Q. I am planning a trip to Australia for Christmas. What are the problems, if any, of booking direct with an airline?
A. The first problem is the very small risk that the airline will go bust before you travel, or while you are out in Australia. Tickets bought direct from a carrier come with no consumer protection, though if you use a credit card you can make a claim against the card issuer.
Much more significantly, a long-haul specialist can provide the kind of expertise you will not find online. If you simply want the cheapest or fastest ticket to Sydney or Melbourne, a price-comparison website such as Skyscanner.net will probably suffice. But perhaps you can make more of the trip. A good agent will ask a sequence of questions to identify your precise needs. Can you build in a stopover? If so, would you like to experience a traditional venue such as Dubai, Hong Kong or Singapore, or a more exotic option like Ho Chi Minh City or Seoul.
Do you plan to travel around Australia? An agent will likely some good-value domestic flights, or suggest an "open-jaw" itinerary where you fly in to, say, Perth, and back from Sydney, reducing the hours and cash spent in the air.
Even more pertinently, given your timing, they can advise on how to keep the costs manageable. The cheap Christmas seats to Australia mostly sold out in January. By this stage in the year, it is a matter of seeing what tickets are available below the financial pain threshold. Economy fares rise so high that business class may cost only a modest amount more - and, again, a travel agent will be the person to tell you.