I've been exchanging emails with a woman called Nina who's a travel agent in China. I got their email from a fellow traveler on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree, and so far she's been great. We're still not set on the itinerary for September, or even how many big our group will be in any city (either two or four people - we'll probably travel a bit with Chris' coworker & her husband). But Nina's confirmed that she can not only book hotels and transportation for us, she can also book English guides for us in various cities.
I've never used a local travel agent before (I've rarely used travel agents), and I've never hired a local guide before. I've gone on tours of sites, but I've never had someone who was dedicated to our trip for a day or two... I'm still sort of unsure how it'll play out. It actually feels a bit strange to be putting all the arrangements I'm used to making myself into someone else's hands, but it's not a terrible feeling! I'm enough of a control freak that I've asked Nina to send us hotel choices so we can pick from a list. (I must just be a pain in the ass for people to work with!)
Anyway, I'm an admirer of Rick Steves, who is a big proponent of travel agents. He says they can help you out if something goes wrong during the trip, which certainly none of the online ticket sellers are interested in doing. I see his point, and I guess for some the question is less about having someone to bail you out than having someone else do the legwork. For me, however, the legwork (otherwise known as research) is part of the fun. I'd have a very hard time passing all of it on to someone else without feeling more than a little jealous...
So, I'm still perusing our China guidebooks, and will certainly become a pain in Nina's side before September (I'll be polite, I swear). I must say, part of the relief of having her organize this trip has to do with me being so unfamiliar with China. We'll see how I feel after this one - whether I feel like taking the reins myself next time, or whether this changes forever the way I approach travel.