The downside of DIY travel

The Internet lets us manage our own travel plans, but it's not always that easy or cheap. Tess asks Scott McCartney when it's best to leave things to the professionals.

Tess Vigeland: A few months ago, I had to book a multi-leg flight: LA to Seattle to Minnesota to DC to Boston and back to LA. I figured the easiest way to do it would be to go online. Plug in the cities and dates at various travel sites and presto, it would all be worked out for me.

Well, the airfares I got were sky high! Something like $2,000 for the whole trip. So I decided to try it as a series of one-way trips. Lo and behold, less than half the price.

Scott McCartney writes the Middle Seat column for the Wall Street Journal. Scott, as we head into the summer travel season, there's got to be a lesson in there somewhere. I wonder if I should've just hired a travel agent?

Scott McCartney: You know, in a nutshell, you've encapsulated the entire self-service travel revolution that we have. It's more work for people. You can come out with a better outcome, but you're essentially doing a lot of the leg work that a really good travel agent used to do for you.

Vigeland: So what am I, as a consumer, supposed to do? If I decide not to use a travel agent, should I just expect that something like this is going to take me two or three hours to come up with the "Aha! Maybe I should book five one-way tickets?"

McCartney: You know, two or three hours or more. People spend a lot of time booking travel if it's complex. The best way to approach it is the simplest way: to really break it down and look at the different pieces of the trip separately. It just requires more leg work.

Vigeland: Perhaps being your own travel agent, I don't know, maybe you should calculate your hourly pay and see if it would be cheaper to hire one.

McCartney: That's really true. I think it's not unlike a lot of other things. Do you mow your own lawn or hire somebody to do it? Do you hire a painter or do it yourself? You know, to a certain extent travel is the same thing. A good travel agent, for the $40 fee you pay or whatever it is, particularly for a complex itinerary or trip can certainly save more than that fee and travel agents too provide more services these days. The good ones are there to help re-book your trip if you run into problems, to find empty seats if your flight gets canceled, to do things just in terms of reminders and alerts and calling hotels and all kinds of things that travel agents can do. There is a value to that.

Vigeland: So I really shouldn't have been surprised that five one-way trips were cheaper than a package deal?

McCartney: You know, I think the surprise is that you hit the limitations of the online booking systems. They're really very good at simple, straight-forward trips. You know, roundtrip to Seattle: bang, there's a whole lot of choices, a whole lot of prices. If you want to go into something more sophisticated than that, they really have tremendous limitations and that's what you ran into.

Vigeland: Scott McCartney is the author of the Middle Seat column in the Wall Street Journal. Thanks for your time.

McCartney: Sure, good to be with you.