In bad weather, the best app for fliers might be an old-fashioned travel agent


Over and over we read something like this, “If it’s a really complicated and/or special trip, you should consider using a travel agent, but for simple flights within the U.S, just go ahead and book online.”

And yes, online booking for domestic flights is easy — until it isn’t. And, until you’re actually flying during a time with full flights or bad weather. Or, both.

In the same way that many travelers book online, airlines are trying to computerize whatever they can. One airline focus is the rebooking process in case of problems. This makes sense from the airlines’ profit perspective; less sense, if you’re a stranded traveler.

Here are a couple examples. In the first case, a young friend on a budget had booked through Orbitz, which in theory is a travel agency, albeit an online one.

She had booked a United flight roundtrip from Milwaukee to San Francisco, but got a message two days in advance that her redeye San Francisco flight to Chicago had been canceled. She tried to call United and couldn’t get through. So, she apologetically messaged me on Facebook. Had we booked the flight, it would have been easy to change her to a flight only an hour earlier. But agents can’t change another agency’s booking, or a booking made direct. So, I suggested she call Orbitz.

That apparently took 45 minutes and the Orbitz agent insisted the flight hadn’t been canceled, because it didn’t show canceled in her system. (Some reservations systems really limit what agents can do/see, though hard to know if that was the case or if the call-center agent was just incompetent.) Orbitz suggested she call United and offered her the same 800 number that was impossible to get answered.

In the meantime, we both also tried on, but the site was unable to help, giving the error message “please call United.” Yeah, right,

At this point I called a special number I know for agents, only waited about 15 minutes and found a competent person at United. I apologized that it wasn’t my booking, but explained that this young woman was having a really bad time. The United agent made the relatively easy switch.

In another case, a client was going to a big meeting in Florida, with an expensive pre-booked hotel. This client had a nonstop flight on American from La Guardia.

One problem: fog in the New York area cancelled her flight, and American sent her a message to go to JFK, where they had rebooked her on a connecting flight via Baltimore to arrive about 8:30 p.m. When she got to JFK she then discovered that the connecting flight to Baltimore was scheduled to land AFTER the connecting flight from Baltimore left.

At the American counter they apologized for the computer error, but said they couldn’t do anything at all until the next day. She also checked on her smartphone; indeed, all the American flights were sold out.

At this point her dad got involved and called me. As reported, flights to Miami were full. But Miami also is near a number of other airports. It didn’t take too much searching to find JetBlue flights to Fort Lauderdale, which is only about 25 miles from Miami. I snagged her the last two seats on a flight leaving in a couple hours.

At this point American agreed to refund the original outbound ticket, or curiously, to book her on an evening JetBlue flight, now that we had the Fort Lauderdale idea. But, since the new JetBlue was only about $100 more than the first ticket, she just had me issue new tickets. She and her boyfriend made it to the meeting, and were on time for dinner.

Was this rocket science? No. Presumably someone with a laptop, tablet or smartphone might have been able to find these flights, too, assuming they knew how close Fort Lauderdale is to Miami and assuming they had power, and a good connection, etc.

Fortunately, most domestic trips don’t turn into the kind of nightmare travel we’ve seen this winter. And yes, when a trip goes smoothly, or a canceled flight is either automatically changed to something reasonable, or easy to rebook, then it is easy to think, “Why pay a travel agent?” But, considering the amount of time and money many people invest in travel, when things really go bad, having access to an good old-fashioned human may feel like the best bargain of all.

  • Charles Smith

    Good advice. . .

    If you are somewhere where you can actually find a Travel Agent.
    In my town there is one major travel agency, a couple of agencies that specialize in specific regions, and a bunch of small, one person, no office travel agencies. The major one has contracts with the University and three of the major employers. As such, walk-ins or smaller commission customers do not have access to the experienced agents. We get the inexperienced newcomers who do not know the difference between Lufthansa and Qantas.

    Suggestions for finding a Quality Travel Agency, when there is no access???

  • dcta

    True, Mr. Explorer, you won’t get access to an Agent who has spent years cultivating a particular account (your scenario above) BUT please do remember that if you use the newer Agent there, s/he has access to the more experienced Agents when s/he runs into a problem. Believe me, when there is something like a weather emergency, everyone in the office pitches in and helps with all clients.

    Janice – funny timing. I wrote a piece on Jan 7, saying “It’s January 7th and I am sitting here having finished taking care of clients stranded by the Snowmaggeden…” The piece will run in two local magazines at the end of April. At first blush, it might not make sense to publish something about Travel Agents taking care of the “snow stranded” int he Spring, but I did end with – “…see you soon!!! Hurricane season starts in just a few days.”

  • lairdb

    I still don’t get it. Effectively, you’re positioning using a travel agent as insurance — if something goes wrong, they can be an effective advocate.

    At that point, it becomes a pure EV calculation.

