It may be somewhat ironic for an article published on a travel website to suggest that booking your next trip online may not be the best solution, but the reality is that sometimes a grass roots approach is better.
At many travel functions I attend, I often hear the phrase "the traditional travel agent is dead." True, brick and mortar travel agents have a lot more competition these days, but attention to detail, personalized service and life experiences cannot substitute for a $100 discount -- that is why a successful online company like G.A.P. Adventures is reversing the trend and opening retail stores and why so many websites are investing millions of dollars to include user-generated content like reviews and blogs. Unfortunately it may be difficult to trust a review (after all, who knows if the hotel manager's brother wrote it) and how can you judge if the person writing it has the same needs as you.
If the following travel scenario applies to you, then yes, you probably should book online:
- A domestic flight for business or leisure to a destination you are familiar with
- The cheapest hotel room to stay in tomorrow night
- A package to a beach resort that you've been to previously
- A basic four- or five-day Caribbean cruise
- A straightforward non-stop international flight to visit friends or family
- A spring break getaway to a recent hot spot featured on Girls Gone Wild
If none of these describe your travel requirements, then read on.
Travel agents to some extent are masochists -- they spend each day planning and booking other people's travel rather than their own. Choose the right one and he or she will be well-traveled, knowledgeable about destinations, culturally aware and willing to spend the time and effort to make your vacation enjoyable. It's the insider information, the personal tips and advice that make the experience more fulfilling. Travel agents actually love what they do (they certainly don't do it for the money), they are passionate about travel and by forming relationships with their customers, they get to know exactly how to satisfy even the most voracious traveler's needs.
To get an industry perspective, I spoke with Jack Mannix, a veteran of 35 years in travel and the CEO of Ensemble Travel (www.ensembletravel.com) -- one of the U.S.'s largest networks of expert travel agencies -- with some 1,100 locations/members across the U.S. and Canada. According to Jack, "Technology can't replicate what is between people's ears" -- meaning that personal knowledge is still paramount when it comes to getting the best advice when booking travel. With such a vast amount of data and information available for potential travelers online, travel can often become complicated and confusing for the consumer. The travel agent acts as the conduit between the traveler and the information, sifting through the clutter, helping customers make informed decisions.
Jack also emphasized the importance of getting to know the customer, something that a website and even its support call center can't do. "A good travel professional can size up what a customer really needs, not what they say they want." Sure you can call an 800 number and speak to a human (sometimes) but apart from looking up your booking through a GDS system, or confirming transactional details, they are hardly in the position to offer expert assistance, insider information or be able to say "No, I don't think that hotel would work for you because there's a loud nightclub on the first floor."
Despite an incredible surge in growth of online travel over the last decade, that growth is now flattening and discerning travelers are seeking out the added value factor for their travel experience, like unique opportunities, personalized service and the ability to tailor-make their itineraries to suit their needs. Highly commoditized lower price-point travel products like package deals and short non-luxury cruises are easily purchased online but there appears to be a barrier beyond which a customer doesn't really feel comfortable venturing dollar-wise. The more complex or expensive a trip is, the more you should consider dealing with a human rather than the cyber world. Do you really want to drop $10,000 with a mouse click?
Price is often the reason cited for booking online (i.e. "I can get a better deal online") and in certain cases, there are bargains to be found through websites. But what do you do when you are trying to reserve a flight or a hotel room and the website says that there are no rooms or seats available? An expert travel agent can in many instances find ways around the "no availability" dilemma. They will likely have spent years forming relationships with airline representatives, consolidators or wholesalers and can magically make a seat on that elusive flight appear, as if by magic. Travel agents can also let you know about less publicized routes to obscure destinations, the benefits of air passes for multi-city trips or even that a 100-mile drive in Guatemala may take four hours so it is best to fly.
The travel agent is the travelers' advocate before, during and after the travel purchase. They are the first person you call if you lose your luggage in Dubrovnik, want to leave Harare one day later or you get stuck in Sydney during an airline strike. They will arrange your visas, advise you about immunizations, provide relevant insurance suggestions and guide you through the entire booking process.
Obscure or exotic destinations require a greater level of agent expertise in the form of a destination or regional specialist. Often these specialists may originally be from that country or at least have significant connections there. They will probably also have greater negotiating power with airlines, hotels and tour companies, meaning savings for their customers. Agents can also be market or demographic specialists Â?- from gay to student travel, adventure to religious travel and everything in between. . If you want to get off the beaten path, not just see the big cities, then you really need to seek out the best possible routes and modes of transports and you cannot always rely on the information provided by websites.
Before your next big overseas trip, evaluate what your requirements are and you may find that the traditional way is the best way. Don't trust your Rwanda Gorilla trip or your Antarctica expedition to a website. As long as travel remains experiential and people value superior customer service and professionalism, there will always be a place for travel agents.
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