(This post first appeared on Forbes.com)
by Larry Magid
I’m a very frequent business traveler and most of the time I book my flights using an online service like Expedia, Travelocity or Orbitz or the airline’s own website. But sometimes, when I’m traveling on someone else’s nickel, my host requires to me use their travel agency and it’s almost always a bad experience. My bad experiences have been so frequent that I usually ask if I can make my own arrangements and be reimbursed but sometimes that’s not an option.
I’ve been forced to use travel agencies four times in the last year and each time there’s been a problem.
- I’m about to embark on an international trip paid for by a company in Europe. Rather than let them select the flight, I gave them the exact Delta flights I wanted (I have Diamond status on Delta and usually get free upgrades). They actually did book me on the right flights but rather than booking through Delta, they booked it through Delta’s code-share partner Al Italia, which means no upgrades. It’s not the end of the world, but for exactly the same price I could have flown first class between San Francisco and New York and comfort economy from New York to Rome instead of coach the whole way.
- I’m scheduled to take a domestic trip in a couple of weeks and, again, am being forced to book through a travel agency. I went online to find the exact flight I wanted (which happens to be the lowest price) but every time I call the travel agency to book it, I get someone who can’t help me. The agency tells me to call the company that’s paying for the travel and the company tells me to call the agency. After four calls, I sent an email with the flights I want, begging them to just issue the darn ticket, but I’m still waiting for an answer. I may need to make yet more phone calls to sort this out. It would take under a minute to book it online.
- About a year ago I needed a hotel in Las Vegas for a conference that I was covering for a media company. The company’s travel agent told me that there were no hotels within the company’s allowed price rage ($300) but I found a good hotel on Expedia for $145. The agency said they too could b0ok me at that hotel but it woud cost $350. You’d think an agency representing a large company could get me a discount rather than charging more than twice the price for the same room. I’ve had this experience numerous times. I can often find a cheaper rate on my own than by going through a corporate travel office.
- Last year I was giving a speech overseas and sponsor’s agency bought me the ticket. Instead of issuing it to Lawrence Magid, the ticket was issued to Magid Lawrence, which made it more difficult getting through airport security and customs. I never would have made that mistake had I booked my own ticket. I’ve also had agencies book me as “Larry Magid,” and even that’s a minor hassle with TSA and customs since my legal first name is Lawrence.
The other problem with agencies — and this sometimes goes for online travel sites too — is that you get caught in a “catch 22” if you have a problem. I like using online travel sites but a few years ago, when that Icelandic volcano disrupted travel in Europe, I had to reschedule a flight but when I called the airline I was told to call the online travel agency and when I called the agency I was told to call the airline. I had a similar problem with a hotel, which simply refused to even try to resolve a problem because I booked the travel on Expedia but — when I called Expedia — they weren’t able to help me.
I recognize that there is a role for travel agencies for leisure travel but I still remember that vacation to Hawaii where an agency put me in a high-rise hotel miles from the beach.
I know there are still some tech-illiterate people on the planet who need help with travel, so I’m not suggesting that all agencies need to disappear, but I sure hate it when I’m forced to use one.
The Internet has made is very easy to find the best fares and the best hotel deals. Not only is it faster to book online than to have to call an agent, wait on hold and explain what you want, it’s a lot easier when you can see your options right in front of you. It’s time for companies to let their employees and guests book their own travel.