When Sir David North booked his flight from Miami to Milan and Bologna, Italy, through the online agency Orbitz, he didn't anticipate any problems making a change if necessary. After all, he was flying business class and understood the itinerary could be altered, albeit at a price.
Before he departed, though, he learned he also had to go to Greece while in Europe. That's when the problems began.
North, who owns Key West Aloe, a cosmetics and fragrance company, couldn't make the change online. So he called the agency's customer service. After spending 10 or 15 minutes "trying to actually talk to a real living person," he learned it would cost him more to reroute to Greece than he had already paid for the trans-Atlantic flight to Italy. Not a good option.
"So I called TraveLeaders a Miami travel agency, whom I know," he said. "I sat down with them and they got a waiver to change the return date of the ticket." The final cost for adding a separate side trip to Greece: $500, plus an overnight stay in Bologna and a lot of en-route aggravation. But without the agent's help, he believes he never would've gotten this done.
Orbitz, which brags about its customer service ratings, says North's experience was unusual. The company says the issue was the airline's ticketing rules, not its own practices.
But North's experience illustrates a dilemma frequently faced by the Internet-age traveler: Is it better to turn to a travel agent, who often has the expertise and the connections to resolve problems and book complicated itineraries? Or to save the agent's fee and book online, where customer service may be the weak link?
Marshall Harris, owner of Miami's Harris Travel, answers this way: "If all you want is the cheapest rate, do it yourself," he says. "Use an agent when an agent can do better, when specialized knowledge is really needed."
If you want to buy an air ticket from San Francisco to New York, for example, it's a simple thing to do online, says Tom Brosnahan of Travel Info Exchange, a travel website developer — and you won't be paying the agent his service fee, usually $25 or more. The same goes for booking a chain motel, a last-minute travel package where you're not picky about the hotel or a basic car rental.
If you're looking for experience, convenience and personal service, use an agent, advises Cheryl Hudak, vice president of the American Society of Travel Agents.
A well-connected, well-informed professional can prevent disappointment — by steering clients to good hotels and away from bad ones, routing them efficiently, getting them perks and creating complicated itineraries. Using a specialist is particularly important with off-the-path locales, such as Africa, and niches such as tours and cruises.
"There's almost never a time when we can't beat cruise prices people get on the "Net," says Harris, the South Miami-based agent, who is associated with Virtuoso, a consortium of upscale travel agencies. "And we can arrange private shore excursions at 70 percent the cost of the same ship excursion, probably with the same car and same driver." A cruise expert should also be able to explain the differences between lines — even ships within the same cruise line.
If you want upscale flights and lodging, special amenities or out-of-the-ordinary experiences, consider a travel agent with ties to such upscale consortiums as Virtuoso and Ensemble, which offers training for its members and arrange special deals with suppliers, such as upgrades.
"The true specialist knows the ins and outs, gets the right room at the right time, negotiates special agreements, gets upgrades and comp breakfasts, does your thinking for you," says Keith Waldron, spokesman for Virtuoso.
"When Placido Domingo sang at the Met in New York, we purchased front-row seats for our client base," he says. Virtuoso has arranged for a Roman contessa to take clients on a tour of the Eternal City; in Burma it obtained an invitation to witness a Buddhist ceremony inducting a boy into the order of monks.
Ensemble provides similar service. ""Our person in London arranged a lunch at the House of Commons," says Ensemble spokesman Lois Shore. "He planned a James Bond weekend. In New York, we arranged a special viewing of Macy's parade from the second floor."
Such customized arrangements aren't free. Travel agents, like anyone else in business, charge for their time. Though booking a standard tour or cruise is often free — agents earn a commission from the operator or cruise line — agents now charge for other services. Arranging an airline ticket may cost $25-$50; planning a customized trip costs $100 and up, report Mike Greenwald of Personalized Travel in Broward County and Harris of South Miami's Harris Travel Services. Complex itineraries may cost $250 or more.
