Before trusting your vacation plans to a travel agent, find out why their services may rob you of time and money!
1. "You'll get lost in cyberspace."
Terrorism. SARS. Airline bankruptcies. War. They're not making it easy to travel these days. Unfortunately, neither are many travel agents, both the human kind and the online kind. Complaints against agents, such as unexplained charges and crummy customer service, rose 23% last year, according to the Council of Better Business Bureaus. What's driving the surge? Consumer frustration with online agencies, for one thing. The Department of Transportation received 317 complaints against travel agents last year, with nearly two-thirds involving the six major online agencies.
Americans will spend $43 billion booking travel via the Internet this year and increase that amount to $58 billion by 2005, according to market research firm Jupiter Research. But as Jessica Robles and Adam Worch discovered, you don't always get what you pay for. Last October the New York City couple booked a Christmas holiday flight to Lima, Peru, on Aero Continente airline for about $1,000 through online travel giant Travelocity. But on Nov. 28, Travelocity informed them that the flight was canceled. Thing is, Robles and Worch later learned that Aero Continente had canceled the flight four weeks earlier. "Did it take us a long time to contact the customer? Yeah, I guess it did," says Travelocity consumer-relations manager Christine Bullock. Not only did the agency fail to accommodate their request for a new flight, but it said a refund would take three to four months. Bullock contends that the couple had "ample time to rebook" on another airline and that the delay in getting a refund is due to the repayment schedule of airlines and other suppliers, not Travelocity. Still, Robles says, "Travelocity treated us so badly. The whole experience has made me afraid to plan a trip on the Internet."
2. "You've come to the wrong place for a good deal."
Coke versus pepsi. McDonald's versus Burger King. Bitter rivalries. Here's one more. Traditional travel agents versus online agents. Which one will get you a better fare? In some cases neither. We called three travel agents to get an airfare from New York to London. Then we checked fares on Travelocity, Expedia and Cheap Tickets. The Web sites each offered a $616 fare on Virgin Atlantic, while the travel agents ranged from $620 to $661. But the real winner? Virgin Atlantic's Web site, which quoted us a price of $591.
You'd figure well-trained professional travel agents would know how to find the lowest fares available at the press of a button. Not necessarily. A 2001 survey by "Consumer Reports Travel Letter" revealed that only 51% of travel agents disclosed all low-fare flights when asked, and the difference between the actual lowest fare and the lowest fare agents quoted was sometimes as much as $190. One reason: The travel agent reservation system, known as Global Distribution Systems (GDS), does not provide all available Web fares. And as Ed Perkins, a syndicated travel columnist, puts it, "If an agent insists on doing everything through the GDS and is not willing to explore the many other options available, he is behind the times."
3. "Want service? Then pay up."
Travel agents, like most salespeople, have a long history of making money on commission. At one time they received as much as 10% from airlines for each fare they booked. But the airlines have been cutting back on commissions since 1995, finally eliminating them last year. How are agents making up for the loss? Hiking service fees. Today 88% of agents — up from 20% in 1995 — charge fees for everything from issuing tickets ($15 to $50) to planning overseas vacations (as much as $250).
Sure, agents have to make a living. The problem: Such fees and other expenses, including taxes, aren't always disclosed until after you've booked travel plans. For instance, about 30% of travel sites recently surveyed by the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network engaged in dubious practices, such as promoting "total prices" that did not include airport costs or taxes. There are also the traditional agents who charge fees while still collecting commissions from tour operators and cruise lines. "The customer should never get any surprises," says Bud Gillison, national secretary of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA).
4. "Sure we know who to look out for-us."
To be one of 20,000-plus members of ASTA, you need to live by its ethics code. Consider item nine: "(Do) not allow any preferred relationship with a supplier to interfere with the interests of...clients." Sounds good on paper. The reality? "Many agents act more as salespeople for the supplier rather than as a counselor for you," says Scott Ahlsmith of the Institute of Certified Travel Agents, the industry's leading education body. For instance, they may steer you toward a particular supplier simply because it pays out higher commissions or gives incentives.
Steve Danishek, owner of TMA Travel in Seattle, says agents will "usually try to offer what (they) get their highest commission on or a deal that has a contest." For instance, in June a tour company ran a promotion offering agents a free Hawaiian Airline ticket for every 10 tickets they sold on the airline. "Of the three airlines flying out of Seattle to Hawaii, guess which one I will sell first?" Danishek asks. The answer: Hawaiian, as long as the other airlines aren't more expensive. Considering that scenario, find out who an agent's preferred suppliers are before booking a trip, then request a price break based on the incentives an agent can expect to earn.
5. "Our technology stinks."
Online travel technology is a wonderful thing...when it works. Henry Harteveldt, a Forrester Research analyst, reports that online agencies are so error-prone that one out of every 10 hotel reservations gets fouled up. And Bill McGee, travel consultant to Consumer WebWatch, says that such frequent system glitches make it hard to tell if sites have technical problems or are just luring travelers with attractive fares that later get voided due to tech snafus — a "bait and switch" tactic, as McGee puts it.
