Last month I detailed the tremendous reader discontent with airline service in “Fed up with flying? Heck yes, say USA TODAY readers.” An online poll embedded in that column — “How do you feel about flying?” — generated more than 1,500 responses and the percentage who said they actually enjoy it was 13 percent, while 17 percent avoided it all costs, and a majority tolerated it because it was the best option for many trips.
So many travelers clearly are concerned over how they’re being treated on the road, particularly during the busy summer season. Suddenly an old idea sounds new: Can a traditional travel agent assist when airlines, hotels and car rental firms don’t do right by you?
As with Mark Twain, reports of the death of the American travel agent have been greatly exaggerated. Of course, there’s no denying the dramatic shrinking of the profession over the last two decades, a trend that seems likely to continue. A U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics summary anticipates a 12 percent decline for the travel agency job outlook in the next 10 years, with the total number falling from 81,700 in 2016 to 72,200 in 2026. The Labor Department states: “The ability of travelers to use the Internet to research vacations and book their own trips is expected to continue to suppress demand for travel agents. Job prospects should be best for travel agents who specialize in specific destinations or particular types of travelers.”
This isn’t news, and I’ve witnessed such tumult from a front-row seat. Prior to joining “Consumer Reports” in 2000, I spent eight years as the aviation editor for several travel trade publications marketed to leisure and corporate travel agencies, and I was in the thick of the melee when the domestic airlines variously capped, cut and eliminated commissions for agents in the 1990s. In fact, I was subpoenaed to provide my notes from interviews with airline executives after travel agents sued the major carriers, but thankfully the First Amendment did its job and the subpoena was tossed out. By the turn of the century many industry pundits were predicting retailers would soon be obsolete.
Yet the latest totals from the Airlines Reporting Corporation indicate there are 12,262 retail locations selling tickets. And according to Statista, both revenues and profits have risen at travel agencies in recent years. What’s more, most of those professionals who’ve remained in the industry have reported increases in sales.
In fact, the travel industry’s cutting of commissions may have had a positive effect by forcing many agents to focus more on consumers, particularly those agencies charging fees to travelers. According to a report published by the American Bar Association, travel agents legally are considered sellers of travel and therefore are legal agents of travel companies such as airlines, yet they also have a fiduciary duty to their customers. The ABA sums it up: “This dual agency status of being an agent for both the traveler and the provider of travel has continued to grow as travel agencies have relied less and less on the business customer and more on the leisure market.” Thus many agents are pivoting by referring to themselves as “travel advisors.”
Some complicated travel purchases — particularly cruises and extended tours — are best booked through an experienced agent. In fact, the Cruise Lines International Association reports nearly 70 percent of cruise passengers take advantage of agents.
But recently I’ve been hearing from travelers who say that even when they’re making uncomplicated reservations that could easily be self-booked, such as airline tickets, they still would rather buy through agents. Take Thomas McDonald, the author of “Poet in the Grandstand” who writes verse about his visits to major and minor league baseball parks. For 30 years he’s been a client of Delos Vacations in Douglaston, New York, with agent Sophia Horianopoulos overseeing all his itineraries for more than two decades.
“I don’t have to worry about anything,” says McDonald. “I email her and she gets back to me the same day.” He notes that Horianopoulos knows all his preferences, including early morning flights and desired seats. And she’s there when things go wrong; McDonald recalls nearly getting bumped by an airline a few years ago in Tampa: “They wouldn’t give me my seat. Sophia called them and five minutes later I had my boarding pass. She told them, ‘Oh, no, you’re not.’ A single person has no leverage but a travel agency buys in bulk and has clout.”
McDonald’s perspective is not unique. Recently WNS, a global business process management company, noted that nearly 75 percent of airline tickets are bought online, but also noted the need to address consumer concerns: “No matter how strong the online channel becomes, the offline channel or the airline customer service contact center will still continue to be a critical touch point between the airlines and its passengers, thanks to the ‘personal’ touch it brings. For many service-related complaints and challenges, passengers still prefer to ‘speak’ with a customer service agent.” Eric Hrubant, president of CIRE Travel, sums it up by saying, “My clients all know they have a 24-hour ally to solve any mishap that comes up.”