    Price paid: wait until tomorrow morning to call and leave a message (because I’m Jane’s client, and she’s on another line) and hope I get a return call to explain that I need to be in Washington on Tuesday and San Jose on Thursday, unless there’s a convenient way to leave Washington early enough to stop in Miami on Wednesday afternoon (yes, that’s SJO, not SJC or SJD) and end up with inconvenient flights because they don’t realize there’s good late service out of RIC to depart Washington.

    Benefit: 8 times out of 10, none. The 9th time, the disruption occurs at night when the answering machine can’t help me. The 10th, at least they can rebook for me — although there’s not really any way for them to know that my Total Rewards status is enough to get me a free room overnight just for the asking near the diversion airport.

    Or, I could just open two browser tabs of Kayak and two more of ITA and solve it all in 10 minutes myself.

    Help me see the value.

  • RNE

    You’re right, “when things really go bad,” having access to an old-fashioned travel agent may be helpful. But neither of your self-serving examples illustrate anything really bad at all. Pretty routine travel mishaps actually. Certainly nothing requiring the help of a brick and mortar travel agent, who, by the way can be just as difficult to reach as someone at an airline and just as incompetent as you pejoratively characterize the Orbitz agent. Nice.

  • janice

    plenty of incompetent agents out there, no question. And I don’t know. Being stuck for a few days and not being able to get back to work doesn’t strike me as trivial, nor does missing a meeting. But each to their own.

  • janice

    Sorry, I don’t think kayak or ita would have helped on these. Changes can’t always be made online. And sounds like you have dealt with lousy travel agents. Plenty of them out there. And at many bigger agencies the best people get promoted to management or to top accounts. (But many agents, especially independent agents who are paid on commission work after hours for their best clients.)

  • janice hough

    charles, what dcta said, but also with the internet agents can deal with clients across the country. Maybe ask your friends if they have a good one. There is the problem that if you don’t do much travel or small stuff then you’re probably not going to get an agent who will answer your emails on weekends and at night . Or they might charge an extra fee. It’s a problem in the industry that you want to be helpful but you can spend hours of work for no money with some folks.

  • sue

    There is the key, in your last sentence. All of this travel agent promoting really goes awry when a casual traveler listens to this and spends money on a travel agent, only to find that still,they are small potatoes and when something goes wrong after hours, you’re on your own. You and your travel agent writer friends never seem to mention that in these columns. This is fine advice for people who travel a lot but still pretty much useless for people who take maybe two vacations a year.

  • Happy

    Really? Ask the Canadians stuck at a closed airport in Cuba. Sunning had the balls to say they had a “technical” glitch. I guess when their reps can’t make a difference who can? Nice Sunwing nice!!

  • lairdb

    No, certainly ITA or Kayak aren’t going to help in the 2 out of 10. However, in 10 out of 10 cases, I had a much easier booking experience, in case 9 the agent didn’t help anyway, and in case 10… maybe.

    Net expected value, I’m still not seeing it for the average traveler.

    Now, I’ll flip it around: the cases where I suspect a good travel agent is very useful:
    – locale or activity specialists, e.g. Wendy Perrin’s annual list.
    – for those who are regular, high-dollar leisure travelers (i.e. 4 or more trips per year, to Virtuoso-grade locations/properties. The sort of people who actually pay for first class.)
    – the senior executive of a large company of travelers, who can drive enough business to an agency that the executive really does get white glove treatment (and, in my experience, may genuinely not realize that the rest of the company doesn’t.)

  • TonyA_says

    What, you’re gonna use a human travel agent for a less than $260 round-trip ticket? ROFL
    Her mistake was she didn’t buy from the airline DIRECTLY.

  • TonyA_says

    Yup very few people can afford this luxury.
    Most of these expensive human services are usually subsidized by an employer or corporation. Most people just have to take whatever the airline gives them.

  • MeanMeosh

    I don’t necessarily disagree with your advice, but I just don’t think the suggestion of hiring a TA is practical for most people. First off is the problem of finding a GOOD, which isn’t nearly as easy as you think. You suggest asking friends for a recommendation, but except maybe for people who travel internationally or cruise frequently, there just aren’t many people who use TAs these days. Some (not all) of the TAs who frequent both this site and tend to get defensive when there’s a story or comment about a poor experience with a TA and chide the traveler for not doing enough research to pick a good one, but really, can you blame people for not wanting to spend hours on top of the time they’ve already spent to plan their trip on finding an agent?

    This even assumes you can find a TA that will agree to take on a client that just wants a simple domestic flight booking. I’ve found that more often than not, you won’t even get your calls returned for something like that. I can understand why you wouldn’t want to risk taking on a simple booking that could end up being more work than the commission earned, but look at it from the traveler’s perspective – if a TA won’t give me the time of day for my rinky-dink booking, what’s the point of trying to use one?