INTERNET VS TRAVEL AGENT

The travel industry is a complex business. Travel agents usually undertake comprehensive training courses to attain their skills. The internet is making it more and more easy to “do it yourself”, but be very careful as you could end up making costly mistakes.

A prime example where hundreds of customers were left in the lurch is the recent collapse of the budget airfare company Bestjet. In the past Bestjet customers flooded consumer review website forums with complaints about the company, criticising its customer service, hidden fees and charges and misleading behaviour whereby they were cancelling reservations and asking for more money for new flights.

The internet is great for many things such as researching destinations, booking basic accommodation and point-to-point flights however some things are impossible to book online or are even too difficult to book.  More complex routes should be booked via a travel agent as they’re aware of the rules and conditions and can often provide more options.

Many people don’t have the confidence to book online and still prefer the advice and assistance of travel agents.  Booking online can result in a customer paying for something they don’t want as they get confused with the different options available.

Travel agents sometimes charge booking fees as these days, many fares they sell are non commissionable so they need to charge for their expertise and time. 

Aggregators, such as Skyscanner and Webjet for example, are only as good as the online travel agents (OTAs) it canvasses and many are unheard of or shonky. 

Many OTAs don’t provide a 24 hour service and it’s often difficult to speak to someone directly especially if it’s an overseas company.  Emails also often go unanswered.

Prices aren’t always accurate and can change.  Some will use cookies to track you and thereby raise prices if you search the same trip twice.  Some will offer fares which don’t exist and some OTAs will offer cheap fares but by the time you click through the site, it can end up costing more.  Once booked tickets are often non refundable, and trying to make changes can be a nightmare – and costly.

Sometimes people will book a fare, only to get a nasty shock when they receive their credit card statement because they didn’t notice that the fare they booked was in USD and not in AUD.

Fares offered by OTAs may be cheaper however they’re generally offered on routes which will involve two or three transfers in each direction resulting in a one way journey of up to 40 hours – or even more.  Their cheaper fares may also be based on early morning departures or late arrivals for example which will require you to spend the night at a hotel and hence an additional cost. 

Many OTAs don’t have live access to airline systems and the fares they offer may not be available by the time they book, even after they’ve taken your money.   They will contact you to tell you that the price has gone up or the fare has expired.  It can then take you several weeks to get a refund. Having said that, when booking via a travel agent, fare quotes are subject to change and can change at any time depending on what’s available at the time they make the booking. But they won’t take your money until a booking has been made and ticketed.

When changing dates, airlines will generally charge change fees plus any fare difference if the fare paid isn’t available on the new date.  Travel agents will also charge an amendment fee for their time as it can sometimes take a couple of hours to amend a ticket.  It’s not just a matter of pressing a button.  OTAs on the other hand can be pretty inflexible where date changes are concerned (if you’ve managed to contact them).  If they are prepared to assist, they will also charge fees. 

If anything goes wrong or you need to make a change to a booking you made via an OTA, contacting an airline isn’t an option as they’ll direct you back to the booking agent.  Some fares are non-changeable and this applies whether booking directly with an airline, travel agent or OTA.

OTAs aren’t able to offer the full range of options such as earlybird offers, stopover options, travelling with a musical instrument or pet, specific seating due to medical conditions and upgrades for example nor do they discuss minimum connecting times (MCTs), visas, certain booking conditions, vaccinations and so on.  These are things that need to be discussed with a professional.  MCTs are crucial as you could end up missing your flight and I’ve seen instances where flights offered by OTAs don’t always take this into consideration. 

Another issue is that OTAs may sell you separate tickets rather than keep as many flights on the same ticket as possible and this is important when it comes to MCTs as airlines won’t assist if a connecting flight is affected and needs to be changed and is on a separate ticket.

Even booking international flights directly via airline websites can result in huge problems. If you book with an agent, the airline is required to advise agents of any schedule changes for example. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case when booking online and if you miss your flight you might end up getting stranded and then having to pay for a new ticket to get to your destination.

I had a situation a couple of years ago where my corporate client wanted to book a particular airline as her partner had booked online directly with that airline. I was subsequently informed of a major schedule change which meant I had to re-route my client via Sydney to get to her destination. She said that her partner wasn’t advised. I therefore asked the airline to help me amend her partner’s ticket and they advised he had to email them as he booked online. He tried several times and got no response. I therefore insisted they help me amend his ticket and they said they’d do it as a one off.

When searching flights online directly with the airline, they will give you various options and sometimes the connections are too short. If you’re having to fly out of Brisbane to connect with an international flight out of Sydney, there have been occasions where an airline only provides an hour to connect. This isn’t nearly enough time as you still need to get from the domestic terminal to international and depending on who you fly down to Sydney with, you may need to collect your luggage and then re-check it at the international airport as well as factor in getting through immigration. A minimum of 2 hours is required.

Airlines will be responsible if they provide a connection and the customer misses a flight due to insufficient connecting times (as long as flights are on same ticket). They will need to get you on to the next available flight. It doesn’t help though if you’re connecting from a domestic to international flight and the next international flight isn’t until next day.

If you’re inexperienced, it’s also quite easy to book the wrong cities and this will be an issue if the ticket is non refundable or change fees are hefty.  I recall several years ago reading about a couple living in Europe who wanted to travel to Sydney, Australia but ended up in Sydney Nova Scotia.  They promptly complained to their travel agent association and were told to take it up with their computer.

I recently read about an incident where a customer booked via an OTA and received an error message “booking unsuccessful” so she started the process again, booking with a different OTA and this time the transaction was successful.  About a week later she found that she had in fact been charged by the first OTA so she had made two bookings and paid twice.  Upon contacting the first OTA, she was advised ticket was non refundable.  It wasn’t until she contacted a consumer affairs agency that she was able to get a refund.

If the fare savings aren’t significant or your itinerary is more complex, then you’re better off booking via a travel agent as it will save you a lot of grief when it comes to making changes.  Do your research thoroughly before booking online and make yourself aware of terms and conditions.  The forums are full of people with complaints about things going wrong.

If you book with a travel agent, it’s up to them to ensure your trip runs as smoothly as possible. And if things do go wrong, you have a real person to talk to.

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