Why do travel agents still exist?
August 22, 2013 11:19 PM   Subscribe

Recently I went to a travel agent, and tentatively discussed some travel plans. The dude pulled up some flight options for me on his computer. I went home and looked them up myself, and quickly found a range of other options that were 20-30% cheaper. It got me thinking why so many travel agents still exist; they don't seem to be any easier than booking online, and far from being cheaper, were actually incredibly expensive.
posted by dontjumplarry to Travel & Transportation (38 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
One thing I can say is, there's still a fair-sized market for travel agents who specialize in particular language/locale/ethnicity combos. Chicago (where is close to me) has a fair number of these specializing in travel options for Polish people, Vietnamese people, etc.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:29 PM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have a side-business planning self-guided tours of Japan, so I compete with travel agents to a certain extent (they plan boring tours with stays at the Marriott, I plan more authentic tours that are cheaper in more interesting accommodations).

I also travel to Japan regularly and have to buy plane tickets. For international flights, especially corridors with few choices like the PNW to Japan route, travel agents often have access to better tickets and better fares compared to online reservation systems.

We live in a small city, so we often have to depend on a travel agent in the much larger neighbouring city of Vancouver. However, the travel agent we use is aimed at a Japanese clientele and has much better business relationships with ticket brokers than their Canadian counterparts.

In regards to the people I am competing with, travel agents usually have relationships with hotels and so on, and can get very good deals on rooms, especially if they are top producers and can fell those rooms consistently during the year.

So you can get a good flight + hotel package from a travel agent.

I was actually talking to the sales manager of a pretty famous Canadian hotel the other day, and he said that if a hotel is putting their rooms online, it means they can't fill the rooms, and the ecommerce partner takes a big cut when it's already low margins. So it's not an ideal situation.

I imagine the same goes for plane tickets.

Travel agents can help with margins.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:30 PM on August 22, 2013 [12 favorites]

The only time I've really needed a travel agent in the last few years was to book travel on a small regional Indonesian airline that does not accept non-Indonesian-issued credit cards on its (very minimal and entirely Indonesian-language) website. since they were the only airline servicing the place I needed to go to, using a travel agent was essential to my trip.
posted by lollusc at 11:40 PM on August 22, 2013

Not everyone has relatively uncomplicated travel plans. Sure I can buy my own round-trip tickets between two large airports. But when my parents paid for a group of 12 to fly round-trip to Hawaii from several different points in the U.S. and stay together all on the same floor at a hotel, they went with a travel agent to avoid the headaches of coordinating that. They also had the peace of mind knowing that if anything went wrong they could fall back on their agent to handle things.
posted by asciident at 11:43 PM on August 22, 2013 [6 favorites]

Its very useful for business travel
posted by zia at 12:11 AM on August 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

i have a friend of a friend who is a travel agent, she tends to set up more complex vacation arrangements for people who perhaps don't have the time to do it themselves, or who are looking for ideas when it comes to things to do or package deals. so she sets it all up. i tend to plan everything i want to do on my own but not everybody is like that.
posted by camdan at 12:15 AM on August 23, 2013

My parents and a sister don't do their own flights because they are not techno- savvy enough, and they feel that it is stressful. I think there is still a decent-sized market for that.
posted by jojobobo at 12:30 AM on August 23, 2013

In the past, as a US public university employee, I've routinely been forced to pay significant fees to book flights through travel agents that would have been both cheaper and faster if booked online. So, rent-seeking by agents with intrenched political and business connections would be my guess.

Note, I love public universities and the work they do. But, charging an extra $70 to book a domestic Southwest flight between 9am and 4pm central time, and then having to fill out pages of extra paperwork as a result is fucking stupid. I suppose compared to money thrown away on co-listed flights due to the "fly America act," it's small potatoes.
posted by eotvos at 12:39 AM on August 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yeah, like other people have said - when you're an admin booking things like planes and trains for, say, conference delegates, it's so much easier to simply go through a travel agent. Not only will a travel agent invoice you, which is convenient, but it also means that if this person cancels and that person suddenly has to reschedule, they can be referred to the travel agent rather than the admin team. The travel agent will then sort out everything on their end.

So using a travel agency might be more expensive than hunting for the cheapest online deal, but the time it saves in the long run is totally worth it. Plus, sometimes travel agents actually do have access to really cheap seats.
posted by harujion at 12:52 AM on August 23, 2013

You ever try to book a vacation and find yourself clicking and clicking and clicking back and forth, putting a puzzle of time together with 80 tabs open over several days? They already know what to click on, they don't have to do that.
posted by rhizome at 12:59 AM on August 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

As above, complex travel, plus if there's the likelihood of something going wrong (flight cancelled, airline goes broke etc) you can just email the travel agent if there's enough lead time and they sort it all out for you without you having to scramble around.

