Susie Boswell assesses online travel sites vs. travel agents’ advice.
If you were building a barbecue deck at your home, spending hard-earned cash on a leisure facility, would you call in a specialist or DIY? We don’t do our own dental work or surgery: we use the experts. So when do we decide our expertise is adequate and the savings in dollars and time sufficient to justify DIY? Travel’s one essential service where the question arises: go online/call direct to make my bookings… Or do I use a travel agent? In this most competitive and satisfaction-critical aspect of our annual expenditure, we all think we’re experts. Idle web browsers from eight to 80 are excited to discover wotif.com; net-savvy teens are keen to show they can book the family’s vacation airfares. Increasingly, holiday and leisure products are marketed direct online, many at discounts reflecting operators’ savings on agent commission. So why not cyber-book?
When I studied for my travel agent credentials, I discovered an arcane world of NUCs, HIPs, one-way backhauls, open jaw flights and dozens of other abstruse concepts required in IATA ticketing procedures alone. I thought it unnecessarily complicated but ultimately I have high regard for practising agents, their expertise acquired in training and at the coalface (geography; foreign cultures; currency; best credit and phone cards; insurance; visas; vaccinations; troublespots) and, most important, specialist product knowledge. Agents know more than any layman, deal with wholesalers and consolidators, get constant product education and updates and personally visit the resorts and activities on offer, by means of the transport you’d take too. It’s not worth their recommending sub-standard products. We don’t need to know what technical knowledge the LCD salesman has, but we seek his advice in making our purchase.
In the current economic downturn travel industry operators are pressed, because leisure is a discretionary expenditure. More than ever, discount offers are available by direct purchase. At present you can fly New York return for $900. Popular destinations like Fiji (still friendly, despite its political drama) are at bargain prices. My friend Tony Pittar, who launched Vanuatu’s new Eratap resort, had overwhelming success virtual-marketing his property. Even elite safari and luxury tour provider Abercrombie & Kent offered discounts of 60 per cent on its exclusive packages in an online auction late last month.
As A&K suggests in its newsletter to travel editors, my own recommendation is: by all means research your travel online but then discuss your trip face to face with a travel agent, who should be able to improve on your draft with competitive money-saving and quality of experience suggestions. Surprisingly, many people don’t know travel agents’ services are (mostly) free and deposits/funds placed with licensed agents guaranteed against default.