Choose the Best Travel Agency
There are a great many
ways that a good travel agency can help your travel
Use the information in
this and the previous article as a checklist.
2 of a 3 part series - click for Parts
Travel is probably the most
expensive intangible item you'll ever buy, and knowing when you
have made the right choices is enormously difficult.
Most of us can benefit from the
services of a good travel agency and a good travel agent.
how do you know when you've found a good agency?
Continued from part one . . .
If you're just needing to
buy a single roundtrip ticket to Chicago, you probably don't
need to follow the nearly 20 evaluation steps outlined in part
one and this article.
But if you're responsible
for a sizable corporate travel budget, or if you're preparing to
plan and purchase a major 'trip of a lifetime' experience, then
you're going to want to be as certain as possible that you're
placing your trust - and your money - in the best possible
hands. Read on, accordingly.
Who Has the Lowest Airfares?
In theory all travel
agencies can access exactly the same published air fares, and so
they should all be quoting you exactly the same price for any
There are exceptions to this
Some agencies have
negotiated special deals with some airlines. Typically these
special deals involving higher priced airfares rather than the
lowest advance purchase fares, but if you're a business traveler
who buys more expensive airfares, then sometimes an agency might
have special deals that could be of great value to you.
Another exception relates to
consolidator type fares. These most commonly apply to
international travel, but some - otherwise very costly -
domestic fares are also available through consolidator outlets.
Consolidator fares can be very much cheaper than published
fares, but may have more restrictions and penalties associated
with them if you need to change/cancel your plans.
Some agencies refuse to buy
consolidator type fares. Others do, but don't pass any of the
saving on to their client. Ask if the agency can purchase lower
priced consolidator tickets and what sort of saving this will
give to you.
And then there are the many
fares available online - not all of which are lower than
regularly published fares! Now that travel agencies no longer
earn airline commissions, they should be willing to use the
internet as part of their airfare researching, and to book/buy
tickets for you on the internet. Ask if they have any special
tools to include internet fare searching as part of their fare
Find out how the travel
agency can help you get better than published air fares -
whether it be through discounts, unpublished fares, consolidator
fares, rule breaking, or some other form.
Who Has the Lowest Hotel Rates?
Most people realize that the
more sophisticated and larger hotels now play the same sort of
pricing games that airlines play. Any given room might have five
or more prices, any one of which you might qualify for,
depending on how the room is being booked.
Some agencies have access to
'corporate rate' programs that give them preferred rates at a
selection of hotel chains. These corporate rate programs are not
necessarily the very best rates available, and you might be able
to find better rates on the internet or somewhere/somehow else,
but they are very much better than full undiscounted rates, and
if you find yourself needing to stay somewhere that does not
have hotels participating in discount programs you already
belong to, an agency with a range of generic discounts can help
you save money.
Other Preferred Supplier
Ask what travel companies
the agency might have preferred arrangements with. Quite
possibly the agency might answer 'none', but equally possibly,
they might disclose a long list of suppliers, perhaps as a
result of consortium membership, or due to the volume of
business they directly give to the supplier.
This list might indicate
opportunities, but it might also indicate problems. If you are a
loyal Hertz renter, you'll get no benefit if the agency has a
preferred relationship with Avis.
Ask also how these preferred
relationships will benefit you. That is, after all, the key
issue from your perspective! Does it mean you'll get lower
rates? Or perhaps special waivers and favors - see the next
Waivers and Favors
In the 'good old days' when
travel agents and airlines were much closer together than they
now are, airlines would almost automatically break their own
rules to help travel agents. If a travel agent had a preferred
status with an airline, it could expect to get its clients put
to the top of waitlists, preferred seats to be advance assigned,
it could expect cancellation and change fees to be waived, and
it could also expect other rules such as advance purchase or
even, sometimes, staying over the weekend to also be modified.
This situation is much less
common now, but a few airlines still have special relationships
with a very few agencies, and will still give some grudging help
when there is a mistake or special need.
It isn't only airlines,
however, that can help out. Any type of supplier can probably
choose to waive some of its policies that might otherwise cost
you money or cause you inconvenience. But they'll only do that
as a 'one-off' special favor for an agency that they work very
Ask your travel agency what
sort of special help they can get from the travel companies you
expect to be dealing with.
Can they get 'waivers and
favors' from airlines and other suppliers
Upgrades and Amenities
Closely related to waivers
and favors is the ability of some agencies to obtain
complimentary upgrades and other small perks or bonuses. In the
good old days, airline representatives would hand out fistfuls
of airline upgrade certificates to their favorite agencies. This
happens much less commonly these days, but rental car companies
still regularly send out various upgrade coupons, and so too do
other suppliers from time to time.
Some of these amenities are
not of major value - for example, discount vouchers for airport
parking - but they are another small extra service that the
agency can provide for you.
Ask your agency what they
might be able to get and give to you in the way of such coupons
and certificates and perks. Of course, you should only expect a
level of special favors appropriate to the level of business you
give the agency, but if you are a regular customer, giving them
good business every month or two, you'd probably qualify for
some special attention in return.
Added Value Services and
Even in this internet age,
we all find an old fashioned brochure one of the best ways to
evaluate a potential tour or hotel or other travel activity. A
good agency that provides comprehensive leisure travel services
will have a comprehensive range of uptodate brochures on most
major travel products and destinations, and will be able to get
in other brochures to meet your interests if asked.
In addition, some agencies
will also have a library of travel books and/or travel videos,
which they may loan out to you.
