With today's focus on the Internet, it's easy to forget that using a travel agent might still be the best way to arrange air tickets, hotels, rental cars, cruises, tours and other travel services. Although you might pay a few dollars extra, an agent can often save a lot of time and keep costs to a minimum. And if things go wrong, you can't beat the assistance of a travel agent in setting them right again.

Agents can provide specialized help in several important areas:

-- Access to the best deals: Good travel agents certainly know what's available through the same Internet sites you might visit, but they can also search their computer reservation systems, not available to the public, for deals that might not be on the Internet. And agents are constantly bombarded with special promotions from cruise lines and tour operators that might not be available online.

-- Destination knowledge: Whenever a reader e-mails a question such as where to find the best beaches in the Caribbean, my response is, "See a travel agent." I don't specialize in destination reporting -- I have enough trouble keeping up with changing prices, new buying options and scams. But good travel agents do know destinations -- and what they don't know firsthand they can find through agency databases.

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