When was the last time you used a travel agent? I asked that question in my book “Decoding Air Travel.” Last month, President Obama asked it, too, and the American Society of Travel Agents speedily protested. So let’s examine the modern — or perhaps not modern enough — travel-agency system and the value it brings.
Many young people don’t even remember the time when using a travel agent was the only practical way to book a trip. While many consumers today book their own travel, using travel agencies is still quite prevalent in the corporate world.
However, many business travelers I know are unhappy with their company’s travel agency. It’s clear the current system isn’t working well anymore for a variety of reasons. Without taking sides, let’s look at those reasons from the perspective of travel agencies and their customers.
If you are a traveler — for work or pleasure — you probably have at least one of the following problems with travel agents:
• They don’t always offer you the lowest fares or best itineraries;
• They only book tickets and leave the rest to you;
• They know little, if anything, about frequent-flier programs, elite status, miles and upgrades;
• They are not familiar with on-board products and don’t know which airlines have flat beds in Business Class;
• They don’t travel frequently, if at all, but sit in an office and rely on computers to tell them what to do;
• They are inflexible when schedule changes affect your tickets;
• They don’t take care of all your travel needs.
As the air travel system has become more complex and customer-unfriendly in recent years, the needs of the modern traveler have grown and diversified enormously. The traditional travel-agency model has so far survived the Internet threat, but its relevance has diminished significantly, because it hasn’t caught up with the changes in travelers’ needs and demands.
Booking a ticket is no longer even close to enough. You have to be able to compare fares and products of different airlines and alliances, and to offer your customers the options that provide the best combination of price, comfort, convenience, maximizing frequent-flier miles, progress toward elite status, best upgrade opportunities and the most effective use of elite benefits.
For this to happen, you need a wealth of knowledge, which most travel agents don’t have. For example, you need to know what booking classes are eligible for upgrades and which don’t earn miles. It’s certainly unreasonable to expect one person to be familiar with each airline’s requirements, but there are ways to deal with that — an agency can have employees or teams specializing in the different alliances or groups of carriers.
Probably the two most important and consequential weaknesses of the agency model are its use of limited data and booking sources — often just one Global Distribution System (GDS) — and its almost exclusive reliance on automated systems to do all the work.
If you’ve read my book, you already know more than the average travel agent — and you realize why those two weaknesses result in millions of customers paying much more than they could be. Automation is no doubt vital for the travel-booking process, but given the intricacies of airfares and the tricks airlines have adopted to “maximize revenues,” sometimes we need to rely more on our brains than on machines.
One other thing to keep in mind when dealing with a travel agency is whether it has contracts with specific airlines. Airline commissions were discontinued years ago, but large agencies still have contracts. How does that affect you? The purpose of those contracts, of course, is to encourage agencies to send more business to the respective carrier. If your agency receives its biggest commission from American Airlines, it might book you on American even if Delta has a lower fare.
Now let’s look at the above-described picture from a travel agency’s perspective. Most agencies don’t have the pull of American Express and Carlson Wagonlit, and they don’t receive airline commissions. They do get GDS kickbacks, as well as transaction fees for provided services directly from clients — about $35 on average, though some charge as much as $90.
For what you pay them, they have decided that it’s not worth more than several minutes of an agent’s time to work on booking you a ticket. Then how do you expect them to do more than letting the computer do all the work? Would you pay them more to take care of your upgrade and other needs? I suppose it depends on whether you trust that agent to do a good job. There is no point in paying for something that you later have to fix yourself.
So what’s the solution? Should everyone stop using travel agencies? Of course not — they do have a place in the travel industry. Many companies simply can’t handle their travel volume without outside professional help. At the same time, the gap between agency services and travelers’ needs keeps widening.
One solution could be for agencies to have teams dedicated to high-end, high-demand executives, who are willing to pay more for additional services. Some large agencies already have such teams, but their tasks usually don’t include creative ways to save on airfare or any of the frequent-flier services described above.
There is another solution, which was suggested to me by — ironically — travel agency owners last year. They shared my observation about the gap between what they do and what their clients want, and urged me to bridge it. How? First, by educating their clients in seminars and private training how to do for themselves what the agencies don’t offer. Clients who don’t have the time or patience to learn can ask me to provide those additional services to them.
So to bridge that gap, I started my company, Kralev International LLC. As one of my clients says, we can do your homework if you don’t have time to do it yourself.
- Nicholas Kralev is an author and expert on diplomacy, world affairs and global travel. He hosts the weekly program "Conversations with Nicholas Kralev." A former Financial Times and Washington Times correspondent, he has traveled around the world with four U.S. secretaries of state — Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright. He has flown over 2 million miles and visited 84 countries.
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