I've also never found they are more expensive than what I can find myself except for hotels, but maybe that says more about my abilities to find cheap flights than anything else.
posted by Admira at 1:08 AM on August 23, 2013

My sister's been an agent for a long time. A lot (most?) of her clients are corporate, some are people who like the convenience and have enough money that her fees are less than trivial.

The agent's cost is generally not a concern if you're going first-class to Hawaii and staying at either the Four Seasons or the Ritz-Carlton and want and all relevant documents FedExd to you.

Too, with an agent, you have someone to call if there's a problem, and she has much better access to people at airlines, etc., with authority to get things done.

Seen the chaos at the counters when there's a problem with a flight, people need to be rerouted for weather, etc.? The people who booked with agents don't need to deal with that.
posted by ambient2 at 1:16 AM on August 23, 2013

Yeah, corporate and business travel. It's cheaper to outsource sorting out travel plans to an travel agency than to have someone within the organization waste his time on this stuff.
posted by sockpuppetdirect at 1:18 AM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Went to Slovenia and Greece last year. Travel agent made it painless. It was business, so the costs weren't as relevant, but if I had charged my normal rates for the time I would have spent, the costs would have been hella higher.

For certain things, they are great. They are not a path the cheapest fares, per se, but perhaps the path to a less stressful trip? What's that worth?
posted by FauxScot at 1:20 AM on August 23, 2013

Agreeing: one doesn't use a travel agent to save money in the short run. They *may* save money in the long run by booking travel in better timeslots or advising you to avoid awful airlines. They aren't going to get you the $39, non-refundable, non-changable, one way to Santa Fe deal, but they might get you a changable ticket for a decent price.
posted by gjc at 1:22 AM on August 23, 2013

Best answer: I had a roommate who was a travel agent. His clients were predominantly over the age of 60, and were used to calling someone in order to arrange things due to careers in various positions of authority. Rarely, he would get group trips, or complex travel arrangements, or weird visa legal stuff in exotic locales.

But overall, it was the olds that kept the lights on in that operation. His interview for the job was 'exactly how good are you at talking to belligerent, entitled, old money east coast geriatrics.' I got the distinct impression that this was a generation of men that needed someone to yell at, dramatically gesturing in a blue blazered power pose from the hotel lobby in Brussels as they Took Care of Business.

Tommy drank himself to sleep most nights.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 2:01 AM on August 23, 2013 [43 favorites]

In some states, a little as 18% of people do not have a passport (Mississippi). Even in the state with the highest ownership of passports, New Jersey, one third of people do not have a passport (63%). On top of that, lots of people are unfamiliar with how to search for, and organise trips themselves, online.

Certainly for international travel, the premium you pay for a travel agent is the price of getting some expertise, security, accountability and support. The more complex the trip, the further out of your comfort zone it is, the more mysterious or hard to understand the place you are going to, the security you need if something goes wrong all add to that.

Business travel is a different matter - if you're not paying for it and your broker can get hefty discounts, and the costs all neatly flow back to central purchasing points then operationally it makes more sense to not allow your staff to purchase themselves. Also, your company gets the air miles or loyalty points which they don't if staff members buy stuff and bill it back through expenses. It adds up to a lot of travel. Also, it is not unknown for top management to use or abuse those those points for their own gain or comfort.

On top of that, there is a distinction between people who just book stuff point to point/generic trips and specialist tour operator type agents who don't own the assets themselves put trips together where relationships with providers and local expertise and experience matter. I book a lot of stuff independently but am happy to pay a premium for someone to put together a trip involving off the beaten track places to stay and bespoke transport options. What's more, if you never go down the route of costing each part of the trip together you never actually do the direct comparison of what it costs independently or through an agent.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:06 AM on August 23, 2013

Frequent business traveler here. Large company employer has a travel agency that uses an online booking tool - for domestic travel between two airports it is a flat ~$10 we are charged per ticket that the employee does 'self service'.

Comparing to Kayak and other online tools, the rates were lower as the employer has preferred carriers due to business volume (think group discounts with one of the major airlines); in several instances where I did some cost comparisons there were a lot of genuine savings there.

And as has been mentioned, while on an itinerary having an agent to call is invaluable. I've had to call them while standing in line at customer service during canceled flights / weather delays in connections several times this summer, and for whatever my company was charged for the call they were able to come up with reasonable alternatives that I had no idea how to manage.

Case in point - once I got stranded in Atlanta due to snow, flight home on a Friday afternoon was canceled, another flight already full, and no other options to get home until a full day later (Saturday afternoon). They found a one-way on a different budget airline I never heard of, was able to book it as it was leaving in 20 minutes, and I was the last one aboard the plane and got home that night. (We had to wait interminably on the tarmac to get de-iced but that's another story, but being able to get home that night was the real win for me.)
posted by scooterdog at 2:58 AM on August 23, 2013

In addition, there are some airlines/hotel chains etc. which will not pay a commission, or pay a reduced commission compared to others, and the agent may simply not include them.

