Why you don’t want an “unbiased” travel agent


In the “Should you or should you not use a travel agent?” debate, one argument used by the anti-agent side is that travel agents are biased and will push some products over others.

The argument goes that agents will sell products that maximize their profits, as opposed to those that are best for the consumer. That’s not usually the case.

Up front, let me say that there are still some idiot travel agents out there. Bad performers can be found in any profession, although there are less bad agents than there used to be. Quite frankly, lousy travel agents tend to go out of business. There are just too many alternatives these days.

So I’m talking here about good agents. And yes, they are still out there and doing well. But, the best agents often do have favorite properties and companies, which don’t just work to their benefit; it’s a two-way street and, often, it’s “who you know.”

Starting with hotels, if an agent works for a large company or one that is part of a consortium such as Signature or Virtuoso, they should have access to hundreds of properties where their clients get things like free breakfast, upgrades and various credits for everything from spa treatments to parking to food and beverage credits.

On top of that, personal relationships matter. When someone asks for a hotel in London, for example, besides those in our consortium’s preferred program, there are a number of places I’ve seen and/or where I have gotten to know the manager or sales representative. That usually translates to my clients getting better treatment.

Of course, it goes both ways. If I know a nice hotel where the manager will upgrade my client or at least send them a special little welcome amenity, I’ll suggest that property more often.

It’s similar with airlines and tour operators. Maybe an agent can’t get quite the same service as from a single hotel manager, but agents with preferred relationships with certain airline and tour companies get better treatment. If I have clients heading to Europe and one airline may make them wait until check-in for seats, while a second airline will unblock seats for them to sit together, it’s a no-brainer.

Ditto if there’s a tour operator where I know I can reach a human after hours or where I know someone will go the extra mile —  I’ll recommend them. It’s not that other companies are necessarily bad, but our agency may not have the same clout or the connections.

If an agent doesn’t have any preferred companies to deal with, that agent probably isn’t booking much travel. Or, they’re basically an order-taker as opposed to a travel consultant.

Do these preferred companies pay us more than the alternatives? Sometimes, but not always. They are, however, more likely to result in a satisfied client. In the final analysis, repeat business is how any profitable travel agent still in business stays in business.

  • Graham

    It’s worth remembering that many of the online booking sites are agents as well. I’ll say no more!

  • bodega3

    No, online booking sites are vending machines with people who might anwers the phone, should a number be given, but the person may not be an agent. One cruise site that I kjnow of uses an off shore answering company.

  • MeanMeosh

    Janice – while I don’t think a TA advocating one travel supplier over another is necessarily bad, full disclosure is the key in my opinion. If a TA wants to recommend a certain hotel or airline because they have a preferred relationship with them and can get me upgraded service or amenities, that’s fine, but I think the TA should reveal that he or she either has a personal relationship and/or is receiving additional compensation from the supplier. Plus, the bad actors out there tend to push certain suppliers, even if it’s clear they aren’t a good fit for the client, and of course it’s those stories that end up in the news. It would seem, though, that it would be in the TA’s best interest to offer up a couple of alternatives in addition to the preferred supplier; if anything, that makes it even easier to differentiate the extras that get thrown in due to the preferred relationship.

  • Joel Wechsler

    As a travel agent I have no problem revealing the fact that our agency has preferred relationships with specific hotels, airlines and tour operators, either directly or through consortium membership. I also will naturally mention the fact that I know a particluar hotel manager or sales rep, whether at one of our preferred properties or not, if this contact is going to help my client get better treatment. What I will not do is reveal which suppliers may offer additional compensation, as this is irrelevant as long as the product offered is suited to the client and does not cost more than if booked through any other channel.

  • MeanMeosh

    “What I will not do is reveal which suppliers may offer additional
    compensation, as this is irrelevant as long as the product offered is
    suited to the client and does not cost more than if booked through any
    other channel.”

    With all due respect, whether you receive additional compensation for a supplier that you recommend to a client is very relevant. If you referred me to a hotel, I ended up not liking the place, and I later find out that your agency receives additional commissions/referral fees from the hotel that weren’t disclosed during the booking process, my natural instinct is going to be to immediately think that you pushed me to that property because they were compensating you, regardless of what the price was compared to other alternatives. While I’m sure that’s not your motivation, a client who has such a bad experience is only going to see a “kickback” angle, whether that’s a fair representation of the situation or not.

