Where the “over-the-line” shopping comes into play, however, is when bargain hunting takes advantage of other people’s time.
One acquaintance cheerfully spends hours with various airfare sites and is thrilled when they can save $20. Another friend likes to buy tickets to Asia in Chinatown where she goes to a little shop down an alley and pays cash. (As she says, “I feel so delightfully illicit.”)
On the other hand, sometimes travelers can drive themselves crazy with cost comparisons. Some people say finding that someone had a lower price on a flight or hotel can put them in a major funk on their vacation. But, that’s an individual decision.
Many travel columns suggest getting a number of quotes for a trip. But when travelers call, for example, several tour operators, and hold bookings with all of them, that’s a complete waste of many agents’ time.
In addition, the duplicate bookings can result in any or all of the bookings being canceled by the airlines involved.
Then there’s the whole travel agent issue. Many agents deal with time-wasters by getting service fees up front, and some agents won’t even talk to a potential customer without payment first.
But at a recent dinner, a coworker was seated next to a gentleman who didn’t realize she was an agent. And he bragged about his system for the best trips at the lowest prices. He would find a travel agent who knew the area and would work out an itinerary without charging for it.
Then he would take the itinerary, book the air tickets online with no fee, and email all the hotels direct asking for their very best prices and often get “internet-only” rates.
Now, often agents have better rates through a consortium or tour operator than travelers can get on their own, but some properties will make deals with clients directly. Ditto, often agents can get lower consolidator fares with airlines, but not always.
More common, however, are simply clients who use agents as free airfare search engines, and even experienced agents can get caught in that time-wasting trap.
These days, while consolidators often have good deals especially in business class, the very lowest fares are often noncommissionable any way you ticket them. Which means agents have to charge separate service fees.
Personally, I try to find out if dealing with a new client if they have a price already, and ask if I can find a good price if they are willing to pay a fee. (Usually $40-50 a ticket.) And if they agree I go ahead.
In some cases, the client may have found something we can’t touch, a student fare or one perhaps from an “opaque” site (“Opaque” means they don’t tell you the airline until you pay.) That is fine.
Some travel agents just aren’t very good, and some tour operators are expensive, which means it’s understandable if a client goes elsewhere.
Then there are travelers who tell you the lowest price they have found, you beat it a significant amount, even with a fee, and they then don’t want to pay that fee.
Unfortunately, most agents I know have the same sad story of sending a client an itinerary the client wasn’t able to find on their own, at a better price, and then the client takes those flights and books directly.
As one referred client once told me, “I really appreciate all the work you’ve done, this is much better than anything I found, but I could buy dinner for the family for the price of your fee, and we are really trying to maximize our budget.”
(Suffice it to say, when she came back to me later for a few inexpensive hotels in Greece, I politely turned her down.)
Another very occasional client with a foreign passport works for a corporate account and usually books online. Last month she called in a panic, asking for a phony itinerary with a ticketed itinerary for a visa. She begged for it to be sent to her within an hour. I told her I could do that, but ONLY if she intended to book through us later, with our fee, as the visa itinerary would take time. She agreed immediately.
To make a long story short, when I wouldn’t do the subsequent ticket for no cost, explaining that was all we made on the itinerary and ticket combined, she emailed me saying, “Sorry.” She explained that some of this ticket was coming out her pocket so she would just book online to save the $40.
(In this case, I thanked her for letting me know but advised her that in future she would have to solve her visa problems online as well.)
Now, I know there are writers and travelers who believe that basically all sources of information are fair, if the end result is the best price. And travel agents and travel providers can limit this sort of thing by simply not giving out free advice. Though I prefer to trust people, to a point.
I realize as a travel agent I am biased. But I do believe that deliberately taking advantage of someone’s time and expertise with no expectation of paying for it is over the edge.
What do you think, readers? Have you ever worked with an agent or tour operator you had no intention of using? Or have you been burned by a particularly egregious example of someone doing just that? Comments as always, appreciated.