With online travel sites like Expedia, Booking and Travelocity, more people are planning vacations themselves. However, local travel agents say some may spend more time blindly surfing for deals than actually surfing on their vacation — or whatever activity they hope to enjoy.

Kaye Horacek of Vacations Unlimited has been working in the travel business since 1986. She, her husband George Horacek, and two other agents work with clients in Central Texas, from singles to groups of more than 100.

In addition to using an agent’s research expertise to save time, Horacek said personal attention is another reason to use an agent.

“I like to meet with them and discuss what they like,” she said. “I start by asking them what their last vacation was. Where did they stay? I also ask what was their worst vacation and why. I want to find out as much as I can to see what they like and don’t like.”

The majority of her clients are people in their 50s though 70s.

“I like to know their condition,” she said. “I have to know if they can climb a hill or walk on cobblestone streets. If they have a wheelchair, I have to find a facility that will accommodate them.”

The Unexpected

One thing travelers worry about is what to do in case of unforeseen problems. For example, one of her clients booked a trip to Cancun just as a hurricane hit. She was able to get them moved while others were stranded with no alternatives.

In another case, a large group that first booked a cruise online via a third party contacted her in despair. They had made payments online for more than a year. When they called the cruise line to confirm, there was no record of their purchase.

A travel agent provides peace of mind, she added.

“I haven’t had a lot of problems,” Horacek said. “I might have people call me from the airport to say their flight has been canceled.”

She then spends time rebooking flights, helping clients find the right departure gate, and making sure they are reimbursed by the airline if their flight is delayed more than a day.

Not More Costly

A misconception about using an agent is that it will cost much more.

“They think they are getting a better price by booking it themselves, and they’re not,” Horacek said. “I can book anything they can on the internet. They think we tack on money that they don’t know about, but we don’t.”

Using a travel agent may save a traveler money, Horacek said. Travel providers, including Carnival and Princess cruise lines, often send her sales before the trip is available online.

“I can get a head-start on it,” she said. “I can get $150 off, and I have had people say they went online and can’t get it for that (cheap of a) price. I can.”

Horacek said people who book travel online themselves usually pay a travel agent rate without knowing it.

“A supplier builds a travel agent rate in,” she said. “They may add 15% to 18% on there.”

Safety Aspect

Horacek recommends using a travel agent on politically unstable destinations, especially Israel.

“There are companies we work with that I know are going to have a personal guide and our clients are going to be at a hotel in a safe place,” she said. “If they book it online, they won’t know all that.”

Horacek works with other agents who share personal experiences about trip quality and safety. They will discuss road construction or events going on that clients may not be aware of if booking themselves.

“We’re with them every step of the way — from the beginning until after they come home,” she said.