By Mic Anderson
Thinking of booking a Disney trip but unsure where to start? Your neighbor tells you to book through Travelocity as you can get a great deal through them; your boss recommends you book through a Disney Earmarked Travel Agency that specializes in Disney travel; but the planner in you worries about giving up control and wants to do it on your own. Or there is that travel agent that booked your trip to Hawaii; she did a pretty good job. Which option do you choose? How do you know which option will work best for you and what are the pros and cons of going each way? Let’s see if we can work our way through the Disney booking jungle.
First, we’ll look at the option of booking the trip yourself. One of the big reasons people contact Disney directly is because they like to keep control over every detail of their vacation. For Disney trips, this option can work for you if you are fairly knowledgeable about Disney destinations, and if you’re willing to keep an eye on resort discount codes as they are released. If booking on your own, you can subscribe to online e-mail groups or check websites such as The Mouse for Less where you will be updated with current discounts. These Disney fan sites are not just for those who plan on booking their vacation – they are a good way to keep up with changes, upcoming events, and ask questions.
What about online booking sites like Travelocity, Expedia, Hotwire, and Priceline to name a few? When are these a good route to go? These travel vendors can work if you are booking closer to your trip (say a month or two out) and are absolutely positive nothing is going to change. Or do you want an all-in-one package that includes airfare, accommodations, and transportation (although keep in mind Disney does offer packages that can include airfare plus car rental or limousine service). Because most of these sites will charge an additional fee for booking through them, and also have separate or additional change and/or cancellation fees from the suppliers, please make sure you read all the fine print. And while the traveling gnome is extremely cute, he really is NOT at your hotel making sure that everything goes smoothly. Getting a real live person to talk to if you need to make changes or have a complaint or problem (such as you went to check in at Disney only to discover you had no reservation in their system, or you went to the car rental counter upon arrival only to be told they will not honor the price you booked at) can be extremely difficult if not impossible. On the pro side, these sites have extremely powerful search engines. They are especially useful to find a good deal on airfare, which you can then compare to the fare offered on an airline’s official site.
Before looking at the various travel agency options, let’s chat a minute about general pros and cons of booking with an agency at all. First, is it going to cost you extra? In the case of Disney vacation packages, cruises, and even hotel reservations, most travel agents work on a straight commission, and it will not cost you extra to book through them. However, on this same thought, please keep in mind, as many of the agent’s work on commission only, it is not fair to ask them to do all the research for you and then go book on your own.
The exception to this could be if you are asking a travel agent to book airfare. Airlines quit paying travel agents commissions years ago, and many agencies who continue to book air will add on a per person or per reservation fee, just to recoup the costs for their time. Or other agencies, like The Magic for Less Travel, will offer you advice on finding the best airfare, so that you are comfortable booking it on your own, and they can stay with the “For Less” in their name.
Another perceived con to booking with an agent is feeling uncomfortable about asking for reservation changes, or having to wait for someone else to make changes or additions for you. Most travel agents are attracted to the business because they genuinely want to help people have the vacation that is right for them. So if you choose booking through an agent, know that it’s part of their job to be ready to make the changes that you need to make the best possible vacation experience for your family. As for having to wait for someone to respond, while travel agents do not work 24/7, when you find the right agent for you, it will often seem that way.
So what are your travel agency options? What about that friendly agent that booked your trip to Hawaii six years ago? Or the AAA agent down the road? There is something nice about talking face to face with someone, and you might have a local agent that is also up on all the changes and discounts in the world of Disney travel. While I am sure just about any agent can get you a fair price, what can be missing is that extra level of knowledge. What happens when you have questions about whether there is a better steak at Le Cellier or Yachtsmen Steakhouse? Chances are the traditional travel agent who knows a little bit about everywhere will not know what you are asking about. When selling destinations all over the world, it’s not possible to keep up with Disney and all the changes, and in addition be a frequent visitor to Disney. So you really will benefit from booking with an agent or agency that specializes in Disney travel. If you choose to book someone local, look for an agent that has graduated from Disney’s College of Knowledge. They’ll know more than someone who has not, although they probably will not come close to the knowledge you can tap into by booking with an agent who specializes in Disney.
Now, I may be biased, but I think I’ve saved your best option for last. Let’s talk about what benefits you get from booking with a travel agent that specializes in Disney travel, such as the agents that work for The Magic for Less Travel. What are some of the reasons people book with an agent that specializes in Disney? Well the up front reasons are it doesn’t cost you any more than booking directly through Disney, but you get all their expertise, answers to your questions, planning assistance including a personalized itinerary, and let’s not forget their enthusiasm. These are people who LOVE, LIVE and BREATHE Disney. These people have Disney themed homes, or offices, some go as far as having an upside Disney Christmas Tree hanging in the corner year round (I kid you not). And they have a wealth of knowledge on Disney World, Disneyland, Disney Cruise Line, and Adventures by Disney they will share with you at absolutely no additional cost.
