Three years ago, I wrote a column — “Fire Your Travel Agent” — that suggested there are times when you don’t need the services of a professional travel agent. It raised the ire of my fellow travel agents, but I think a lot of the advice remains solid. Well, maybe not all of it. Back in ’04 (seems so long ago), I recommended that if you were “‘Net-savvy,” you might be able to navigate the world of travel on your own and snag some great last-minute deals. Today, I’m not so sure.
My colleague Christopher Elliott writes a nationally syndicated ombudsman column. Over the years, I have noticed that Chris has spent more and more time solving the mistakes of travelers who decided to go it alone and book their travel on the Internet. Don’t believe me? Check out the heroics in his last seven columns solving problems for travelers who booked online with British Airways … Travelocity … Expedia … United Airlines … Orbitz … Days Inn … you get the picture.
I can’t remember the last time I read a column that began, “Boy, did my travel agent really screw this up.” Why is that?
a) Are today’s travel consumers that dumb?
b) Are the Web sites that inadequate?
c) Are the dinosaur travel agents that good?
Answer: Probably a combination of all of the above.
As fate would have it, I am too old to have ridden the first Internet wave, and I missed that first dot.com craze, too. I was stuck in more traditional business pursuits. But I do remember from a programming class the famous acronym GIGO — Garbage In, Garbage Out. Remember the 1,200-baud modems? Can you imagine them today? No, of course not. Today we live in an instant world, and sometimes we are just too quick with the click. Here’s what happens:
• “Oops, I meant to put in 2008 not 2007!”
• “Dang, I meant to type in Mar(ch), not May.”
• “What do you mean they need my real name? Everybody calls me ‘Butch.'”
Well, if you made your booking online, the computer has only given you what you requested. Nothing more, nothing less. Now someone needs to straighten it out for you — and there are many who will, for a fee. In these cases, the consumers really are “that dumb.”
OK, so you’re booked for that trip of a lifetime. You saved a bundle (you think) by piecing it all together yourself: a flight to Paris on US Airways, a quick connection to MyAir, and on to beautiful Venice! One small glitch: US Airways flies into Charles de Gaulle airport and MyAir flies out of Orly, so the 45-minute connection you planned is nowhere near time enough. Moreover, since the two carriers do not “talk” to one another, your luggage will likely enjoy a few extra days in Paris while you’re wearing your airplane clothes up and down the canals of Venice.
Dumb consumer? Not really. This is specialized knowledge that the average consumer is unlikely to have. I chalk it up to dumb Internet.
The Internet is just not sophisticated enough. All it knows is that you are going to de Gaulle and then — in a completely different book, chapter and verse — that you are going to Venice. The Internet will provide the puzzle pieces, but it cannot put them together. Before you click, make sure you know who you are dealing with and how to resolve any issues, because there are some Web sites out there that can leave you completely stranded.
Here is a prime example of a site that leaves you nowhere. There is no identification or contact info for the agent — just the main company name, and the “HELP” link takes you to a listing of vendors’ phone numbers. When I travel, I like to get a little more service from my agent — online or offline — than an abbreviated Yellow Pages.
Which takes us to the “dinosaurs.”
Are travel agents really that good? Probably.
Travel agents know which carriers fly into which airports. They would suspect that your real name is not “Butch.” They know what question to ask when they find lots of rooms available at the resort you’ve requested. (The question is not “How much?” but “Why?”) Travel is their business and experience counts. Yes, travel agents make mistakes, too. The difference is that we usually correct them.
The problem with the Internet is that it is going to give you what you ask for — nothing more and nothing less. If travel were simply a commodity, this might make a good model. But travel is not a commodity; it is an experience – a business experience, a vacation experience, a family experience. And when you are traveling, a good experience is what it is all about!
It is no surprise that I am an advocate for travel agents. But I also think that the Internet has a place. If you are doing a routine trip (flight, car, hotel) without a connection, the Internet is probably the way to go. But if you have to connect, fly through some historically bad airports, are planning a special trip, or would just rather someone else deal with the hassles, the dinosaur may be your best bet.
After all, when things go wrong (and they will at some point in time), there is a lot more satisfaction in yelling at your agent than in slamming your mouse down on the desk.