A good agency will also have
a wide range of their own reference material, such as probably
various hotel directories, tour operator directories, and other
information to help them find suitable products for your
Some agencies even sell
various travel accessories - power adapter plugs, headrest
cushions, and other minor items that you often need but might
find difficult/inconvenient to purchase elsewhere.
Ask the simple question -
'what else can you do for me that other agencies can't or won't
do'? The answer might surprise you.
Fees and Rebates
Some travelers still don't
appreciate that a travel agency is a for profit business, same
as the business they might work for themselves!
Travel agencies need to earn
income, either from suppliers or, if not from their suppliers,
then from their clients. Back in the good old days, agencies
received about 10% in commission from everything they sold, and
they were content to build their business plan around these
supplier commissions. Now that airlines have zeroed out most of
the commissions they pay, and with uncertain commission levels
from other suppliers, agencies have to look to their clients for
revenue when selling airline tickets.
But if the agency is selling
you a $5000 tour package on which it earns a 'standard' 10%
commission, it shouldn't need to also ask you for an 'itinerary
planning fee' as well. And if the agency gets an override
commission from a supplier (ie more than 10%), then some
agencies feel that at least some of this over-ride could be
shared with the client. My own feeling is that it is probably
fair for the agency to split overrides more or less 50/50 with a
As a quick rule of thumb, it
is reasonable to expect a travel agency to be able to earn
between $50-100 for every hour that they are doing work on your
behalf. Surely a travel agent should be able to earn as much as
an auto mechanic in a garage.
If they are not getting this
much from the suppliers of the products they are selling to you
- either because the suppliers pay low commissions, or because
your travel requirements take up a lot of their time, then it is
fair that they bridge the gap by charging you a fee. But if they
are earning substantially more than this general type of rate,
perhaps it is also fair that they consider rebating some of the
extra money received back to you.
This can also mean that if
you go to an agent with a high priced tour already chosen, so
that all the agency needs to do is quickly book the tour and
handle the payment and document distribution, some agents will
offer to give back some of their commission.
If you are looking at an
ongoing relationship with an agency, your focus should be on an
overall picture, with the various swings and roundabouts all
taken into account - both by you and by the agency. This might
mean that the agency will waive some of its standard fees in
recognition that sometimes you are an 'easy' profitable
customer, while at the same time, the agency will not do line
item by line item rebating. If you're planning on giving a
substantial amount of business to an agency, then a good agency
will be willing to negotiate any basis of fees and rebates that
works for you both.
Agency policies about fees -
and rebates - vary substantially.
As further example of how
things have enormously changed, these days even the airlines
themselves will usually charge you a fee if you try and
telephone them and book a ticket directly with them!
When Things Go Wrong
Murphy's Law seems to apply
with double strength in the travel industry. Mistakes do occur,
and often in the most inconvenient way possible for all
How an agency responds to
problems is probably more important to you than just about
First of all, try and find
out how likely it is that there might be problems. Ask how
stable and experienced their staff is. Are their agents full
time or part time? Do any/many of the agents have any type of
Ask if the agency has Errors
and Omissions Insurance that will indemnify them if something
goes seriously wrong. If you end up in an unfortunate situation
where lawsuits are the only solution, you want to be certain
they will be able to settle any damages that are awarded to you.
Many times, when you are
buying and paying for travel, you will be paying for your travel
long before you actually travel. Your money perhaps goes first
to the travel agent, and then at some later time, the travel
agent sends your money to the travel wholesaler, who in turn, at
some later stage sends your money either to another middle man
or to the actual suppliers of the travel products. This means
that all the people receiving your money typically get your
money before they have to pay it to the next person in line,
making for a 'float' or positive cash flow that can sometimes
dangerously disguise businesses that are otherwise loss-making
and, for all intents and purposes, bankrupt.
Ask if the travel agency has
any type of trust account to handle your funds, or if they are
commingled in with their ordinary operating funds. If the agency
has a trust account, then your funds are somewhat safer than if
all money passes through a single general account. Paying by
credit card gives you extra protection, but may incur extra fees
Other Agency Policies
It is important to
distinguish between the policies that relate to the agency, and
the policies that relate to travel products which the agency is
arranging for you. Agencies generally have to pass on the
payment policies of their suppliers. For example, if a supplier
requires a $200 nonrefundable deposit, and the balance to be
paid 90 days before your travels start, then the agency can
usually not vary this policy.
It is harder to negotiate
supplier policies, so when dealing with an agency, find out
which policies are theirs and which are their suppliers.
Some agencies will ask for a
'good faith' deposit prior to doing a lot of research for you. This is only fair. Just like an accountant or a doctor, the
ultimate product they have to sell is their time, not the travel
arrangements they make for you. If you make them spend time on
your behalf, they are incurring very real costs that must be
Most people like to pay for
most things by credit card these days. This can sometimes be a
problem with travel items. A 2% credit card fee is easily
absorbed by a clothing shop that has a 50% gross margin on their
clothes. But this same 2% is a huge part of a 10% margin, and so
for this reason, few travel suppliers or agencies are able to
accept credit cards at no extra cost. Indeed, it is fair to say
that travel suppliers who claim 'we accept credit cards at no
extra cost' have probably already built this cost into all their
It is also helpful to know
if the agency has any types of service standards. Do they
promise that they will call you back within a certain time
frame? Do they in any other way provide any guarantees?
Read more in Parts 1 & 3
one provides the rest of the suggested selection criteria
for how to determine which travel agency best matches your needs
three tells you how to select an individual travel agent.
Sometimes your choice of individual agent will be more important
to you than the choice of agency.
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10 October 2003, last update
28 Nov 2012
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.