Man vs. Machine: When to Call a Travel Agent

Man vs. Machine: When to Call a Travel Agent

Online reservation systems (or Internet booking engines, "IBE"s) work fine for many people, and often offer unbeatable fares. For simple round-trip itineraries it may be faster and easier for you to make your reservations this way rather than through a conventional travel agent. But they are just machines, and cannot do the best job for everyone. Yes, a booking engine may be available 24 hours a day, but it will not make tentative bookings, or request seats for lower fares on a waitlist basis, or tell you jokes, or flirt with you.

One basic rule of travel is that you will pay with time or money. A non-stop flight is generally more expensive than an indirect flight. Traveling when it is convenient for you is probably the same time that is convenient for everyone else: Monday morning, Friday and Sunday evenings. Choosing to travel at these peak times will generally cost more, not because the lower fares you see advertised are not offered at these time, but because they are offered in limited numbers, and sell out quickly. If you have some flexibility, you can hit the search engines again and again with different dates, hoping to find that special fare. A travel agent has different tools than are available on the Internet, such as a Global Distribution System ("GDS"), and can find the lowest fares quickly, not only saving your money but the time you would have spent online searching. And in the same reservation (or "PNR", personal name record), an agent can quickly book your flights, rental car, AND hotel room, with direct access into the computer reservations systems (CRS) of the various companies. These reservations are safe, secure, and guaranteed.

You might be a businessmen, a "road warrior", who spends up to 80% of your time traveling, and you value seamless travel arrangements, with no surprises, and being able to get back home and spend some time with your family. Whether you book your own arrangements, or have a personal assistant who does so, you quickly learn that booking each element of the travel itinerary separately, via the Internet, can involve hours of searching, comparing schedules and prices, trying to develop an efficient itinerary, thus saving time and money. A good travel agent can do the same, thus eliminating the research time that you would have spent, and attending to details which might otherwise be neglected, such as ensuring that your frequent flyer program membership number is entered into the reservation, the preferred seats and meals are requested; that the rental car company knows which flight you are arriving on, and that the correct vehicle type has been reserved, with your preferred rental company and using your corporate card; that the hotel is not only suitable and conveniently located, but also that room rate is flexible and that the hotel is informed if a late check-in or check-out is required.

You might have membership in dozens of different corporate loyalty programs, with airlines, rental car companies, and hotel chains, which a travel agent of course would enter into your profile and use as applicable (and save you from having to find the card again, each time you book). You also might be using different programs without knowing when one would cover the same products. The result is a failure to garner all the benefits which would accrue with a higher accumulation of mileage points. For instance, United, USAir, Air Canada, Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, Scandinavian Airlines, Air Portugal, and others are all in the Star Alliance, so it would not be to a trans-Atlantic traveler's advantage to have membership in multiple programs and try to collect mileage points in each. Reading this may convince you to consolidate the programs, but a travel agent would know this (and will secure membership for the passenger in such programs when warranted), would use the best one from your profile, and can help clarify the subtleties, differences, and value of using such programs.

Similarly, you might be a member of a hotel chain's loyalty program, which makes check-in and check-out a breeze, and possibly qualify for a special rate or an upgraded room. But the Corporate Discount Program (CDP), which a good travel agency has, may grant greater privileges or discounts than yours does. Remember: you may book dozens of hotel nights per year, but a travel agency may book hundreds, or thousands, and may enjoy a level of access and clout which you do not.

As a road warrior, you cherish seamless travel arrangements, but you also know that you generally have to pay more for flexibility. The IBE's may offer you the lowest prices, but you may then wind up with a non-changeable, nonrefundable ticket or reservation, when a more flexible one might have been available for a slightly higher fare. And when that meeting is called off, or the conference ends half a day earlier, or you just can't hold out at the trade fair for another minute, you will not only be glad you have a flexible airfare, but you can call your agent and have the ticket rebooked before you get out of the taxi at the airport. No standing in line at a ticketing counter, while the flight you want is being called: just proceed to the gate with your e-ticket receipt! Or maybe you've experienced the pandemonium which breaks out when a flight is cancelled, and been part of the mad scramble to the reservation counters to try to be rebooked on the next flight. Your personal travel agent can spare you the anguish, and can pick the best available option for you, which might be on another airline, and not obvious to the suddenly stressed-out airline employee who is trying to keep the revenue from your ticket on the same airline! You could call the airline's central reservations number, but again, they may not consider options which entail rebooking you with the competition. And whom do you call when you booked via the Internet?

You should call a travel agent if you:

* would prefer to trust an agent with years of experience, who knows all the tips and tricks, and who asks all the right questions;

* don't have time to enter the same data repeatedly on every different website;

* are otherwise frustrated with the online booking tools;

* don't trust the Internet with your credit card information;

* have a complicated itinerary, with multiple destinations, or open-jaws, or stopovers en route;

* want a round-the-world ticket;

* are totally flexible, are flying halfway round the world, and don't care how you get there, just as long as the price is right;

* have different people flying together only part of the way;

* have a friend who booked elsewhere and you want to be on the same flights;

* are not convinced that the machines have come up with the best option for you;

* have special requests, such as unaccompanied minors, or disabled passengers, or want to take your pet along;

* are wondering if you need a visa to visit the country in question;

* want additional arrangements, such as rental car or hotel, in conjunction with your flights;

* need flexibility built in to your itinerary; or

* just prefer dealing with a real person, a friendly helpful voice, someone eager to please you, and who, by doing so, manages to make a living, and feed the kids.


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