All of the airlines significantly cut agent commissions several years ago. Most agents now add a charge to the customer to help to make it up.

In my area, the agents tend to concentrate on planning and booking large group excursions. That is where the money is these days.
posted by megatherium at 4:12 AM on August 23, 2013

I handle most of the travel for my company, and in particular my 74 year old CEO boss, I will say that even he (and I) are backing away from the unnecessary expense of a travel agent in recent years. I used to use them for all group corporate travel and most international trips, mostly so the travelers would have someone else to call if there was trouble. They keep raising their prices, though, and there is very little benefit except in an emergency situation, which virtually never occurs. The only time I use a travel agent these days is when one of our vendors is paying for it.
posted by something something at 5:09 AM on August 23, 2013

Business travel. Arranging flights and lodging for dozens or hundreds of people; renting entire floors of hotels, securing convention space, arranging multiple forms of transporation from different places. Assigning roommates if sharing rooms. That's not something you can just easily do on Expedia.
posted by spaltavian at 6:10 AM on August 23, 2013

I used a Disney travel agent on my first WDW trip as a solo adult. She was able to find me a discount I hadn't found on my own even after exhaustive research, and when a new promotion came out based on booking within certain dates, she was able to cancel and get my trip re-booked under the terms of the new promotion much faster than I could have, because that's all she does (she didn't have to time the calls around her day job). She knows who to call and what time of day to call, and saves time on the phone by knowing all their internal lingo. I ended up paying about $1,000 less than the estimate I had made when planning on booking on my own, stayed at a nicer hotel, and she was also there to give advice on which nights to book which special events, etc.

I did end up having to book my own flights to get cheap ones out of my podunk airport, but when I couldn't get them booked until the last minute, she rush-mailed me the special luggage tags you need to have Disney pick up your luggage at the Orlando airport and take it to the hotel for you.

So, although I wouldn't use a travel agent every time (didn't for London, California, or Las Vegas), there are certain, more complicated trips where it might be worth it.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:13 AM on August 23, 2013 [4 favorites]

My grandma uses a travel agent because 1) she doesn't have a computer and 2) she has used the same agency for something like 30 years and they know her travel preferences, so they call her up when they see new cruise or tour that they think she'd enjoy.

My mom uses one because she has spent hours trying to find & book the appropriate flight, only to discover there is some error on the website that won't let her complete the transaction (based on her foreign IP address, the phase of the moon, or dropdown menus for US states that don't include AE/AA/AP so military personnel can't fill out the form with their billing address)
posted by belladonna at 6:48 AM on August 23, 2013

My mother uses travel agents, she has used the same one for 20+ years and likes to travel. She is 72 and travels a lot. Last trip she made she got really sick, going to hospital sick. One call to her travel agent got her flights rearranged so she could get home 24 hours after she left the hospital. He organised cancelling all her other flights and accommodations and started the insurance claims for her. He saved her easily $15K because when the insurance company refused to pay the medical portion he rang them up and sorted things out for my mother. Not to mention he got full refunds on all airfares and accommodation (not refunds less fees full refunds). All my mother had to do was make one phone call to him and he sorted it all out and couriered her the tickets. Lets see Orbitz do that for you.

Also, and I say all this as someone that buys their tickets online, if you are going in and getting them to plan your whole trip then going home and booking it online to save money, stop that, it is nothing but rude, just because you can't see a use for them stop wasting their damn time. If booking tickets online is so easy you don't need them to sort out your flight options for you first.
posted by wwax at 7:21 AM on August 23, 2013 [5 favorites]

I use a travel agent for my clients. She is usually able to find us the same or better flight options, and she has been a godsend when things go wrong. Which they do. A lot.
posted by bq at 7:22 AM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

They keep raising their prices, though, and there is very little benefit except in an emergency situation, which virtually never occurs.

This very morning I saw where an American couple was recently "stranded" in Turkey when the husband broke his hip. Their travel agent was on CBS This Morning talking about how Royal Caribbean's response was unacceptable and something needed to be done (I think they're getting a free cruise out of this and a full refund, or something.) She helped them arrange several things over there, including a transfer to a larger hospital.

I too was thinking, "Wow, a travel agent, how quaint!" But this elderly couple would have been on their own otherwise - the ship sailed and left them in a country where they didn't speak the language.
posted by polly_dactyl at 7:27 AM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Older, less educated people tend to use the internet less compared to younger, better educated people. If you look at this table, data from 2013 on the demographics of internet users in the US from the Pew Research Center, it shows that only 56 % of people who are 65+ are internet users. Also only 59 % of people with an education of "less than high school" use the internet.
Those groups of people will seek out other (offline) options to research, arrange and order services and goods.

