Monday, October 31, 2011

Do you need a Travel Agent?

Back in the day, a Travel Agent was convenient and often necessary, if you wanted to book trips effortlessly.  Today, this is not so much the case.

We are booking another cruise - this time for a Continuing Legal Education seminar.  Yea, it is one of those screwy deals that the tax law allows - you can go to Hawaii for a law conference and write off all or part of the trip as "client development" and "business expense".

This trip, however, was booked through the State Bar CLE seminar, which in turn, used a travel agent.  So now, in addition to dealing with the cruise line's website, I have to deal with the CLE people, the travel agent, and when I call the cruise line, their "group reservation site".

Things are not so simple this way.

Back in the day, travel agents were a pretty good deal.  Airlines and hotels and cruise lines paid them as a percentage of ticket price, so there was no direct cost to you, the consumer, for booking through an agent.  Today, airlines are locked in fare battles, and booking through an agent often means paying an extra fee.

And given the nature of the Internet, booking a flight through an agent often makes no sense.  You can go online, shop fares and book reservations using the same computer network agents use, basically.  The odds of a travel agent getting you "a better deal" than booking directly online yourself, are slim.

For example, to go on this cruise next week, we need to fly to Ft. Lauderdale.  The travel agent offers a "great deal" on airfare, but of course, it isn't much of a deal.  And the agent isn't that interested in booking it, as it is just a big hassle, and they make maybe $10 on it - which they have to charge you.  It is just easier to go to the Southwest airlines website and book it yourself - it takes only minutes.  So the agents themselves end up negating the whole "one stop shopping" deal.

And as a result, the travel agent business has been hit hard. With a dwindling client base and decreasing revenues, it is hard to make a living as a travel agent these days.  Two decades ago, even the smallest town might have a local travel agent - advertising in the local paper.  But today, the business has shrunk considerably - and specialized.

The traditional travel agent who takes customers off the street and plans vacations, has pretty much gone away.  The remaining agents often specialize in group tours or special promotions - setting up a trip, for example, for the 200 top salesmen at a particular company.  Agents CAN save money when booking in bulk like that - and you need someone to attend to all the details.

But for the individual, they are not a cost savings, and in fact a cost increase.   And since you don't represent a big profit center for them, their service often sucks.  Compounding this is the fact that once you book through an agent - as with my experience - you might sometimes be locked out of the airline, hotel, or cruise line websites and be told to "contact your friendly travel agent!" instead.

Of course, there are new types of computerized travel agents out there - sited like Orbitz, Travelocity, and Priceline.  These online travel agents (which is what they are) offer to get you a "deal" on airfare, hotel, and rental car.  However, from my experience, their "deals" are often within a dollar or two of the airline's website, the hotel's website, or the rental car agency's website.  And of course, there is a good reason for this.

These travel companies (hotels, airlines, rental car agencies) have to pay the travel agent sites a commission on each sale (yea, everything on the Internet is free, but someone ends up paying for it all - just be sure to figure out who, and in most cases, it is you).  So a $99 flight, booked through an online travel site might net them $89, after commission.  The airline would prefer to sell you that ticket for the same price you pay Orbitz, and pocket that $10 extra.

Sure, back in the day, when airlines quoted outrageous fees for airfare, and discounts were few and far between, it made sense to use an agent.  But today?  There is not a lot "there" there in terms of discounts.  But there is a lot of hassle.

I am not anti-travel agent, but just stating the hard facts of reality.  Sure, back in the day, when only Agents had access to the Sabre computer network, and knew how to use its arcane commands and print out tickets on "airline ticket stock" (which was like cash), a travel agent made sense.  And since they were a short walk from your place of work, or a short drive from home, they were convenient as well.

But today, they are just a hindrance - a layer of abstraction between you and the ultimate database.  So you end up playing "telephone operator" with some low-paid intermediary, rather than accessing the database directly.

It is, in a way, like the Agency model for Car insurance.  You can call the ditz-brained "associate" at the local State Farm agency, and get the wrong information, or go right online to GEICO and just see the data for yourself.  Putting additional humans-in-the-loop does not increase reliability, but rather decreases it.