  • Joel Wechsler

    On the other hand, if you know that I am getting additional compensation you might decline the hotel because you thiink that is the reason I recommend it. Therefore I think it best to find an agent you trust and keep the issue of compensation out of the conversation.

  • Charles Smith

    I don’t know if FULL disclosure is the key.

    But it is always nice when I am told, “we do have a working and financial arrangement with this (property, tour, cruiseline, airline, etc.) and I feel that you will get better service from them at a better price than you would get elsewhere” .

    That tells me that the Agent is looking out for my well-being and wants to make sure that my trip is enjoyable.

    I get disclosures like this from many people I do business with. My CPA, my Financial Advisor is really good about this (I think SEC requires it) even my physician will tell me if he has agreements with specialists. I look at all as being in my best interests. They tell me and tell me why, then let me make the final decision.

  • Curious

    Personally, I don’t think that it is anybody’s business but mine, my boss and the federal government whether I get 8% from one property as opposed to 4% or 5% from another.

    Do you go around asking your neighbour(s) how much their hourly rate(s) are?

    Do you purchase your deluxe BBQ, based on the rate of pay of the clerk at the local big box store? Do you purchase your six burner stove based on its features or how much the guy on the assembly line makes? Are their wages any of your business? Mine aren’t any of your business either.

    What matters is that I can help you achieve your dreams by getting you the accommodation you prefer — or better, and sometimes get extra perks included for you.

  • DCTA

    This is so often what comes up here and with Chris Elliot, et al. Bottom line: if a particular vendor (airline, tour operator, or cruise line) is paying me a little more – say 12% instead of 10%, it is because I or my consortia colleagues are selling said vendor a lot. BUT it is a two way street – said vendors know that I expect quite a lot from them: they never, ever secure anything but the best room in the category I have booked for my client, upgrades are given when available, and if there is ever an issue, it is resolved almost immediately. On the other and, there are vendors, hotels and cruisines I refuse to sell: it is almost always because my experience has been that when there’s one of those “issues” they can not resolve it quickly … 2 hours is what I expect, not 2 days. THAT is really why I am biased – its on the client’s behalf.

    When someone asks how I get paid, I am very up front about it BUT I do not talk about numbers. That is no one’s business. AND I do charge “healthy” fees and have no problem collecting them.

  • Mickay

    There are so MANY courses where the main topic is “how to increase your commission” the topics include dealing, only, with those who pay higher commissions. It’s not just the bad ones doing this, it is very much out there and pushed by the office managers as well – go where there is more commission.

  • DCTA

    Excuse my, Mickay…I’ve never taken a course on increasing my commission, but I have taken (and taught) on customer loyalty – and one thing I always bring up is that as an Agent you are also an “advocate” for your client AND that you’ll have more “juice” as an advocate with vendors with whom you have developed a relationship and who then become your “preferred” vendors. It’s circular – I develop a relationship, I put more “heads in beds” as a result of that relationship (this is cruise ships and airlines as well as hotels and tour operators), the vendor comes to value my business more and more and so, coincidentally pays me more. The higher commission is a result of the relationship, not the other way around. My ability to get the best service, to get issues resolved, and to properly put my clients in the right place for them, while coincidentally getting paid well, earns me customer loyalty and clientele who come back over and over again AND are willing to pay me fees for my service….

  • Mickay

    Full disclosure is very important, if you are getting a bonus or incentives (which are now often illegal in other areas!), you should have to mention that. If you know you can prove that it is the right place to go – there should be no problem.

  • DCTA

    Mickay – proof of the “right” place is that I have not had a complaint in over ten years about whether I helped choose the right place. I have not struck out with a hotel, or the right cruiseline. I’m not an “order taker” – I spend a minimum of chatting for a half hour with a client before we EVER discuss where or what. I craft very complex but individualized vacations and work very hard to make certain is all right. For instance, I don’t sell Carnival and when someone comes in thinking that is what they want, we have a conversation and explore whether that is what they want. If it turns out it IS, I can refer them to someone else. If it is NOT then we’ve saved the consumer from the wrong vacation. And believe me, it goes both ways….