Is a travel bargain that saves you money but takes advantage of others really a bargain?

by Janice Hough on June 30, 2010


When it comes to travel, everyone wants the best deal at the lowest price. To some extent, when researching online, the possibilities are limited only by time.

Where the “over-the-line” shopping comes into play, however, is when bargain hunting takes advantage of other people’s time.

One acquaintance cheerfully spends hours with various airfare sites and is thrilled when they can save $20. Another friend likes to buy tickets to Asia in Chinatown where she goes to a little shop down an alley and pays cash. (As she says, “I feel so delightfully illicit.”)

On the other hand, sometimes travelers can drive themselves crazy with cost comparisons. Some people say finding that someone had a lower price on a flight or hotel can put them in a major funk on their vacation. But, that’s an individual decision.

Many travel columns suggest getting a number of quotes for a trip. But when travelers call, for example, several tour operators, and hold bookings with all of them, that’s a complete waste of many agents’ time.

In addition, the duplicate bookings can result in any or all of the bookings being canceled by the airlines involved.

Then there’s the whole travel agent issue. Many agents deal with time-wasters by getting service fees up front, and some agents won’t even talk to a potential customer without payment first.

But at a recent dinner, a coworker was seated next to a gentleman who didn’t realize she was an agent. And he bragged about his system for the best trips at the lowest prices. He would find a travel agent who knew the area and would work out an itinerary without charging for it.

Then he would take the itinerary, book the air tickets online with no fee, and email all the hotels direct asking for their very best prices and often get “internet-only” rates.

Now, often agents have better rates through a consortium or tour operator than travelers can get on their own, but some properties will make deals with clients directly. Ditto, often agents can get lower consolidator fares with airlines, but not always.

More common, however, are simply clients who use agents as free airfare search engines, and even experienced agents can get caught in that time-wasting trap.

These days, while consolidators often have good deals especially in business class, the very lowest fares are often noncommissionable any way you ticket them. Which means agents have to charge separate service fees.

Personally, I try to find out if dealing with a new client if they have a price already, and ask if I can find a good price if they are willing to pay a fee. (Usually $40-50 a ticket.) And if they agree I go ahead.

In some cases, the client may have found something we can’t touch, a student fare or one perhaps from an “opaque” site (“Opaque” means they don’t tell you the airline until you pay.) That is fine.

Some travel agents just aren’t very good, and some tour operators are expensive, which means it’s understandable if a client goes elsewhere.

Then there are travelers who tell you the lowest price they have found, you beat it a significant amount, even with a fee, and they then don’t want to pay that fee.

Unfortunately, most agents I know have the same sad story of sending a client an itinerary the client wasn’t able to find on their own, at a better price, and then the client takes those flights and books directly.

As one referred client once told me, “I really appreciate all the work you’ve done, this is much better than anything I found, but I could buy dinner for the family for the price of your fee, and we are really trying to maximize our budget.”

(Suffice it to say, when she came back to me later for a few inexpensive hotels in Greece, I politely turned her down.)

Another very occasional client with a foreign passport works for a corporate account and usually books online. Last month she called in a panic, asking for a phony itinerary with a ticketed itinerary for a visa. She begged for it to be sent to her within an hour. I told her I could do that, but ONLY if she intended to book through us later, with our fee, as the visa itinerary would take time. She agreed immediately.

To make a long story short, when I wouldn’t do the subsequent ticket for no cost, explaining that was all we made on the itinerary and ticket combined, she emailed me saying, “Sorry.” She explained that some of this ticket was coming out her pocket so she would just book online to save the $40.

(In this case, I thanked her for letting me know but advised her that in future she would have to solve her visa problems online as well.)

Now, I know there are writers and travelers who believe that basically all sources of information are fair, if the end result is the best price. And travel agents and travel providers can limit this sort of thing by simply not giving out free advice. Though I prefer to trust people, to a point.

I realize as a travel agent I am biased. But I do believe that deliberately taking advantage of someone’s time and expertise with no expectation of paying for it is over the edge.

What do you think, readers? Have you ever worked with an agent or tour operator you had no intention of using? Or have you been burned by a particularly egregious example of someone doing just that? Comments as always, appreciated.

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  • DaveS

    I have never worked with a travel agent or tour operator I had no intention of using. That is unethical. I can see why you want to charge upfront for people who are not known clients. On the other hand, a person who legitimately wants to know if you can beat a price and will gladly deal with you if you can, may not be prepared to commit to a fee upfront because perhaps you can’t.