Then there’s the frustration of comparison shopping. With “A plea for transparency on airline fees” in January, I noted the following: “Shopping for airline seats has become one of the most challenging buying experiences a consumer faces, a challenge made more — not less — difficult as technology improves.”
This was underscored in an April report from the travel research firm Phocuswright, which found this: “Among travelers’ main complaints about online travel planning are that it takes too long, and they need to search too many different websites to find a good deal for what they want.” Although the report focused on internet options, the conclusions underscored how traditional agents can provide assistance: “Half of U.S. online travelers agree they would rather see a few choices based on what they tend to do, in order to avoid spending time hunting down the one perfect option.”
Addressing common scenarios
I reached out to the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) and posited several common frustrating scenarios travelers encounter every day, then asked how traditional agents might respond. Here’s a summary:
• Airline disruptions. We all know what it’s like when a trip is disrupted by a flight gone wrong, whether it’s a lengthy delay at O’Hare, a cancellation at LAX, an overbooking, or mishandled baggage. ASTA notes that unlike airline customer service reps, its members are “agnostic” when it comes to favoring carriers. Independent advisors can take preemptive action to avoid delays and cancellations. They also have access to technological tools (such as travel Global Distribution System networks Amadeus, Sabre and Travelport) to respond quickly when there are flight disruptions, involuntary bumpings or lost or delayed bags. ASTA advises, “One call to your travel advisor saves you hours versus waiting in line to talk to a ticket or gate agent.” Toni Lanotee-Day of Toni Tours, Inc., explains how she implements this: “When clients book their airfare with me, I monitor their flights ahead of time and if something is canceled I usually get them rebooked on something before they are even aware it happened.”
• Hotel disruptions. How about that feeling when you’re “walked” by a hotel desk clerk who says there’s no record of your reservation, or the type of room you booked isn’t available? ASTA asserts most of their members have connections with large hotel brands and even individual property managers; agents also can confirm your reservations before you arrive. Agencies that are members of larger consortiums can provide perks such as free breakfasts, beverages, spa visits or room upgrades. ASTA claims this is all due to volume bookings: “That hotel GM is going to move heaven and earth to make sure that the travel advisor’s clients are taken care of.” Kim Launer of Royal Travel & Tours only books “hotels that have a NO walk policy. If it does happen, we find another hotel and make the previous one pay for the mistake.”
• Car rental disruptions. Then there’s the phenomenon of being “walked” at the rental counter after midnight, or having your reservations for child seats or ski racks “disappear” too. ASTA says its members have their own “back door” customer service lines and resolution centers with many travel suppliers, including car rental firms: “It all comes down to who you call.”
Finding good agents
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Transportation received 342 consumer complaints about travel agents, less than 2 percent of the total of 17,625 filed against U.S. and foreign airlines. But among those 342 complaints, 227 were lodged against major online travel agencies such as CheapOair, Expedia, JustFly, Orbitz, Priceline and Travelocity, with only 115 lodged against smaller agencies.
That said, it’s still important to find a reliable agency devoted to providing unbiased customer service. So keep this in mind.
• The best agencies are members of reputable travel organizations, which often require internal training and adherence to codes of ethics. Consider agents affiliated with the American Society of Travel Agents, the Association of Retail Travel Agents, the United States Tour Operators Association, the Cruise Lines International Association, the Universal Federation of Travel Agents’ Associations and the Pacific Asia Travel Association.
• It’s a good idea to check your travel agency’s public record by vetting it through the Better Business Bureau’s site, which includes detailed records of complaints.
• Fees to consumers can be assessed in either dollars or percentages, and can range from $100 on up for more complicated itineraries. But in many cases, particularly for more expensive purchases, such charges can be directly applied to the booking; the best agencies are very clear about their costs, so ask in advance and make sure you understand the fee structure. It’s worth noting that the savings from discounts and perks can offset these fees. And that doesn’t even count the cost of aggravation.
Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports and the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, is an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher who worked in airline operations and management for several years. Tell him what you think of his latest column by sending him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your name, hometown and daytime phone number, and he may use your feedback in a future column.
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