Agents - Obsolete or Essential?
There are several different trade groups that travel agents might belong to.
By far the best group is ARTA - if you are dealing with an ARTA agency you're
much more likely to be dealing with an agency that is equipped to best help you.
1 of a 5 part series - click for Parts
The airlines seem to be doing
their best to drive travel agencies out of business.
the growth in convenient seeming internet travel services, do
you even still need a traditional travel agent?
Although many people have
assumed the answer to this question to be no, and particularly
when this article was first written in March 2002, it is
interesting to note in the years subsequent to then the travel
agency community has successfully redefined itself and is now a
stronger force in the marketplace once more.
The Real Reason the Airlines
hate Travel Agencies
The airlines say that they
can't afford to pay travel agents a 5% commission (up to a
maximum of $20 per ticket) and so most major carriers have now
stopped paying commissions entirely. But, if the airline sells
the ticket to you themselves via their (800) service, they have
probably incurred $20 in costs (the cost of the phone call, the
cost of the employee, related costs for supervisors, etc, etc)
by selling it to you directly. Even more strangely, although
they 'can't afford' to pay up to $20 to a travel agent, they can
offer as much as a 10% discount (with no limit) off all their
fares if you buy from their website. It doesn't make sense, does
Update 2008 :
The airlines figured this out. It costs them money to sell
you a ticket too. So, what do they do? Start paying
travel agents again? Oh no! Instead, they now will
charge you an extra fee to sell you a ticket through their
reservations number. Yes, they are probably the only
retail industry in the world that now charges you extra if you
choose to buy the product they sell, direct from them.
Read on to understand the
real reason that the airlines are keen to drive you away from
travel agents and to force you to deal directly with them.
The reality is that there is
a major 'cost' to the airlines which travel agents cause them -
a cost they are desperate to hide and eliminate. And, what is
that cost? It is the cost of losing revenue every time a travel
agent advises a client how to save money on an airfare (for
example, by changing routing or flight times), and/or the lost
revenue every time a travel agent advises a client about a more
convenient schedule or a lower fare on a competing airline. With
the difference in two fares being potentially the difference
between perhaps $300 and $1500, good advice from a travel agent
can 'cost' the airline (and save you!) a huge amount more than
Let me ask you this : When
was the last time you called an airline to book a flight, and
the reservations agent at the other end said 'Oh, sir, I think I
should volunteer the information that there is a flight on one
of our competitors that leaves at the same time, but which flies
nonstop instead of requiring a change in plane, and with a fare
$250 cheaper than our fare.'??? No, instead, if you ask about
other airlines, they'll stifle a giggle and say 'I'm sorry, but
our computer system doesn't have that information'. That, in a
nutshell, is the difference between booking direct with an
airline or with a travel agency.
These hidden 'costs' (ie
when their otherwise captive clients are free to choose what is
best for themselves rather than what is best for the airline)
are potentially huge to the airlines - and this is what they
want to eliminate. They want to deprive you - their customers -
of access to the best comparison information and expert advice
that could otherwise save you huge amounts of time, trouble, and
How (good) Travel Agents Help
Good travel agents don't
just find you 'the lowest published fare' and 'the most
convenient itinerary', although if this was all they ever did,
you'd still want to use them all the time. Here's a list of some
other things that good travel agents can sometimes (but not
always) help you with. Note that this list only relates to
airline travel, there's much more that agents can do when
helping you with cars, hotels, tours, cruises, etc.
Negotiate with an airline to
make available seats on flights that are otherwise sold out
Get you priority wait listing
Negotiate with an airline to
get you a lower fare even though it is showing sold out in
Help you to get the best seat
Treat you as a person and
provide, in turn, personal service; and use their personal
knowledge of your likes/dislikes/preferences to ensure that
your travel plans best match your needs
Pro-actively monitor your
flights and fare and tell you if better itineraries or fares
Act as your advocate in
dispute and problem resolution
Be available for emergency
problems and flight changes
Can sometimes obtain
discounted consolidated tickets on domestic flights
Can almost always obtain
discounted consolidated tickets for international flights
An Airline Rep Confesses
I was talking on the phone
with an airline representative earlier this week, and we were
joking about lost luggage problems (a sick sort of subject to
joke about!). She then told me about a couple that had their
luggage disappear for their entire two week international
vacation, being found literally on the day they flew back home
again. I said, jokingly 'so, what did you do for them - give
them a free amenities kit and toothbrush?'. She said 'No, I
upgraded them to business class for their international flights
back to the US!'. I was staggered by this, and asked what had
made her do such an amazingly fair and generous thing. Her
answer : 'I knew their travel agent. She called me and talked me
Think about this - because
that couple booked through a travel agent, they had more
bargaining power and ended up not only with a fair amount of
cash compensation during their travels to buy clothing, etc, but
also got business class travel back home again. What do you
think would have happened if they hadn't used a travel agent? Yes, they'd still be waiting on hold while calling a 'baggage
tracking service' somewhere trying to get an update on their
You Get the Agent you Deserve!
If you want your travel
agent to be truly helpful, then you need to open up and share
all your plans and desires and needs with the agent, and
encourage the agent to in turn 'go the extra mile' to help you. As a former travel agent for ten years, I met just about every
possible type of client, from almost literally screaming
lunatics, through drunks, couples fighting out a divorce in
front of me, paranoid types that didn't trust me and who were
convinced I was trying to trick them into spending too much
money and so on. And then there were all the people that almost
served me with a lawsuit before walking in the door, and who
then threatened lawsuits continually before, during and after
their travels. I hasten to add that (perhaps surprisingly)
no-one ever filed!
But, I also met many lovely
nice people who were a delight to work with. Guess who got the
best service? Yes, the polite, pleasant, courteous, and friendly
clients who went out of their way to help me to help them.
And, that is the key phrase.
You need to help your agent to help you. And also encourage them
to realize that their work on your behalf will not be wasted -
that you truly are going to buy travel from them and that the
time they spend working for you will be rewarded. If you do
these things, even an ordinary agent will become good, and a
good agent will become extraordinary.
Different Types of Travel Agent
There is no such thing as a
perfect travel agent, able to help you with all your travel
needs. Don't try and find such a person. Instead, break your
travel needs into categories, and seek agents who can help you
best in each category. Our series on
how to choose a travel agency and travel agent helps you
find the best travel agent and agency for your needs.
Read more in the rest of this
Part 2 we explain that the airlines'
zeroing travel agent commissions isn't just an attempt to kill
off travel agents, but also an attempt to kill off smaller
airlines. Both ways, you're the real loser.
Part 3 we talk about the bad reputation
travel agents generally suffer from, and why some of it is fair,
but much of it is very unfair.
Part 4 we offer some solutions to
the problems the travel agency industry is currently facing.
Part 5 represents a
bringing together of both this article series and also the
series on how to choose a travel agent and agency, and talks
about ways in which you can now best use travel agency services.
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29 March 2002, last update
15 Oct 2013
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.