Services, you won't leave home without paying $20 per ticket for domestic flights costing less than $300. But bundle several low-priced tickets into a single transaction of $500 or more, and Amex drops the fee. If you do have to cough up, the service charge will earn you dollar-for-dollar credits toward cruises or other tour packages booked through Amex within a year.

Similarly, in exchange for a $15-per-ticket fee, the No.2 agency, Minneapolis-based Carlson Wagonlit Travel, gives you a $25 certificate you can apply toward future cruise and tour vacations arranged through the agency. If you make other reservations with your plane tickets through Carlson, you won't have to pay anything extra. "Travel agents are looking for that extra hotel or car commission. That's additional income they can earn at no extra cost to the traveler," explains Scott Tarte, chief operating officer at Travel One in Mt. Laurel, N.J.

FARE-SURFING. Rosenbluth Vacations, which has 27 offices primarily in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, is hoping to tempt fee-averse travelers with a national toll-free reservation line to be unveiled on Apr. 3. While the company's walk-in clients face a $10 fee for airline bookings, callers to the 800 number can order tickets (as well as hotel rooms and car rentals) at no charge. Don't look for extensive hand-holding and consultation on planning your trip, though. The service is designed for travelers who know where they want to go and just need someone to do the fare-surfing and ticketing for them.

Of course, an easy way to circumvent travel-agent fees is to contact the airlines directly and make your own reservations. Particularly if you travel a certain route often, you should know which carriers typically offer the best fares. If you try always to fly with the same airline to build up mileage in your frequent-flier account, then you only have to make one call. Or if you have a computer, you can quickly price-shop all carriers through the Eaasy Sabre reservations service available to subscribers of many online networks such as Prodigy or CompuServe. And later this month, Amex unveils Express Reservations, a new no-fee, book-it-yourself service for American Express cardholders on America Online.

Remember, though, that airline fare structures are complicated and ever-changing, so a good travel agent can sometimes pin down a better deal. If the agent winds up saving you big bucks on your ticket, the fee may be a small--and fair--price to pay.

Dodging Those New Ticketing Fees

DON'T STOP WITH THE AIRLINE TICKET If you also need car, hotel, or cruise reservations, let your travel agent book those as well. Some agencies will waive the airline-ticket charge in exchange for these add-on commissions.

LOOK FOR SPECIAL INCENTIVES TO OFFSET FEES For example, Carlson Wagonlit Travel charges $15 for airline-only purchases, but it also throws in a $25 certificate that you can apply toward future trips booked with the agency.

TRUST YOUR EXPERIENCE If you travel a certain route often, you probably have a sense of which carriers typically offer the best fares. Call them yourself to compare and then book directly with the airline.Maria Mallory

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