Travel agents’ obituaries have been written more times than Brett Favre has talked about his retirement. Even President Obama commented last year, “When’s the last time somebody used a travel agent instead of just going online?”
But agents are still around, and agency airline ticket sales have been heading upwards since late 2009.
Here are six reasons why.
1. Airlines increasingly are pushing online bookings, and de-emphasizing phone reservations. This means that when there’s any issue that can’t be taken care of online — a inconvenient schedule change, a mistake in the booking, a misconnect — it’s getting harder and harder to find someone to help. United may, currently, be having the most problems because of their merger, but hold times on airline customer-service lines, these days, are seldom insignificant.
2. The novelty of booking online is wearing off. At first, many people loved the ability to have access to reservation systems to search for their own hotels, flights, vacation packages, etc. But as with many things, websites can be confusing and extremely time consuming. As one relatively new client told me, “It just wasn’t fun anymore.”
3. The number of competing online sites with contradictory reviews and rating classes can be overwhelming. Confusion reigns for those who like booking direct. Even travel agents have a hard time trying to find the actual hotel website as opposed to a third-party site.
4.Time is money. For many travelers, time is their most precious commodity. When many are inundated by 24-7 communications — phone, emails, texts, Tweets, etc. Spending hours online may well result in the same fare a good travel agent finds, but is it worth it?
5.Often, it is “who you know.” Contacts can’t solve all problems, but, just for starters, travel agents may have access to special airline phone numbers and supervisors. Not to mention connections with cruise ships and hotels. For example, a VIP request from an agent that has a relationship with a hotel will almost certainly mean a better chance for an upgrade and/or amenity.
6. The airline staffing problem is compounded when travelers are at the airport. Kiosk work fine, on a normal day. But when the weather is bad or a flight is cancelled and long customer service lines wind through the terminal, it’s a different story
One of our own agents was traveling this week to Venice when United, due to a strike in Europe, cancelled their San Francisco to Frankfurt flight. (And as we disovered, Air France did the same thing with San Francisco to Paris.)
At the airport, it was chaos, and there was no help. After a long wait the check-in agent said there was nothing that day. Our agency found a Swiss Air flight and were able to get United on the phone, eventually, to redo her ticket.
I fully expect many readers to respond, “I’ve used agents and I can do a better job.” They might claim, “A travel agent messed up my booking,” or “He/she was clueless,” etc. I’ll admit, there are incompetent agents out there. But, perhaps another reason that travel agents will survive is that all but the fittest are gone or on their way to retirement.