Carolyn Fletcher's honeymoon started heading south the moment she and her husband landed in Cancún. No one was there to pick up the newlyweds.
It took an hour for her to convince a van service to deliver them to their hotel. But when they checked into their four-star resort in Akumal, they discovered it was "a two-star, at best," she remembers.
"The grounds were unkempt and there was trash everywhere," she said. "Our room smelled of mildew. I sat down on the bed to cry, only to find the sheets and mattress wet from the moisture and mildew. There was mold growing on the curtains, the walls and the furniture."
Why am I telling you about Fletcher's post-nuptial nightmare? Because she booked it online.
Some vacations should never be booked through anyone but a travel agent, and a honeymoon is arguably one of them. But there are others, too, as travelers like Fletcher are discovering.
A recent Forrester Research study suggests there's something of a backlash when it comes to booking travel online. It concludes 15% fewer travelers will use the web in 2009, compared with two years ago -- a finding that comforts many travel agents who previously saw themselves on the endangered list.
(People have gotten a little carried away with the Forrester study, though. One headline writer suggested online booking might be the "worst part" of the trip. Right. That would be the flight, actually.)
It's little consolation to Fletcher and her husband. "While most people will remember their honeymoon with happy memories, ours are filled with disparagement, frustration and regret," she adds.
In trying to figure out when you shouldn't book online, I thought I'd ask someone who works for an online travel agency. I put the question to Ginny Mahl, Travelocity's vice president of sales and customer service. "There is still a place for traditional travel agents, particularly those that have carved out a niche, like adventure travel," she said. "Depending upon the traveler and their needs, a face-to-face meeting with such a consultant could be wise."
Of course, she adds, "higher fees will apply."
So when should you not book on the Internet? Here are seven kinds of trips.
Travel agents remain your best bet for a floating vacation. Why? Two main reasons: First, cruise lines give travel agencies access to special deals that you probably won't find anywhere else. And second, because a cruise can get complicated. There are airline tickets that have to be bought, hotel rooms to be booked, shore excursions and lots of options on the ship. "Often, cruise agents will book group space on popular sailings, which often entitle them to offer their clients bonus items -- onboard money to spend, champagne toasts, discounted deposits and more," says cruise expert Carmen Shirkey. "Plus, because they've booked space on the best cruises, other sites may tell you that there's no availability, when a cruise agent can get you onboard, no problem."
2. Traveling Around the World
An around-the-the-world itinerary is usually far more complex than a straight-up round-trip airline ticket. Never mind the hotel arrangements and activities you'll want to plan. Travel agents are best suited to these kinds of vacations. Blogger and frequent traveler Steven Frischling has taken several around-the-world trips for business. "Last year, in a 3-½-day span, I photographed jobs in Philadelphia, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, and Incheon -- departing from and returning to Providence," he says. "There was no online booking engine that would allow this itinerary."
3. When You Don't Have the Time
If you work with a travel agent who knows your preferences, you might consider outsourcing the research for your next vacation. "If you're a busy professional with no interest in doing the research and would rather be dreaming about sipping a Caipirinha on Copacabana beach than doing all the legwork to get there, why not work with an agent?" says Patricia Pinkney, who works for an artisan jewelry retailer. "In this case, they save time rather than money, but ultimately that may be more valuable to them."
4. If You're Uncomfortable With the Inter-Web
If you're reading this article online, this probably doesn't apply to you. Karina Goldrajch, the co-founder of GenMobi Technologies, a security company, says people should stay away from booking online if they've never done it before, and particularly if their next trip is a special event, like an anniversary or honeymoon (see Fletcher's story for more on that). But even if you've booked on the web before, you should think twice before doing it again. "If you think that the website looks fishy, or something looks too good, it probably is," she says.
5. Traveling Internationally
A weekend in London is one thing. However, if you're headed off to a country whose name you can't pronounce, you probably need to stay off the computer -- at least when you book. Find a travel professional that specializes in the place you're going. Tonya Fitzpatrick, who hosts a travel radio show, learned that when she tried to help a family member and her companion after they booked a trip to Costa Rica online. "An international trip is a different animal," she said. "At the end of the day they incurred more expenses because they booked online."
6. Doing Something Exotic
This is for the trips that aren't for everyone, such as sailing up the coast of British Columbia and Alaska, as the people who book Maureen Gordon's Maple Leaf Adventures packages do. (Imagine climbing over the rail of a schooner into a zodiac to go bear watching.) "When we speak to someone on the phone, we can make sure a trip is right for them," she says. "And when you're sharing 92-feet in the wilderness with eight others, plus guides, you want to know everyone around you is happy."
7. Special Events
A honeymoon, anniversary or class reunion falls into this category. But mostly, a honeymoon. "Engaged couples have enough to worry about," said John Peters, the president of Tripology, a New York referral service for travel agents. "A honeymoon is a time where you need to be looked after, not when you should be worrying about yet another item on a to-do list that's much too long to begin with." An agent can make sure your vacation is as close to perfect as it can be, from start to finish. A travel professional can also make sure you've booked the right vacation.
Wondering if you should consult with a travel agent before your next vacation? There are some who think it's always a good idea to phone a travel pro first. Sheryl Kayne, author of the book Volunteer Vacations Across America," said you should "never book online" before checking first with an agent -- and that's especially true of anyone considering a volunteer vacation, which, like a cruise, can get more complex than other trips. "You also don't want to book a trip before knowing all of the requirements and conditions of the trip."
Me? I'm not so convinced. I'd turn to a travel agent if I were going somewhere special for a family reunion and didn't have the time to plan the whole thing. But travel agents aren't charities, and they make almost nothing on a simple point-to-point airline ticket.
Yes, there are a few trips I can't imagine planning through anyone except a travel pro. For the rest, I fire up my laptop.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2010 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.
(c) 2010 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.