Once upon a time, the word from the online travel agencies and the emerging Internet world was “disintermediation” — getting rid of the middle man in the travel booking process. Thought, back in the mid-90s and early-2000s, was that travel agents would fade away. Online booking would render them useless. But, that’s not what happened. Travel agent bookings are up year over year.
Why? ConsumerTraveler.com has long provided a travel agents point of view among our posts. Years ago, I predicted that travel agents would come back into vogue as the booking process became more complex. And so it has.
Others in the media are finally waking up to the fact that the Internet, combined with the plethora of new fees and options, may be making booking travel more complex that the “good old days.” Plus, just as in the past, travel providers all negotiate different deals and create different packages for consumers.
Booking a flight is not simply a question of opening a website and seeing all the possible permutations of prices and available options. Online travel agents (OTAs) compete with each other offering different deals, different negotiated fares, different suppliers and different purchasing options. Expedia deals are different from Orbitz deals. Priceline quotes different prices than Travelocity. Smaller websites such as easyclicktravel.com, eurocheapo.com and hostelbookers.com often have hotel rooms at bargain prices that can’t be found on hotel sites or the major OTAs.
Often, travel agents can access all of these different rates and fares. The time they save can easily make up for their booking charges.
Personally, my experience with travel agents has been a mixed bag. At times, travel agents can sometimes find rooms in a hotel that says, “Sold Out” on their website. At times, they suggest events at destinations that were off my radar screen. On the other hand, I have worked with agents that simply take orders for flights without ever offering suggestions to save money by changing airlines or shifting flight times a bit. Others, disappointingly, seem to only know how to book chain hotels, missing bargains that abound, especially in Europe.
Let’s face it. When dealing with simple point-to-point travel, travel agents may not be a big value-added. But, when planning a more complex trip and if disaster strikes or the weather changes, travel agents earn their money.
CNN covered a story about travelers involved in the Costa Concordia disaster. These travelers, who had worked through a travel agent, had help getting south to Rome, into the embassy for new passports and out of Italy. Having a travel agent made it much easier.
Like many travelers, Beach usually books his own flights when he’s taking a simple business trip within the United States. But he turns to his travel agent when his plans get more complicated or he’s leaving the country or when there’s trouble.
Forbes Magazine in a series of articles about travel agents adds an almost travel superstar aura to travel agents.
…the bottom line is that they know more than you do, they are better connected than you, they have access to benefits you can’t get otherwise, they can often beat any other prices available (even online, yes), and after you have planned everything, they provide a safety net during your trip that you simply won’t get by booking yourself or buying insurance. Having a top travel agent can also make you an instant VIP – free room upgrades, hard to get restaurant reservations, cutting lines, access to otherwise closed stores and exhibits, private guides, and cheaper – often much cheaper – premium airfares.
The Frugal Traveler in the New York Times added more love letters for travel agents on Valentine’s Day. The author found that travel agents managed to beat prices provided by OTAs.
Nearly every time, travel agents bested the Internet big boys on both price (the objective part of the test) and service (what you might call the essay question). In other words, the agents suggested alternate routes, gave advice on visas and just generally acted, well, more human than their computer counterparts.
One point to remember, that none of these articles seemed to take into account, is that OTAs are travel agents as well. Most of them have toll-free numbers that can be used to contact an agent directly rather than going through the booking process strictly online. Sometimes, that human touchpoint allows uncertain travelers a lifeline for most complex decisions.
But, with airlines making the booking process more and more complex; with agencies negotiating varied packages; with travel agents enjoying special relationships with cruise lines, airlines, rental car companies and hotels; dealing with a talented travel agent that knows your preferences and travel proclivities can be an attractive proposition.
The trick is finding a good one.