When David Shimberg of Charlotte, N.C., used Virginia-based Travelution.com to book a business trip to Orlando last March, he got an attractive fare of $397. A day and a half after purchasing the ticket, Travelution notified him that the fare was a mistake caused by a system error. The real fare: $663. "Had (Travelution) told me beforehand that there was some problem with the system, I would have gone with another service," Shimberg says. He later logged complaints with the Better Business Bureau in Virginia Beach, Va., the Federal Trade Commission, and the North Carolina attorney general's office. Only when that office agreed to look into his case, Shimberg claims, did Travelution agree to refund the $266 difference in ticket price. Travelution did not return repeated calls for comment.
6. "We'll give you the wrong information."
You go to a travel agent for help, not heartache, right? Well, consider the New York City woman who booked a vacation to Brazil via an online agency. The agency told her all she needed was a valid U.S. passport. But at check-in, she was turned away for not having a visa. Then there's the Albany, N.Y., traveler who last year asked her agent to arrange a "partially escorted" tour of London. Once abroad, she got theater vouchers, bus tickets and a subway pass — but no guide. "Often, agents run into trouble because they sell something they know nothing about," says Massachusetts travel lawyer Rodney Gould.
When using an agent, test his knowledge of a locale. Find out, for example, how often he's been to the country you're interested in. Then get customer referrals to check out the agent's work. And if you feel an agent has wronged you, file a suit in small-claims court and register a complaint with ASTA. If the agent is a member, "they could be thrown out of ASTA if they don't resolve the problem," says the association's national vice president, Kathryn Sudeikis.
7. "Our customer service won't win any speed contests."
What does it take to get some TLC from a travel Web site? In some cases, quite a bit. Last year Phil Saucier ended up sending six e-mail messages to Travelocity's customer-service department, then two formal letters and finally a letter to the company's CEO after a flight he had booked turned out to be nonexistent. Travelocity compensated Saucier for the hotel bill he incurred because of the mix-up and offered a $200 travel voucher. Bullock, Travelocity's consumer-relations manager, admits, "We are guilty of not sending (Saucier) an e-mail notifying him when the flight was canceled." Saucier contends that's not all the agency was guilty of. "They keep you on hold for hours. I heard enough Muzak to last me a year," he says.
Saucier is hardly alone in waiting for help. A December 2002 study by Jupiter Research found that 41% of customer-service inquiries to travel Web sites took two days or longer to resolve. That's unacceptable, especially in an age of last-minute travel bookings, says Jupiter's travel analyst Jared Blank. He advises that consumers follow the site's complaint procedure, use the phone in addition to e-mail to tackle customer-service complaints, and keep a log of correspondences, conversations and people spoken to.
8. My agency's going bust..."
Nearly a third of traditional travel agencies have shut down in the past nine years, and more are likely to follow. The percentage of consumers using these agencies declined from 32% in 1999 to 26% in 2002. Shaky finances at a firm could spell trouble for its customers. Consider the case of travel agent Myron Aberman, charged last June in Worcester, Mass., Superior Court with stealing $80,000 of customers' money. Aberman started taking one client's money to pay the supplier for another client, hoping that more money would come in to cover the funds. "His business was failing and he started robbing Peter to pay Paul, but it caught up with him," says his lawyer, John Dombrowski. Aberman is currently on probation and following a court-ordered payback schedule to former customers.
Travel insurance won't cover a bankrupt agency, and only California offers consumers repayment through the state travel consumer restitution fund if a California agency goes belly up. However, in order to collect you must have been in the state when making the reservation. If your agent goes bankrupt and is still holding your travel payment, you'll have to wait in line with other creditors, and there may be nothing to collect. "Most travel agencies don't have a lot of assets that are going to be available to satisfy a judgment," says travel lawyer Alexander Anolik.
9. "...and I'm running off with your money."
Unfortunately, it's difficult to determine the financial condition of a firm; most agencies are privately owned. The best way to protect yourself is to avoid payments by cash or check. "It's always wise to buy on a credit card so that if something goes wrong, you can get it back through the card company," says ASTA's Gillison. And yet even paying for a vacation with a credit card is no guarantee that a travel agent won't fleece you, as John Carnaghie knows. He bought a $3,000 cruise vacation from a California travel agency last July, only to learn later that the agency never forwarded his payment to the cruise line. "I had a minor case of hysterics," says Carnaghie, who eventually recovered the original cost of the cruise from his credit card company, but still had to pay another $400 to rebook the cruise.
Americans lose more than $12 billion a year in travel fraud. Bogus travel solicitations now make the list of the FTC's "Dirty Dozen" online scams. "Be wary of salespeople pressuring you to buy on the spot or those 'great' deals. Few businesses can afford to give away services of real value or substantially undercut another company's price," says Sheila Adkins of the Council of Better Business Bureaus.
10. "Don't just rely on us for insurance."
In the year after Sept. 11, 2001, the number of travelers buying travel insurance tripled. Thing is, insurance isn't cheap — usually between 6 to 10% of the total cost of the trip — so make sure you're getting what you need. Travel agents sell insurance, but they're not insurance experts; discuss policy queries directly with the insurer. And if you buy insurance through the agent, get the insurance documents. Carnaghie shelled out $150 for insurance, but the agent never gave him an actual policy.
Remember that travel agents receive commissions on insurance sales and may push you toward products that benefit them more than you. For example, don't get sucked into buying the insurance that comes with your cruise or tour, because these companies often won't pay out until you've exhausted your other insurance, such as homeowner's. Also, supplier-packaged insurance won't protect you if the cruise or tour company goes broke. You're better off purchasing directly from a major insurer, advises Pat Funk of the Association of Retail Travel Agents.