Is it cheaper to book my holiday online or with a travel agent?

You could spend hundreds of pounds more on a package holiday by booking with a travel agent instead of online, a Which? Travel investigation has found.

Our mystery shoppers paid multiple visits to Co-Op Travel, Hays, Kuoni and Tui branches and finding a couple could have saved, on average, £252 on a one week holiday in Spain and £162 for two weeks in the Dominican Republic by booking the same holiday online instead. In the most extreme example, seven nights in Spain was £887 cheaper online compared to Kuoni’s quote.

If you weren’t tech savvy or hadn’t checked online before setting out, you’d have to pay way over the odds.

We carried out 16 mystery shops in 12 high street stores across the four brands. Posing as holidaymakers, we asked for quotes for a one-week holiday in Marbella in June or a two-week holiday in the Dominican Republic in November. After leaving the stores, our shoppers phoned Which? researchers who checked the cheapest price for the same holiday online.

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Travel agent prices compared

Our mystery shoppers also tried to haggle with high street travel agents to see if they would be willing to beat or match online prices – with mixed results.

Two weeks in the Dominican Republic

Hays knocked £319 off a Dominican Republic holiday, making it just £50 more expensive than online instead of £369 more. Co-Op Travel took £285 off its original quote but was still £126 more than booking directly online with Tui (the tour operator). Even Tui itself wouldn’t match its own online price.

Table notes: Prices were collected in February and March. Difference the highest difference we found at any store we visited. Online price collected on same day as in-store directly from tour operator’s website. Price after haggling final price quoted after our mystery shopper returned to store with the online price.

One week in Marbella

The most Kuoni was willing to shave off the Marbella holiday was £207, which still means it was £680 more expensive than online. Kuoni explained anything more and it would have made a loss on the booking and that easyJet could probably offer it cheaper because they have greater demand and buying power for that destination.

Table notes: Prices were collected in February and March. Difference the highest difference we found at any store we visited. Online price collected on same day as in-store directly from tour operator’s website. Price after haggling final price quoted after our mystery shopper returned to store with the online price.

What about travel agent customer service?

We also asked our mystery shoppers to rate the customer service they received. It was mostly excellent, with shoppers rating service as four or five stars in 11 of 16 visits. Hays and Kuoni, both Which? Recommended Providers, shone through. Hays in particular received glowing reviews; three out of four mystery shoppers awarded them the full five stars for customer service.

And it was this level of customer service that most companies told us made the travel agent service stand out, when we put our findings to them

Hays told us: ‘Our customers understand and appreciate that self-service – while cheaper – does not offer the same sense of security and confidence as booking through an agent.’

On the Marbella holiday, Kuoni said: ‘The majority of the holidays we plan are tailor-made to customer requirements, including lots of multi-centre, tailor-made trips not easy to replicate online.’ It added: ‘If the customer is booking purely on price, we’d always be very open that they may in this instance be better off booking directly online.’

Similarly, Co-op Travel told us: ‘The advice and support our customers receive from our teams is far-reaching and goes beyond the support that they would receive from an online booking system.’

During our visits to Tui, the travel agents instantly matched most holidays to its online prices (give or take a few pounds). But some of our mystery shoppers were told that an in-store booking afforded us the luxury of popping back to have any problems dealt with on the spot. However, a spokesperson for Tui assured us this service was open to all customers – even if they had booked online.

How do Travel Counselors work?

Finally we took our prices to Travel Counsellors, one of the UK’s largest network of independent travel agents, to see if it could get us a cheaper price.

As a franchise, Travel Counselors operates slightly differently. Its agents work remotely for themselves, under the umbrella of the company. Simply find a travel expert local to you on its website, phone them up and explain what you’re looking for. You then wait while they do the research and come back with a quote. They will walk you through the holiday and make any amendments until it’s right, either over the phone or in-person if you prefer.

All four agents failed to match the lowest prices we’d found for our two holidays; a Tui package holiday to the Dominican came out at £453 more with one agent compared to online with Tui.

However, the company admitted that you would probably find ready-made package holidays cheaper elsewhere. It said: ‘The value Travel Counselors adds really comes in around more complex, long-haul itineraries and support for the whole customer experience, not just at the time of booking. So, in this context we don’t feel it is fair or representative of what we do and what our model is based on, or the value our travel counselors really do deliver.’

And it did deliver. Three out of four of its agents were rated the full five stars for their attentiveness by our mystery shopper, who said they were ‘friendly, chatty [and] seemed very keen to help.’

Should I book with a travel agent?

If you simply want the best price on a package holiday, no. Our research found prices were almost always cheaper when booked directly, online with the tour operator.

But when it comes to that big holiday with lots of moving parts it can be worth calling in the experts. The more unusual and more expensive the holiday, the more likely they are to be able to save you money and they can also offer insider advice. The customer service our mystery shoppers received was mostly excellent, and that can be invaluable if any part of your holiday doesn’t work out as planned.

Whoever you book with, make sure you book a package holiday. That gives you the best protections if things go wrong or get cancelled.

Our research

In February and March 2023, our fieldworkers created 16 mystery shops to 12 high street stores and four Travel Counsellors. For each holiday, both the online and in-store prices were collected on the same day.