Is it better to buy insurance through an agent, through a website, or directly from an insurance company? Well, sometimes you'll find the best prices by skipping the middleman (the agent). But some agents do offer competitive prices, and the best of them will also give you sound advice and guide you through the learning process. That's certainly worth something.

Insurance agents have sometimes been portrayed in a negative light. That's because the shiftier among them prey on the less-informed among us, selling unnecessary insurance, insisting that policies are "investments" (when there are better ways to invest), and not making it clear that they're compensated via commissions.

If you find a good agent who's providing a valuable service, you might buy through him or her. If you haven't met such an agent, though, don't be afraid to explore the world of insurance online. Or ask friends for agents they recommend.

We offer more information in our Insurance Center, or you can drop by our Insurance discussion board to see what others are saying or get some questions answered. You'll also find the websites of many major insurance companies helpful. Click over to American International Group (NYSE:AIG), Allianz (NYSE:AZ), Aetna (NYSE:AET), MetLife (NYSE:MET), or Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRKa) (NYSE:BRKb), to name just a few examples. You may not have thought about some kinds of insurance, such as disability or long-term care insurance, but they're also vital for many people. Take a little time to learn more, and you may be very happy you did, if some calamity occurs in the future.

After we ran a version of this article a few years ago, we heard from readers who made some good points. Here are two snippets. From Jim Stevenson:

I'd like to clear up one misconception. The days of the captive agent are quickly disappearing at most of your bigger insurance companies. What does this mean for the consumer? In my situation as a financial consultant at one of the top five firms globally, I have access to an in-house insurance brokerage that allows me to place business with over 100 other insurance companies. As an example, I can enter a customer's data and type of term policy and generate a list of the five to 10 least-expensive policies for that client. So depending on who your insurance agent is and what company he represents, the first two advantages of buying insurance on the Web that you listed can become [irrelevant]. And if your representative has access to and utilizes that in-house network, you're probably avoiding the type of agent described in your third advantage. This leaves the consumer with the best of both worlds.

From insurance agent Ian Sumner:

Unfortunately, your comments about saving the insurance agent's commission are incorrect. The rates you see quoted on the Web are the same rates that a commissioned agent quotes. The consumer saves nothing but loses the expertise of the agent. Most consumers do not understand the features of the various policies and why the price differs between the carriers. A simple case of comparing term policies using price as the only criterion is very misleading. For example, two 20-year level term policies may seem to offer the same benefit -- level premiums for the next 20 years -- but what about items such as conversion options, rate guarantees, or re-entry? One insurer may only offer a 10-year window and the other a 20-year window for conversion. Is that important? For some people it is, and the price differential may be only nominal. There is also the issue of underwriting. Each carrier has its own set of guidelines, and it is important to understand these before picking the carrier. Pick the wrong carrier for your health history, and you could end up paying more rather than saving money. These are only some of the issues that come into play when picking a "simple term policy." What happens when you try to look at more complicated products, such as disability or long-term care insurance?

If you're looking for a financial advisor, learn more in our Advisor Center.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.