Getting a Good Travel Agent and Sticking with them: Why the Phenomenon of Online Travel Sites May be Costing you Money

Getting a Good Travel Agent and Sticking with them: Why the Phenomenon of Online Travel Sites May be Costing you Money

It is hard to watch TV without seeing an ad for an online travel site explaining why they are the best site to save you hundreds on your next dive trip or family vacation.  The way that these sites put out information makes it seem like you are a fool if you do not do “plan your trip yourself” or let one of their agents plan your trip for you. But are you a fool if you choose to use a travel agent?  You have a mechanic work on your car, professional work on your house or a doctor to work on your body- when you travel you are putting your life and livelihood on the line depending on where you are going. So why do you not have a regular professional that makes sure you have the right help to ensure you have a safe trip.

So what is the difference between a travel agent or a travel site?  Honestly, it comes down to service and reliability. When you use a real travel agent, you will have a person who looks at your trip, makes sure that you have the proper tickets, connections, and providers.  When you log onto an internet travel site, they will buy you exactly what you tell them to buy. This means that you can have tickets that take you to a place that is not near your hotel, transfers that you cannot make it between planes or providers who simply “paid” to be listed on the site.  Personal travel agents will be able to look at the locations where you want to go, use local providers who they have a reputation with and even make sure that you are able to make it in airport transfers. So for reliability, it is a lot better to have a travel agent you work with rather than a faceless number on the internet.

So what about the price?  For most trips, flights or hotels you will save less than $10 if you use an online site rather than a “live” agent.  The truth is that online sites make up for their small margins with volume. Because of the volume, they are able to make money with a mark up of $2 or $3 per item.  This means that they do not have to “package” trips like a traditional travel agent would- but it also means that your trip is piecemeal rather than a comprehensive package.  When a travel agent books a trip for you, they create a “trip ticket” which is the entirety of your trip (which also makes insuring it easier). This means that the travel agent works with providers to make sure that your trip is interconnected in a way that will allow you to enjoy your trip.  If there is a problem, a good agent will work with you to solve the problems, whereas an online site will either refund your money or say “you are the one that picked the items” placing the blame on you. You are paying someone to book your trip either way, why not pay someone who has your best interest in mind. 

Another benefit of having a live agent (something that we have touched on already) is that they can help you plan a trip.  DIY TV has taught people that they “can do anything better than a professional” because it is “their life.” In most cases, they do not show you the horrible problems that people face when they do something that requires a license on their own.  There is a reason that travel agents require licensing- because they can ruin a person’s life if they do not do their job. Most major online companies are a clearinghouse for information, not really agents. While some have licenses and some do not, their purpose is to see as many tickets as possible each day.  The happiness of the customer is not really a priority, because if you bash anyone you will be bashing the provider- not the company that sold you the ticket. Individual travel agents will help you plan a trip, not just create a schedule of events you think you want to do. A good trip plan takes into account rest, distances to travel and relationships between events and providers.  Here is are two examples:

Example 1: Jill planned her trip on her own.  She used a top-rated online booking site to get a flight, hotel and plan three events in New York City.  Since she is on a budget, she planned them all for the same day, thus only needing two nights in NYC for her family.  Her family arrived on day one and went to their hotel, they had to pay a cab to take them to a restaurant because the hotel was a budget hotel out by the airport.  The next morning, they woke up and found out that the shuttle did not take them to the Empire State building, it was too far away. After they got a taxi to the Empire State building, they decided to walk to Central Park.  While it did save them a little money, it took them almost an hour as the kids needed to rest several times on what is normally a 38-minute walk. After their rushed time at Central Park, because they walked they missed their Handsome Cab Ride  They had to find a taxi that would take them to Broadway, which was difficult because they have two kids and cannot fit in a regular cab (Jill’s husband does not like UBER for some reason). This gets them to Broadway 15 minutes late for their show, where they have to wait another 10 minutes for a scene change so they do not interrupt the show when they come in.  They then have another taxi ride back to the hotel. They got back late, so they had to take another taxi to a restaurant to eat, where they closed the place down. The next morning, they wake up to find that the hotel shuttle does not run until 6 AM, which makes it hard to catch a 7 AM flight. They miss their flight and have to pay to rebook. Jill and her husband thought they would work half a day when they got home, but because they missed their flight they missed that too, so that is lost income.

Booking Cost: $4,200 (Family of Four)

Additional Cost: $1,800 for cabs, transfers, factoring in missed part of the show, rebooking a flight, and lost income.

Example 2: Mary booked the same events in New York.  She used a travel agent she had worked with before. The agent told Mary that what she wanted to do was possible in one day, but it would make it a rough trip.  The agent recommended two days, which would also let them see the Statue of Liberty. Mary like the idea. When they arrived in New York, their guide met them and took them to a reasonable hotel near the city.  This hotel allowed the family (which was also a family of four) to walk to a nice restaurant near the hotel. After dinner, they went back to the hotel and got a good night’s sleep. In the morning, they met their guide who took them on their tour of the Empire State building (which they could enjoy because they were not rushed, then took them to Broadway.  They made it to Broadway early enough that the kids could get T-shirts for the play. They were back at their hotel by 7 PM, which allowed them to go to a nice restaurant. The next morning, they went to Central Park where they had an extended Handsome Cab ride, from there the guide took them to Times Square before going to the statue of liberty. The arrived at the hotel and had a nice meal on their last night, getting to bed around 9 PM.  In the morning, they caught their 7 AM flight because their guide was there for the transfer, so they got home around noon. 

Cost of Trip: $4,500

Additional Costs: T-Shirts for Kids $100

While Jill saved money on the booking, she paid for it in the end.  Mary paid a little more to make sure that she got what she needed. She could have saved those $300 if she had dropped the guide, but as you see- the guide was worth it.  This is the difference between a curated trip with an agent and a trip you try to do on your own.

Once you find an agent you like, stick with them.  Like all business relationships, there will be ups and downs; however, the better the agent knows you the better they can serve you.  If you take the time to do good research early on, then you will find that you can have a good agent that will treat you well for a long time.  Remember, if your trip is a success- it is a win for the agent. Online providers see your trip being a success as something that is your problem because you picked the options.  What it comes down to is that it is always better to have a person who cares about your family trip or business trip. You cannot find that with online providers. Each independent travel agent you support is another person who is making a living, and when you do that you help keep your country strong. 

About the Author

Dr. Smithmyer is the Vice President of International Affairs for Brāv Online Conflict Management, an international consortium of conflict resolution professionals. Dr. Smithmyer is also a columnist for NRN doing mostly political and international business columns. When Dr. Smithmyer is not working with people to make the world a better place, he enjoys snorkeling the waters of the world.

Dr. Smithmyer has traveled extensively in the United States, Australia, Vietnam, and the Bahamas. He has also presented in the U.K., India, Brazil, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia. Dr. Smithmyer is one of the most lettered men in the world with nine degrees. As an adjunct professor in his spare time, Dr. Smithmyer uses his business experience and travels to help bring the world to his students and even brings the students to the world through experiential learning trips.

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