Straightforward trips, with a flight and a hotel room, are easy enough to book. All travelers can nab deals, especially by signing up for fare alerts at sites such as airfarewatchdog.com and using sites such as hotels.com. But if you’re not a good planner, you’re strapped for time or you want to minimize stress, a travel agent just might be the ticket.

There are times when a travel agent is a near must: when you’re spending big, heading to an exotic location you’ve never been before, doing a once-in-a-lifetime trip like a honeymoon or taking a vacation that is complex for any reason. During such a trip, having an agent’s expertise could be invaluable. If you hit an unexpected bump in the road, “Your agent will be your advocate,” said Stephanie Lee, founder of Minneapolis-based hostagencyreviews.com, a resource website for travel agents.

How to find a good agent?

Go to professional organizations, such as the American Society of Travel Agents (www.asta.org). Check Better Business Bureau ratings and shop travel review sites. Best bet (which is what we did): Ask friends for references.

Once you’ve zeroed in on an agent, ask plenty of questions. What fees will you be charged, and will any of it be returned if you actually book the trip? How well do they know the area you’ll be visiting?

“Less professional agents will be heavily incentivized through a commission,” said Brian Nystedt, co-owner of Minneapolis-based New Departures travel agency. They might, for example, get a bigger bonus for sending you to a specific all-inclusive Caribbean resort. “You’ve got to ask about that.”

Gail Rosenblum