By John Greenbury, managing director of Australian Escapes Holiday & Travel Club.
A lot of people are unsure what a travel agent does or how it benefits them.
Most people think a travel agent will cost them money and that they can do everything cheaper and better themselves online.
When travelling within Australia or overseas, what you really want is to enjoy your holiday and have the fewest problems possible. That is not always achieved by do-it-yourself travel agents. Sure, for simple trips, the "youngies" will spend the time to get it mostly right. They will often experience problems such as poor choices of accommodation, but they take those things in their stride.
More senior travelers, doing larger, more complex trips tend to value the service and expertise of an experienced travel agent. The don't want the headache of having to work everything out themselves. However, they also expect and often demand the best value for money overall.
Most importantly, if something goes wrong, which can easily happen such as a last minute flight cancellation, it is good to have a travel agent to deal with the problem.
In this article we look at the illusion of internet booking and some common misconceptions that cause people to become DIY (do-it-yourself) travel agents when they really shouldn't. It usually costs them money and ends up causing a lot of frustration, even if they will not admit it. Just because you have a spanner, it does not make you a mechanic. Just because you have access to online travel booking sites, it does not necessarily make you a travel expert.
Once you understand what we do, you can then make a more informed choice next time you want to travel.
It is true - for simple trips you can usually get away with booking everything yourself. But it is the multi-component, multi-destination itineraries that cause most DIY travel agents to come "unglued". The choices are endless and the traps and pitfalls are everywhere.
Just because you have a spanner, it does not make you a mechanic. Just because you have access to online travel booking sites, it does not necessarily make you a travel expert.
The lure of internet convenience for booking larger trips quickly turns into confusion, indecisiveness and anxiety. Many put off making decisions that end up costing them money. Others book at the wrong time and don't get the best prices. Some make fundamental organisational errors that sour their holiday experience.
The lure of "cheap" travel deals.
Inexperience travellers trying to find the cheapest deal often get caught by the marketing and pricing tactics used by some of the big-name travel promoters. They operate more or less the same model: Offer cheap deals, send you what looks like a quote. You pay a deposit, then they come back to you saying that the flight is no longer available, or the accommodation is sold out and there is more to pay. The end result is usually way overpriced, but the consumer is frequently not even aware that they have been conned.
Some people are surprised to learn that real, professional travel agents still exist. The reality is that travel agents are quite often necessary to help people organise their travel.
Not everyone wants to or can sell their own house even though it is possible to sell a property direct online. Most use a real estate agent for something as important as that. The same applies to travel.
Many of the trips we organise are in the $10,000 to $30,000 range. Those travellers want expert assistance. They engage a travel agent who knows more about the process than they do.
DIY travellers "book in a vacuum" which means they book travel without having a background of facts and knowledge to guide the decisions being made. They are usually driven by an obsession to get everything "one the cheap" which leads to bad decisions.
Most have very limited experience in deciding what is best for them because of a lack of knowledge and experience. Unlike travel agents who are handling travel enquiries and organising travel all day, every day, the DIY traveller ends up making wrong choices and decisions for lack of awareness of the best value alternatives. Hence the vacuum.
It is not so much the person who is new to organising travel who gets caught. They usually seek advice and assistance. No, it is those who have booked a couple of trips, who now believe they know it all, are the ones who make the most mistakes.
A good example of "booking in a vacuum" is flight bookings. The majority of people who book flights themselves have no idea of how the airlines operate. They pay too much without even realising it because they don't know the rules for best timing or they get caught by the tricks used by airlines and third-party sites to get you to book urgently at their higher prices.
The self-serve, internet environment has played right into the hands of the airlines who are profiting nicely from it. It is certainly a strange phenomenon to witness people wasting hundreds or even thousands of dollars on flights that they would never otherwise waste. The airlines understand and take full advantage of this careless, uninformed, DIY flight buyer mentality.
Until around 2015 the majority of airlines in the world were making low profits or losing money. Suddenly they all started making huge profits.
Alan Joyce from Qantas and previously Ryanair had a big influence on the airline industry. His cost-cutting methods and demand-based flight pricing led to Ryanair becoming one of the most profitable airlines in the world. Prior to this, pricing was quite static.
Joyce knew that there was growing demand for flight seats because of the internet. He knew that the airlines had the product that people wanted. It was simply a matter of cutting services and manipulating pricing to make bookings profitable. He employed revenue management software that factored in everything from time of day, to day of week, advanced booking period, general buying psychology such as "FOMO" (fear of missing out) and many other variables. Jetstar was his success story in Australia and he also turned Qantas around.