Such fees usually are nonrefundable, but sometimes they are applied to the cost of the trip once it is booked. "This is to avoid doing work for somebody who decides not to go," said Virtuoso's Waldron. On-site operators may assess a separate fee for making special arrangements.
While few Web-based agencies provide such customized service, many do offer phone support that can help with straightforward problems.
"We're actually both agent and Web," says Paul Barry, president of go-today.com, an online booking agency. "Our online method is backed up by a call center. You can speak to a human being who knows the product. It's the best of both worlds."
Orbitz says that despite North's complaints, the online agency has a good record.
"We have agents on call 24/7 and I personally have never had a long wait to reach one," said Jeanine Diefendorf, a spokeswoman. In a survey of 2,000 web sites by the Customer Respect Group, Orbitz recently received a rating of "excellent" for its customer service.
Travel agents — and some consumer advocates — argue that at least some such representatives may not be as accessible, knowledgeable or connected as an experienced travel agent.
Kari Swartz of Expedia, one of the three online mega-agencies, takes issue with that perception. "Expedia has different levels of specialists, and who you get depends on the problem you have," she explained. If you just want information on booking travel, for instance, you get one level. If you have a problem en route on your trip, you get another. "
Consumer advocate Christopher Elliott agrees that online travel agencies have improved — but says "there's still work to be done." Online companies often use phone representatives abroad who are reading from a script, he says — a situation that leads to "a disconnect between travelers and these remote agents."
If you want the ultimate control over your trip and are willing to invest the time, the Web could be the way to go.
That's the case with Chester and Linda Treadway of Cocoa, Fla.
"Actually, we use a combination of both the Internet and agents," said Linda. "I've found that travel agents don't always know what the latest sale prices are." So Linda checks the internet first to see who flies where, notes the prices and deals, and then calls the airline. Ditto for hotels.
Planning a trip to London, the Treadways found that online — and only online — British Airways offered air fare plus two nights in a London hotel for the same price as the airfare alone through regular channels. They called to confirm the deal, booked it online and as a bonus got a discounted rate for the rest of their stay.
Advice and reviews are available from sites such as Trip Advisor (www.tripadvisor.com), IgoUgo (www.igoyougo.com), Venere (www.venere.com) and message boards such as those at Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com) and Cruise Critic (www.cruisecritic.com.) Major agency sites have added features that make planning easier.
"We offer one-stop shopping," explains Expedia's Swartz. "You can see virtual tours of hotels, room layouts, look at flexible rate calendars to give an idea of lowest prices and cheaper routes. You can read travel experiences of others."
Use a travel agent or use the Web? What it boils down to is this: Online, it's cheaper, but it's buyer beware. With an agent, you've got somebody on your side.
It's your call. Figure out what you want from your trip, how you want to travel and how much you want to spend, and take it from there.
USE AN AGENT IF:
- You want personal service.
- You need in-depth expertise.
- You have a complicated itinerary.
- You have special requests or want behind-the-scenes access.
- You want upscale arrangements or a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
- You don't want to spend time on travel research.
- You do not use a computer.
USE THE INTERNET IF:
- You are looking for a trip without bells or whistles.
- You want the cheapest price available.
- You are making a simple booking.
- You want maximum control over your itinerary.
- You don't mind spending hours on travel research.
- You are reasonably savvy about travel.
- You want to avoid paying an agent fee.
PICKING AN AGENT:
How do you go about getting a good travel agent?
- Word of mouth — a recommendation from a friend or business associate who has gotten happy results from an agent — is a good option.
- Through its web site, www.travelsense.org, the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) can put you in touch with agents who specialize in the destinations or type of trip you are planning. If you want, they can direct you to ASTA members in your area. Virtuoso and Ensemble offer specialized service; contact them at www.virtuoso.com, 866-401-7974; www.ensembletravel.com, 866-350-7460.
- Additionally, two magazines list top agent specialists annually. Conde Nast Traveler publishes Wendy Perrin's World's Greatest Travel Specialists every August. Travel + Leisure's A-List Travel Agents comes out in September.