Additionally travel agents sell bus, train and ferry/cruise tickets which might be less accessible online compared to flights and can make travel arrangements for physically handicapped travelers.

It is possible to buy a package including transportation, lodging and admission tickets to tourist attractions/activities with one phone call / visit at the travel agent's office. If you think about less tech savvy people who might find it difficult to navigate a flight matrix, pay online and print at home, you get your answer.
posted by travelwithcats at 7:28 AM on August 23, 2013

And they're useful for things like when you give away a trip as a prize. I worked at a place that gave away a trip to Vegas and it was much easier to tell the travel agent what we'd pay and what was included and let HER deal with the flaky winner that wanted to go here and do this and could I come in Thursday instead of Friday and...
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:42 AM on August 23, 2013

I never use travel agents when flying domestically within the US (and I'm almost always flying solo) and I book international round-trips myself as well.

However, in my experience, complex international itineraries, particularly to Asia, that involve one-ways, open jaws, multiple cities, etc., can get incredibly expensive to book myself or require choosing itineraries that have really inefficient routing. For whatever reason travel agents seem to be able to find more reasonable combinations of prices and times in this situation, so that's when I use them.
posted by andrewesque at 7:46 AM on August 23, 2013

Travel agents can be great for booking full trips in foreign countries, where there is a language barrier between the traveler and the destination. My parents used one for a trip to South America, and I'm sure it cost them more than booking everything themselves, but they were able to go to Brazil and Peru, with events and tour guides planned in advance.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:03 AM on August 23, 2013

I have no idea why this profession still exists in the age of the Internet.

For business travel, my employer requires us to go through American Express Travel, which I suppose is a travel agent -- but even that is an online booking tool, and I don't ever have to talk to a person.
posted by tckma at 8:10 AM on August 23, 2013

I went to a travel agent to plan a trip to Vegas years ago. He gave me some ballpark estimates, I went home and checked things online, and discovered not only that the agent's booking would be more expensive, but there were options available that he'd told me weren't. So when I eventually booked the trip, obviously I didn't use the agent. What I remember most is, I asked him about requesting a fountain-view room at the Bellagio, and he told me that was a waste of money: all the rooms had great views. What a crock. I splurged for the fountain view, and hearing that water crash outside my window was the best part of the whole damn trip. It took me months to stop missing that sound. Thank God I blew off the travel agent.

I only had one other experience with a travel agent, and that was professional. I was briefly involved with a lawsuit against a travel-booking company that had organized a foreign trip that went terribly, horribly wrong because somewhere in the long chain of subcontractors, someone had hired someone who didn't know what he was doing.

The reasons people have articulated above explain why the profession still exists. But if you consider those reasons closely and consider what can go wrong, I'd say travel agents are an area where consumers should look for referrals and be careful to scrutinize the source and context of each referral.
posted by cribcage at 8:14 AM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

My father-in-law likes to schedule flights from Manila to LAX on short notice. His travel agent puts up with this behavior and gets him last-minute deals on flights.

I've only ever used a travel agent because my entire extended family took a cruise together and she coordinated it, and because a company I used to work at booked business travel through an agency and wouldn't reimburse unless you booked through them.
posted by town of cats at 8:16 AM on August 23, 2013

Ours always got us better deals than online plus if we had issues or needed to change plans was johnnyonthespot to help us. It didn't hurt he was available 24/7. (He was invaluable when we were in Colorado for my son's graduation and my husband's stepdad died on that day necessitating a change in ticketing.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:53 AM on August 23, 2013

I went on a cruise WITH A BUNCH OF TRAVEL AGENTS once. We got very nice benefits on that trip, lemme tell ya.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:07 AM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well, try booking a multi-city trip in a country where you don't know the language. Takes some time on the Internet figuring out lodging, if it's possible to see X in one day if I'm staying in Y, is this hotel in the fun part of town or at the end of the airport runway, what's fun to see in this city, etc.

For some people, that planning is part of the fun. For the rest, there are travel agents.
posted by ctmf at 11:24 AM on August 23, 2013

I wanted a travel agent in the past year or two. I knew roughly when I could travel, and sort of the kind of place I wanted to go to, and about how much I could spend, but there's no good way (yet) to look things up so vaguely on-line.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:17 PM on August 23, 2013

I've used travel agents when flying between Asian countries (Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan). The flights that I could find on English web sites cost 3x as much as the flights a local travel agent could get me. And the hotels were both better and around half price.
posted by Ookseer at 7:47 PM on August 23, 2013

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