#online travel agent
By Sonja Haller, The Arizona Republic
Customers lured by convenience and promises of the best deal are booking more trips online.
But is Internet booking always the better way to go? That depends on the traveler and the type of trip.
The general rule is that the more complicated or expensive the itinerary, the better it is to book through a travel agent.
“The more components you add to your trip hotel, plane tickets, etc. the more you should consider a travel agent,” says Chris Elliott, National Geographic Traveler magazine’s ombudsman and syndicated travel columnist. “The other thing, a human agent has the experience of visiting a hotel or a ship or a part of town. There’s nothing like walking into an agency and talking to someone who has been there.”
Jim Vallas of Phoenix, a frequent international and domestic traveler for business and pleasure, says more than anything people should consider their personality.
“I don’t have a fear factor, so consequently I go to various sites online and look at all aspects, then I might make some calls, and then I book on my own,” says the 63-year-old general contractor. “Other people might want to know exactly what they’re getting, so they should go to a travel agent.”
Vallas says he enjoys researching destinations and feels confident he’s getting a deal.
Apparently, more travelers feel the same way.
Consider that 53% of vacationers under 35 used the Internet in 2004, up from 27% in 2000, a TNS-Plog American Family Survey found. The survey also looked at travelers older than 55 and found Internet booking increased to 33%, up from 14% in 2000.
Vallas says his research isn’t fail-proof, as he once booked a hotel in an unsavory part of Washington, D.C. when a travel agent might have steered him away from such a hotel.
Travel agents rally behind stories like these, saying a traveler who is looking for been-there, done-that knowledge should consult a real person, rather than a website, which naturally will show the best if not exactly accurate pictures.
Terri Maldonado, a travel agent specializing in cruises, says people take their chances booking online.
“I personally believe buying travel online is a lot like ordering a hamburger at a fast-food place,” she says. “It may look like a hamburger, but you have no idea what you’re actually getting.”
Adds agent Carolyn Bachman: “The biggest advantage of going with a travel agent is if something goes wrong, you have someone there to help you and straighten things out.”
One reason people give for booking online is the fear that a travel agent is suggesting a particular booking with their wallet in mind, not a consumer’s.
In the mid-1990s, airlines began eliminating travel agency bonuses and agents began charging a fee to book flights, about $27. But other travel companies, such as hotels, car-rental agencies and cruise lines, do compensate the agencies. At times, the agencies also will charge a research fee $100 for an hour of work to protect themselves against having a prospective traveler use the agent’s information and book online.
Bachman says travel agents who want to remain in business know that satisfied customers are the best way.
To ensure a happy client, agents will:
Double-check dates to make sure everything matches up. Agents can void bookings, which is almost impossible on the Internet.
Make sure a client has all the necessary documents for travel, including a passport.
Search for the cheapest fares. Travel consultants found lower airline fares 93.6% of the time for an average savings of $80 in 2004, according to travel industry auditor Topaz International.
Travel columnist Elliott says that even people using a travel agent should perform some preliminary research, perhaps using the Internet, on things such as prices.
“The best customer is an educated customer,” he said. “Don’t walk into a travel agency without knowing anything about where you want to go, what you would like to spend, and what’s available in your price range.”