    As you say, not all travel agents are that good. I called one to price a mildly complicated, but single-airline, itinerary in South America. I was fully prepared to book with him if the fare was acceptable to me. I got a quote, which was clearly higher than I would be willing to pay, and went online. About an hour’s worth of research online and a phone call to the airline got me a fare hundreds of dollars lower online, and even better with the human airline rep.

    I called back the travel agent to tell what I found and he couldn’t believe me. I actually walked him through the online process over the phone to show how I found my fare there. The phone call fare was an unpublicized 24-hour special I happened to get lucky with and which I accepted on the spot.

    In my part of the country there seem to be few agents who specialize in less frequent destinations, and really know all the options. How does one go about locating a really good travel agent?

  • http://noaddedsalt.blogspot.com Elisa

    How very sad. Would these people feel this smug if they (as say, a plumber) fitted out an entire bathroom only to be told… “Ok, no thanks, take it all back, I’ve decided to shop elsewhere.” ?

    Doing that to an agent is just stealing. If you want to DIY, then research it yourself. It’s not difficult, just spend the time researching your departure and destination airports to see which budget carriers use them.

  • Michelle in Colorado

    “How does one go about locating a really good travel agent?”

    That is what I would like to know. I am wanting to plan a trip that is a little more complicated than I am comfortable with for my family and would not mind paying a fee but I also do not want to get ripped off.

  • World Traveler

    It used to be that to travel you almost had to use a travel agent because they could easily see all airline and hotel prices at once. The savings by using a travel agent were considerable. (I recall as a college student spending an afternoon calling multiple airlines to try to book a cheap flight and I had no idea that the prices changed depending on when you called in. This knowledge is a recent phenomenon.)

    Now people go to a travel agent for their “content expertise” or “value added services”. So it seems to me that if a travel agent were to charge someone in advance for building an intinerary for a new or unknown client would be completely acceptable. In fact, I believe that by NOT CHARGING for this service, travel agents are essentially saying that their time has no value. By charging, they’d be sending a message that the time to create an itinerary is worth the cost.

  • http://leftcoastsportsbabe Janice Hough

    Might try to do a post on this one. Finding a travel agent that’s a good match is tough. One of best ways is to see if any of your friends, who travel in a similar style that you do, have found one they like working with. The problem is there’s “no one sized fits all” answer. Some agents have specialities, some are great for deluxe but not budget trips, or vice versa, and no agent knows everything about everywhere. (For example, as a California agent, I am very familiar with Hawaii, but almost never book the Caribbean.)

    Also depends if you want air, some very otherwise capable agents, especially older agents, just freeze up when dealing with computers and airfares, but they may know a lot about your destination.

    You can often get a good feel in a first conversation too, most agents won’t charge just to talk, but a good agent should either have some fees or explain why they wouldn’t charge you a situation – ie, for a package or cruise where they are being paid by the supplier, or sometime with consolidator airfare. Hope this helps for a start.

  • Jeff L

    Referrals are the absolute best source of Travel Agents. The TA I use now was a referral from someone on the forums here actually, and I have referred her on to others…

    If you can’t find a referral approach it the way you would looking for a doctor or dentist. Do a little research and call and ask a few questions about how they operate, get a feel for them. While its not appropriate to ask them to do work, its certainly okay to ask them about their business.

  • Allison

    Re finding a good travel agent:

    Several travel magazines including Conde Nast and Travel and Leisure publish yearly lists of travel agents, broken down by area/country specialty. Twice I’ve used agents from these lists and was very satisfied with the service I received. BTW, I generally like to plan things on my own, and only used TAs for two especially complicated itineraries.

  • Joel Wechsler

    Unless you requireor crave face to face contact, do not hesitate to use and agent in another part of the country. I have clients that I have never laid eyes on in many parts of the country that came to me as referrals from other clients and it seems to work for both of us.

  • http://www.altourleisure.com Deborah H.

    I always tell my clients that word of mouth is one of the best ways we like to get business. If you value your friends or associates opinion that is the VERY best way to find a good agent. The second best way would be to go to the Travel & Leisure A-List of agents or Conde Nast. Unfortunately being in this business for so many years I too have experienced spending a lot of time looking for a prospective client (and finding an excellent price) only to have them take what I’ve given them and book online themselves. This is why we as agents must charge fees up front and why as an agent I always have a prospective client sign a form saying that my fees are not refundable especially should they decide to book elsewhere.
    Back when I started in this business this was not an issue but it certainly is now. We cannot afford to work for free and I honestly believe that most people understand this. There are some however who just don’t care…

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