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Travel agents regaining favour over online services

When Iceland's volcano erupted last summer, Anne Morgan Scully, owner of the Washington-area travel agency McCabe World Travel, had her clients' Plan B set within hours.

Avoiding closed British airspace, Scully diverted the couple to Dubai - which she knew they had always dreamed of visiting - then back to New York. Indagare, a New York-based agency, went so far as to try to charter a private plane, though ultimately managed to reroute clients normally.

And, of course, there were stories of Canadian travel agents arranging multileg itineraries by train and air, according to the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies.

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"How do you begin to rebook that one yourself?" association spokesman Gary Ralph says about travellers who had booked their own trips online. At the time, seats on planes forced to dodge around Iceland and shuttered European airports were highly sought after.

It's true business is up for websites such as Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz and Kayak. (Expedia's third-quarter gross revenues were $987.9-million, an increase of 16 per cent. Gross bookings rose 17 per cent to almost $6.9-billion.) But there is evidence of a return to the traditional travel agent, as people burned by the ash cloud and other similar experiences realize how hard it is to fix a straightforward trip once it becomes an odyssey.

Forrester Research noted that Americans who like using websites to book their vacation fell from 53 per cent to 46 per cent since 2007. And this year, 28 per cent responded that they were open to hiring a travel agent - that's an increase of 5 per cent since 2008. (Neither the American Society of Travel Agents nor its Canadian counterpart track consumer data.)

Along with natural disasters, mounting airline ticket fees for anything from checked or oversized bags, to food, pillows, early boarding, reservation changes or preferred seating are another source of frustration driving do-it-yourselfers back to travel agencies.

There's "no limit to fees on the horizon," says a February, 2010, report by American Express Business Travel, which predicted that North American airlines by year-end will reap $58-billion (U.S.) from ancillary fees - double their take in 2001. The upshot is it's harder to understand if a flight is as cheap as it looks online, since some websites don't display ancillary fees in fare quotes.

More website "gotchas," according to ShopSmart magazine, are "dynamic pricing" - spitting out different fare estimates based on what the website gauges is each searcher's ability to pay - and "fare jumping" - when a cheap fare shoots up 40 per cent by the time you've typed in a credit card.

"It's great to have tools and technology, but you still need human intervention from time to time because it's not a perfect world," says Kathy Bedell, senior vice-president of the corporate travel advisory company BCD Travel.

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But Sean Shannon,'s managing director, points out that Expedia, which also owns TripAdvisor, has hundreds of customer-care staff taking questions by phone and e-mail 24/7. During the ash cloud emergency, not only did agents answer questions, they helped stranded customers find hotels and figure out flex policies put in place by airlines, Mr. Shannon says.

Meanwhile, travel agents, whose commissions on air tickets, cruise and hotel bookings have dwindled, are starting to charge more creatively: by retainer, per-trip booking fee, or through service fees for research, phone calls and even e-mails to clients.

And a formidable competitor, Google, is developing its own travel search tool aiming to "refer people quickly to a site where they could actually purchase flights, getting information to people faster and better, and in a more relevant way," Google Canada spokeswoman Wendy Rozeluk says. Google recently added the ability to search hotel room prices on Google Maps. And - though not - now reveals airfares for searched routes, such as from San Francisco International to New York City.

Meanwhile, combs options and reviews to deliver recommended trips for each traveller, and every month, posts "travel horoscopes." And Vayant algorithmically deduces a traveller's personality and needs.

But, Ms. Scully argues, the Internet can't ever replicate her relationships with hotels and tour operators to be able to solve problems and secure perks, such as suite upgrades. "No one has the ability to VIP themselves," she says. "I can tell a hotel God is coming and they should be prepared; whereas you'd look the fool for saying that."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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