As airline website’s become more user friendly, the need for travel agents becomes less imperative. Though whilst there’s still no perfect website that matches the ease and speed of a travel agent booking system (Amadeus, Sabre) the last few outstanding travel agent tasks are no real secret. Before you use a travel agent, or neglect them entirely, here’s some things you should know (because they still have a use):
Travel agents earn commission. Of course there’s a base salary, which is barely enough to survive off so it’s the commission that makes the job worthwhile. This isn’t really a secret and not every dollar of profit, goes directly into the consultants pocket, they have sales targets to meet earning commission for the agency, and then they’ll get a small cut of that.
Realistically if a tour costs $2000, the company (e.g. Travel Cruise Company) might get $200, and of that, if the consultant meets their sales targets, they might get $20 of that, as a rough guide. It’s far more complicated than that and every consultant would have different targets, and different commission levels. So in other words, price matching makes it harder for them to meet their sales targets, because they are taking less commission for the company.
The highest commission earners for a travel agent are travel insurance, followed by tours, accommodation, and lastly flights. Hence why they will always offer insurance and accommodation with every flight.
Packages are not some magical guarantee to a fantastic deal. Generally if they sell you a package they get the cost of each item, bundle it up into a total cost, then divide it by two for a per person cost. They may take off some of their commission in order to make it sound attractive and round it down. However certain companies will sell at or below cost, then hide some commission as additional ‘booking fees and taxes’.
They may have special agreements with suppliers to get higher commission by selling more of that product e.g. I would receive more commission on Finnair, so would always offer that first and in this case, sometimes part of the agreement is that the product e.g. flight can’t be sold on it’s own, it must be sold with accommodation. In this case you may be getting a better deal, but chances are, a travel agent will purchase that hotel room (on your behalf), from a wholesaler who buys in bulk, like your typical retail sales flow chart.
I mention packages because when I was a travel agent, basically every second person came in asking for a ‘package deal’ and really there’s nothing complicated or magical about them. It just means you buy more stuff.
Travel agents are not magicians. They can’t make seats appear or have rooms available that other travel agents don’t have. Most inventory is sold through global distribution systems that feed to all websites. All agents have the same access to the same distribution systems.
There may be competitions or other incentives for travel agents to sell a particular brand. e.g. I once received a free Busabout ticket for selling loads of Busabout products. I also received a free Intrepid tour for selling a set number of intrepid tours.
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Jetstar recently got in trouble for this, as cheap fares become increasingly ‘non-refundable’ it’s important to know your rights as a consumer. Even on a non-refundable airline ticket, you are still entitled to a refund of the airport taxes. But, there are also ‘conditions’ in the fare rules where a non-refundable ticket can be refunded such as in the case of the death of a family member. This isn’t always the case, and every fare has different rules, but make sure you speak to a manager, high up who can authorize any refunds, even if it’s partial.
Airport taxes are a set fee and should not vary by travel agent. If they do, they’re charging you extra. However it’s common in the industry to round up taxes to the nearest $10 or $20 because airport taxes do change based on currency fluctuations on international flights.Need cheap flights out of here?
Contrary to popular belief, Travel Agents don’t get all their travel for free. They get discounts, which can vary between companies. They also receive incentives if they sell a lot of a particular product they can get a free tour, but they also only have limited holidays like everyone else in which to use them. The best I received was a ticket to the UK as part of my salary package, and then it was up to me to sweet talk our suppliers to get whatever I could in terms of train tickets, tours or accommodation.
There are often industry nights, which include free food, alcohol, prizes and other goodies as incentives for agents to become more knowledgeable and hopefully sell more of a product. In other words there are many factors influencing a travel agents decision on products they recommend or offer.
You may think travel agents have nothing better to do than research your trip, come up with all the prices, only for you to take that to another agency for them to price-match. However this isn’t the case and this was one of the main reasons why I left the industry and stopped being a travel agent.
Researching travel is time consuming for anyone. Finding the cheapest flight requires looking up fare prices and checking the rules. Then checking seat availability across multiple dates, then comparing this across multiple airlines. Add hotels, car hire, and transfers to this, then multiply it by the amount of cities in your itinerary. Yeah it takes an agent the same amount of time it takes you. There’s no mystery. Okay so a travel agent might be slightly quicker because they have many tools available, but there’s nothing worse, than spending hours working out prices for someone, only to have them take that information and book elsewhere. It’s the same as ghosting, except it’s financially excruciating. (Apologies for the snarky tone, I’m still scarred by it).
Lastly travel changes often. Airlines go bust, hotels change names, destinations become crowded, weather changes, prices change. It’s impossible for them to know everything. A good travel agent, knows where to find information quickly, but it’s impossible to know everything about every destination which is why specialist agencies are worth seeking out.
If you’re heading off the beaten track to South America, trekking in the Himalayas or on an overland trip in Africa then find an agency that only deals with those destinations because they’ll have the experience, the knowledge and the contacts on the ground to ensure your trip goes smoothly.
So whether you always book through a travel agent, or have stopped using them entirely, a good agent can still be useful, especially with the rise of traveller’s booking on ‘fake’ travel sites, in order to get a cheaper price.
Next up: My podcast episode about booking the cheapest flight!
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