Now most of the world's airlines follow the exact same pricing strategies and they have all profited. Consumers are paying much more for flights than ever before as a result. Good travel agents know the airlines' tactics and know how to avoid paying too much.
Selecting accommodation is another common area where people rapidly learn their shortcomings as DIY travel agents. Mistakes get made in selection through lack of experience and destination knowledge. Sometimes you just doesn't know how to "hold the spanner" to continue with the mechanic analogy. By that we mean, the travel booking tools that agents use have excellent features to help identify the best accommodation at the lowest price to suit your requirements. We know what they are and how to use them. We also know what to look for to verify suitability and get the best value. The average consumer does not know how to fully utilise the tools available.
The primary reason DIY travellers make mistakes is a lack of product and supplier knowledge, and how to compare offerings. They see an advertisement for a certain cruise deal, flight, tour, or cruise (including river cruises) and book it. They don't realise that we have access to numerous alternatives that could deliver the exact same experience for much less money.
As an example: European river cruises are very popular, but here in Australia only a few companies advertise river cruises. They are amongst the most expensive river cruise suppliers. There are a number of other excellent but lesser-known cruise companies that offer the same cruises at much lower prices.
Some travellers get caught by offers on deal sites not realising that buying a voucher is just the beginning and that there are many variables that can affect the final price.
Nevertheless, some people just enjoy planning and organising their own holidays. These are probably the same people who like putting together IKEA furniture. But it is common for DIY travel agents to get started with organising their own holidays and then give up half-way through. They end up calling us to take over. This is a very regular occurence.
The people who choose to work with a travel agent don't want the problems and risks associated with organising their own travel. They want someone else to be responsible for delivering what they want. That's where we fit in.
Our job is to make sure every aspect of your holiday goes smoothly and that you have the best experience possible. And if something goes wrong, we're here to help get it sorted out quickly for you. The more complex the itinerary, the greater the risk of problems.
People who use travels agents are typically value-orientated and not so much price-driven. And as you will see below, you can get both a great price as well as great value.
Harry Callahan (aka Dirty Harry) in the 1973 movie Magnum Force said "A man’s got to know his limitations". This is true of people organising travel - some know their limitations, many don't.
Let's look at some common misconceptions and misunderstandings that often get in the way of people talking to an experienced travel agent.
Incorrect. Hotels, tour companies and cruise lines all include travel agent commissions in their online prices. If you do the work yourself online, they pocket the difference. So you are not saving anything.
Using the services of a travel agent to help plan and organise your travel means you get the service you need. You won't be spending hours on the internet, holding on the phone for service staff, or wasting time wondering and worrying about getting everything right.
Most travel agents do charge a service fee for their time which is usually offset by the quality of the itinerary, extra values as well as time savings.
If you are primarily concerned about cost, and the end result is not that important, then the DIY approach is probably for you. Grab the spanner and go for it!
Incorrect. The travel consultant's job is to help you plan the holiday that you want. This includes accessing a huge variety of options, referring to previous traveller feedback and making suggestions and recommendations based on personal experience.
The agent "owns" your itinerary from the time you say "Let's do it!" and their job is not complete until you return happy. There is nothing to gain by talking you into something that is not right for you.
Happy clients become repeat clients who come back every year and recommend the company to others. We make our recommendations based on the specific wants and needs of our traveller clients. We pay close attention to the experience you want and if we can recommend something that will enhance your holiday we will.
First-hand experience and knowledge are what will change a typical holiday into a very memorable experience. Even though good travel agents invest in their own travel to gain this experience, not every one can possibly know every destination in the world. What we do in the cases where we are planning a holiday to an unfamiliar destination is talk to the right perople to get local information that ensures the best possible outcome.
Not necessarily. You can easily waste a huge amount of time trying to properly plan, research and book a holiday and still end up making big, costly and/or inconvenient mistakes. With the amount of conflicting information available online, it's easy to quickly get overwhelmed and confused.
If you need to plan a complex itinerary, we do all the work for you, saving you a lot of time and anxiety. We get the organisation right avoiding headaches that you don't need. We make the international phone calls to get the information you want. We know who to talk to, how to talk to them and how to get the right information.