And if that wasn’t enough, did I mention the discounts Disney occasionally offers? These agents who specialize in Disney often know about the special codes before they are even released, and as such, they get up bright and early on “code mornings” to check each and every one of their reservations to see if they can save their client money. Sometimes it might be a small discount, such as enough to buy a round of Mickey bars for the family. Other times it might be a much larger discount. There are even times when you might be booked at a discount already, and they will check a new discount and find out they can save you more money with the new one.
Even after you are booked, Disney-specialized travel agents keep working for you. How about making your advance dining reservations? Having an agent make the reservations saves you a long distance phone call and a lot of time sitting on hold. You can book through a travel agent and still make ADRs on your own, but you’ll also have the option of assistance if you want it. A quick note: if you ask your agent to book your ADRs, the more information you can give them about your family preferences, the better. Alternate restaurant choices and time ranges for meals will help them make decisions for you on the fly. But if you prefer to do this yourself, that is okay too. Also, know that most agents will not try to book Cinderella’s Royal Table, the Princess meals at Akershus, or fireworks cruises on the day they are released as they are difficult to get and it is tricky to decide which valuable client gets the booking. These travel agents will book other entertainment for you also such as parasailing, special fishing excursions, children’s tours, and the list goes on and on. They can provide you with an itinerary for the dates you will be at Disney, or the port calls and times for a Disney Cruise to help with your planning. In addition, they will help you or even book your reservations for Palo, the spa and shore excursions on your Disney Cruise. Or how about when you have a question at 3 in the morning, something off the wall like are there flat screen TVs in the rooms at Boardwalk Inn resort? If you book with an agent who specializes in Disney travel, you just shoot off an e-mail, and you will get the answers to your questions. If they don’t know, chances are someone they work with will or they will track down the answer.
What if you are planning a special occasion or have been to Disney many times before? Why would you need someone to help you plan your trip? Because these agents specialize in Disney, they will have ideas for things you may not have thought of to make things special, or have ideas for something new for you to experience. For instance, did you know there really IS a key under the mat as you entering the Muppets?
But there must be some downside to booking with a travel agent. And I will admit there are a few, and you will need to decide if these are things that could adversely affect your experience. You will not have the option to call Disney directly to make any changes and for Disney World and Disneyland trips you cannot pull up your reservation online. Once you are booked through an agent (or have transferred your booking to an agent), the reservation is in your agent’s control, and Disney will not allow you access to it. This does not apply with Disney Cruise Line reservations. If you booked through a reputable agent, you call and speak with them, leave a voicemail or shoot them an e-mail, and you know they are going to handle whatever it is you need. And they will respond once it has been handled. The only time you might get a delayed response is if they are on days off, on vacation, OR super busy, such as when free dining is released. Otherwise you should hear back in a timely manner. Many agents check e-mails even on days off, or get someone to cover for them.
Another thing to consider is that many Disney travel agents will only book your airfare when it is part of a Disney package. In some cases, airfare through Disney is limited in its choice of times, airlines and airfare. But it never hurts to check all your options and see if the airfare through Disney is a good deal, or ask your agent for any tips they might have on booking the airfare on your own. (See Book your own Airfare for more tips).
What if you have already booked your trip and want to have an agent who specializes in Disney take over your reservation? While your reservation can be transferred, reputable travel agencies will not take over reservations that were booked through another agency. They will only do this if you booked it directly with the supplier (i.e. Disney).
Lastly, how do you FIND a reputable agency that specializes in Disney? Recommendations from friends, Disney fan websites such at The Mouse for Less or Disney guidebookssuch as the Passporter, the Unofficial Guide or Birnbaums are all a good place to start. There are several good agencies out there that specialize in Disney travel and really put your needs first, but, as with anything else in this world, there are some that are not as concerned about you and your vacation. Look for agencies that are accredited with organizations such as CLIA (Cruise Line International Association) and IATAN (International Airlines Travel Agent Network). See if the agency is an authorized Disney vacation planner. It is safer for you to book only with an agency who will make your payments directly to the suppliers (i.e. Disney) as opposed to one who will take your money and “hold it in their account” until final payment is due. As a consumer, you have the right to ask how payments are handled. Also, keep in mind the tips in this article when looking for an agency. And of course I highly recommend The Magic for Less.
Whichever way you end up booking your next Disney trip, I wish you a magical vacation.