With all the sophistication of online booking options, one might think that the trusty travel agent would become obsolete. But in fact, some agencies are reporting that more and more people are choosing a person over a computer.
Since the introduction of the first online booking agencies in the late 1990s, do-it-yourself flight arrangements have become so popular that online travel bookings now represent a full third of worldwide travel business.
And indeed, the big names, such as Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz, are billion-dollar businesses. Expedia sites receive over 54 million visits a month and quarterly revenue of $1 billion. Orbitz hosts 1.5 million flight searches and a million hotel searches a day. One of the most compelling features of online booking is the control the customer assumes he has, as well as the convenience.
“We’ve spun around the screen so you’re the one sitting in front of it. You’re the one in control,” says Jill Lloyd, senior PR manager for Expedia.
If you’re even just a little computer proficient, you can find a flight that suits you, book it on the spot, choose your seat, order special meals, and print out your own e-ticket, all in the comfort of your own home. For many hundreds of thousands of satisfied customers, the online booking process is smooth and simple.
But for many others, it’s not as easy as pushing a few buttons. Not everyone is so computer savvy — and even those who are have to deal with the fact that neither computers nor the people who use them are infallible.
“Do you know how many people who book over the Internet book themselves on the wrong date?” asks Esther Salomon, senior travel consultant at Zion Tours, Israel’s largest American-owned travel agency.
“People make lots of mistakes in booking — dates, connections, etc. — because they’re not so familiar with the technicalities. And it winds up costing them a lot.”
LESS CONTROL, MORE KNOWLEDGE
The trend in booking practices in recent years is showing a dramatic turnabout. After a decade experiencing the novelty of being able to book flights themselves online, many travelers are turning back to the traditional method of booking — through their travel agent.
One factor seems to be the very reason that many customers originally turned to online booking companies in the first place — the number of choices available. Even the most basic online flight search throws up a mind-boggling array of options. As an example, Mishpacha’s sample flight search for the purpose of this article, a standard New York–Tel Aviv round-trip, produced a stunning 2,609 results, offering flights stopping off at just about every airport on the globe.
And yet this very feature that online booking companies boast about has a sting in its tail. The average traveler cannot possibly sift through every search result, nor try to comprehend all the options for suitability. Whether it’s an airline that’s not particularly child-friendly, doesn’t have a good security record, has a difficult or inconvenient airport transfer, or has a long and complicated list of hidden fees, the unsuspecting customer can end up getting a lot more than he bargained for booking online. And that’s in addition to the time it takes to unravel all the myriad details.
“You can waste days online trying to understand everything. If you use a travel agent, we can answer all your questions,” says Esther Salomon of Zion Tours.
And so for many travelers, using an agent takes the headache out of the whole business. In a recent poll for Lonely Planet, the independent backpackers’ “bible,” well over half responded that they would be happy to pay a travel agent to save them the time and hassle of checking out all the details.
Furthermore, a travel agent can save his client heartache by tending to seemingly insignificant little details that end up making a world of difference on his journey.
“We can tell you which airlines are family-friendly — some discourage families and have unfriendly stewardesses. We can book glatt children’s meals, which you can’t book online. On El Al we can get special children’s packages with all kinds of toys, which you can’t get even on El Al’s website,” says Mrs. Salomon, who’s been in the business from over 30 years.
“And did you know if there’s a person in your party with a birthday, you can even request a birthday present for them from the airline, to receive on the plane?”
For travelers with special requests, be it a number of small children, special meals, or other needs, that inside knowledge can make the difference between a nightmare and a pleasant trip.
WHEN THINGS GO WRONG
But what about price? Can travel agents compete against the rock-bottom online deals? First, Mrs. Salomon explains, most travel agents, contrary to popular belief, do not take commission from the client.
“We get our commission directly from the airlines so you pay no more with an agent than you would online — and sometimes even less.” Indeed, the travel agent can often find you the same flight that you discovered online at a lower price — as occurred with Mishpacha’s own test case (see sidebar).
Sometimes, she admits, the airlines do undercut both travel agents and online booking agencies — but, she claims, the difference is usually minimal, and even if you do end up paying $50 more, it’s worth it for the 24/7 customer support service that reputable travel agents provide. “Try to call an online agency in the middle of the night from the airport when you’ve missed your connection.”
Furthermore, large agencies often have protektzia with the airlines, and can negotiate with them to get the best service for their clients, whether that means asking for a upgrade, holding a quoted price for anything from three days to three months (depending on the airline), or sorting out an insurance claim.
But the bottom-line question is whether you prefer to deal with a computer or a real live person. And that’s really a question of personal preference.
While the younger generation may be perfectly happy doing it all the digital way, others feel much more comfortable dealing with a human being. And those who have an established relationship with an agent often get more personal service — especially useful for Torah-observant Jews who may have special requirements or sensitivities when traveling.
“A travel agent is a person who advocates for you. And a person is always better than a machine,” says Mrs. Salomon.
At the end of the day, the decision to go human or digital with airline bookings might just be a matter of individual preference. But one thing is certain — it’s not just the price that counts.
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