Online booking also often requires full payment. If you plan ahead and use a travel agent, you will only be required to pay a small deposit to confirm your holiday. Final payment will usually be required 60 to 90 days prior to your departure. This could save you hundreds on credit card interest.
Most DIY travel people don't realize that there is a BIG difference between the best value, most convenience, least stress and the cheapest price. (See "How money gets in the way" below.) Having said that - if you want to do everything yourself and you are happy with the pricing - go for it!
Flights, especially international flights, do catch travellers out all the time. For example, you might pay a really low price for flights only to discover later that one flight has two long layovers, or they are with an unreliable airline or to the wrong airport. Or the timing of one flight means you'll miss your connecting flight. This could result in an unexpected camp out at the airport terminal, with extra costs to change your flights and other plans going into disarray. A good travel agent knows which airports require longer connection times than others. Travel agents also have access to flight deals that are not available online.
A large percentage of DIY travel agents also do not know how to book multi-destination flights to get the best price. Multi-flight itineraries can often be priced three or four different ways, all with different outcomes. Only one of them will be the cheapest.
These are just a few of many things that trip-up online travel shoppers regularly. It might explain many of the unnecessary rants on travel review websites.
Trip-planning is an art-form. All good travel agents are good trip planners and they must pay attention to detail. They plan how you will get to each destination, what flight, bus or train timing will work best, what happens when you arrive, whether or not you can check into your accommodation and so-on. This type of thinking does not come naturally to 98% of DIY travellers. The end result is wasted time, frustration and inconvenience. A trip away should be very smooth logistically.
Accommodation bookings also seem simple, yet people get caught regularly with accommodation that does not suit their requirements, wants or needs. A read of our Hotel Rating standards and methods should clearly show that there is much more to it than meets the eye.
Probably, but do you fully understand it? Most people either don't read the terms and conditions of their travel documents until it's too late, or they don't understand the implications of certain clauses. This is how many get caught and it often costs them money. Travel agents understand these rules, terms and conditions and we make sure you are protected.
Travel insurance is a very serious business and it is where people often make costly mistakes. They think all travel insurance is the same and do not know how to compare policies or what to look for in a policy. Every traveller who booked with us in 2019 to January 2020 when international border closures happened, who also accepted our travel insurance received a full refund and/or supplier credits for future travel. Our insurance covered pandemics whereas 99% of other policies did not.
We handled all the preparation for our clients' insurance claims and made the process very easy. Many people who booked their own overseas travel at that time lost all or most of their money or could not handle the process of dealing with suppliers and insurers and gave up.
If you are overseas and something happens, you need to know you are covered. Only a handful of insurers offer the right policies and less than 1 in 100 people would know who they are. We know what to look for in the cover benefits and can read and understand policy documents. This information enables us to include the right travel insurance in our packages. (Please note: We don't make recommendations regarding specific policies but our preferred cover can be part of a package. You may decline the insurance for a credit.)
Many people cannot see past the dollars when it comes to booking their holidays. Money gets up there and blocks out their vision. They become obsessed with getting the lowest price for everything. This obsession leads to mistakes that cost money and often result in a very dissatisfying travel experience. We know this because of feedback from people who have lived through the results of their own DIY travel decisions and obsessions.
Travel has nothing to do with logic. It has to do with emotions and the pursuit of lasting, happy memories. Price obsession (overly logical thinking about price) is diametrically opposed to achieving the best possible travel experience. Sometimes you have to spend more to get exactly what you really want.
What is the point of travelling if you are obsessed with the price of everything or cannot afford to really enjoy the experience? It would be better to borrow some extra money and stop fretting, or wait and save up.
Our job as agents is sometimes to help put dollars into perspective - to let you see the emotional and sometimes logical values surrounding the idea of upgrading a room type in a certain hotel, or staying in a certain part of a city. It might be a specific cabin-type on a cruise or a certain tour. It might be a certain activity or place you should visit. Our aim is to show you that the dollars are soon forgotten and are replaced by great, happy memories that you will sometimes carry with you for the rest of your life.
Our traveller reviews on Product Review (website) rarely mention money, even though they received exceptional value. What those travellers mainly talk about is organisation. Trouble and stress-free travel is what people want and that is what they receive with us. Occasional problems happen but they are very rare. When they do happen, we are available to help, 24-7.
If you have a holiday in mind, even if you have not dealt with a travel agent previously you would be wise to see what they can do for you and then make your decision.
Keep dreaming in travel.