Why during a hurricane may be too late to start calling a travel agent

by Janice Hough on November 1, 2012

Travel agents across the country shared something in common this week — stranded clients trying to get to, from or through the East Coast. In many cases, the emails before the storm hit last weekend.

While natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy mean a lot of extra work for no pay, in general, agents realize that the goodwill and gratitude from our clients is well worth the extra efforts.

But, then, there are the other travelers — the ones who “don’t need a travel agent” or who think fees are a waste and who book direct. Sometimes this includes friends and acquaintances. (As many agents will attest, this group can be the worst. They sometimes presume, as friends, we should do the work out of the goodness of our hearts.)

In theory, one would think that anyone who booked on their own should figure they are on their own when there’s a problem.

Not exactly.

While most of my requests this week have come from clients, a number have been from people who had booked online directly. While one or two of those were apologetic, they all wanted help … as soon as possible.

The problems for agents are multifaceted.

First, when there are a number of weather related problems, we’re usually swamped taking care of our own paying customers. Taking time to try to fix a problem that wasn’t ours in the first place means less time for regular clients.

Second, some think if you bail out someone who booked air tickets online, they will use your services the next time. However, my experience indicates that, for the most part, once the crisis is over most of those who come begging for help go back to booking their flights themselves.

(One solution to this conundrum is to charge a fee upfront, which many agents do. Unfortunately, this may be easier if it’s not a friend or friend of a client. I had one acquaintance become quite upset a few years back because he felt that I shouldn’t charge “friends” at all for simple tickets or for helping them out with a flight problem.)

Finally, travel agents’ hands are somewhat tied with direct bookings. We can make new reservations, if we ticket them. But, there’s no way to access airline bookings previously made through another source. Plus, when an airline says, “Due to a higher than expected call volume we are unable to take your call,” they usually mean it for everyone — the public and travel agents.

In some cases, agencies have special phone numbers, but this week with Sandy those numbers were and are still overloaded. Even if we get through, an airline won’t let us change a booking we didn’t make.

Charging fees or not wanting to help friends in cases like these are not because agents are trying to be mean or unhelpful. (Okay, I admit we have been known to giggle when we hear some of the messes people have gotten themselves into.) But, we have to make a living too. Frankly, we prioritize our existing clients.

If you’re a travel agent reading this you probably have stories to add. If you’re a traveler and you’ve “seen the light,” when you call that travel agent to help out, I’d offer a fee upfront.

And, do consider calling us and paying fees for booking travel when it isn’t an emergency. Gaining goodwill and appreciation goes both ways.

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  • eticket16

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  • Melissa

    I have fees specifically for direct booking situations. The amount depends on the situation. I tell them upfront how much and I’m apologetic and polite about it. I don’t really worry about alienating them. Like you said – the goodwill you offer, 99% of the time gets you nothing in return (future bookings).

  • DCTA

    So…two things…this time around all the major airlines were early in posting waivers and allowing Travel Agents to change tickets without making calls – that’s very helpful, although AA was really late to the game this time – which is strange given that last time they were the first to pull the trigger.

    Second – my cousin calls me from Florida on Sunday – she expects to be stuck – supposed to fly home Monday. She booked her tickets directly with USAir – I had to tell her three times, “I can not see your ticket, and so I can not do anything with it. The airlines do not allow us to see tickets issued by other agencies or directly by them. They do not want us to touch your ticket.” Of course I did not say, if you had done the ticket with me in the first place, I would have taken care of this for you on Friday!!!! She got home yesterday (Wednesday) which is what I told her to expect.

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  • Anonymous

    If these “friends” owned a store, would they allow you to shop there for free? Didn’t think so. As usual, a great article!

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