In a tough economy, both business and leisure travelers have an alternative to Internet travel sites for deals on airfares and vacation packages. Travelers looking for ways to deal with the recent fuel price-driven spike in travel costs need to take a second look at their local travel agency.

Surprised? You shouldn't be. Your travel agent is a secret weapon for finding you the best travel deals. Why? Because travel agents have exclusive access to technology, techniques, and relationships that will get you the biggest bang for your buck.

Of course, keep your corporate travel policy in mind. But if your company permits it, a travel agent can help you save real money on business trips.

From the technology perspective, agents are ahead of the power curve vs. travel websites, because travel websites don't give you access to the specialized computer systems that agents routinely have on their desktops.

In fact, whether it's an all-inclusive stay in the Caribbean or a short-drive vacation limited to a single tank of gas, travel agents are an invaluable resource for digging up deals even when the economy is booming.

There are good reasons for this, including the fact that travel agents have the know-how that only comes when you travel yourself, as most agents do.

Following are several examples of the "agent advantage":

1. If you think that online sites always offer the lowest air fares, think again - especially when it comes to business travel. A research study released in March by Topaz International found that business travel itineraries booked by a corporate travel agency averaged $56 less than the same itinerary booked on a public internet site.

2. Good travel agents focus on finding deals during nonpeak times, which is when you can score the cheapest rates and greatest selection. That's because when times turn tough, travel is one of the first things people cut back on. That sudden deceleration in travel bookings automatically translates into reduced hotel, air, or cruise rates for you.

3. Want to travel Europe or Asia this summer? Well, when it comes to international flights only your travel agent can tap into the wonderful wholesale rates from "air consolidators," who reap travel discounts based on volume buying and negotiated deals with air carriers.

4. When it comes to ferreting out bargains for your next cruise, whether to the Caribbean or Europe, or wherever, only your travel agent has the capability to do side-by-side cost and accommodations comparisons of up to one dozen cruise lines at one time on a single computer screen.

5. Because they book trips in volume and have longstanding relationships with travel providers, travel agents routinely lasso preferred rates and extra amenities that you and your favorite travel site will rarely match.

6. There are in fact a whole host of discounted services that only your travel agent can book for you, including complimentary shuttles, coupon books, frequent-visitor programs, tour packages, and other offers.

7. Can't decide whether your best bet is to travel by train, plane, or automobile? Your travel agent can do the math and help you decide by weighing factors like travel duration, scheduling, cost, and comfort.

8. Your travel agent will tell you that the most overlooked way to stretch your dollar is to form your own travel group. Traveling with family or friends, or both, can lower costs enough so you can travel even when the economy says otherwise. Of course, most of us don't have the time - or inclination - to make the calls and do the research for an entire group. It's a big job. On the other hand, booking group travel is a breeze for an experienced travel agent. As far as I'm concerned, when it comes to groups, using an agent is a no-brainer. Your agent will create a package that actually works, while your group will realize across-the-board savings from splitting the cost of car rentals, gas, and meals, as well as savings from group lodging discounts that your agent discovers.

So do yourself a favor and talk to your travel agent next time you travel. Whether times are good or not, travel agents are your secret weapon, hiding in plain sight.