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The Opaque Internet

Travel Agents are still with us

"You can always get the best deal by searching online. Lots of websites will even suggest when is the best time to buy. All the best deals appear online. Don't waste your time in dealing with a regular travel agent."

Well, ..... No.

Using online agencies is a good way of buying what someone else wants you to buy, which can be a long way from buying what you actually need to buy.

When it comes to online, there are OTA's (Online Travel Agency) - that is, a traditional travel agency, which happens to be online, for example, Expedia. Aka "A middleman". Then you have metasearch, which boils down to systems which trawl round the online agencies and (admittedly) do the searching for you across a number of agencies (aka a Middleman's Middleman) for example, Skyscanner (and, I may add, a great "crib-sheet") Nothing wrong with either of these websites, of course, but you need to know where you stand.

What you are shown on your screen, is what any online agent or metasearch sites wants you to see - tempered to a greater (or lesser) degree against what you asked for. The price is determined by the airlines price for a given trip - or is it? Just as an airline may develop their pricing so, too, can that online agent. If, as a couple-of-million-viewers website, I adjust the offering of any flight option by even $1, the effect can be quite staggering. Let's face it, if Priceline can pay several billion dollars on Pay-Per-Click alone, then that money has to come from somewhere. This means, well .... you.

Even some airline websites can play a little close to the wind. Take British Airways, for example. If you enter the details for a return trip, you are shown flights as if they are one way fares - that is London to New York (going) shows as, say, £255 and the return as £255 - total £509.57 (using May prices) BUT if you think "that's a good price for one way" and change your requirement, then the one way price to New York changes to £1,290. Then there are the add-ons, like the Premium Economy upgrade which gives you extra legroom and meals. Actually, it is a good value upgrade.... as long as you really understand that any changes, once you have bought the ticket, are going to cost. Big time. (Also, I wish I could have $1 for every time someone says: "The cost on the BA system is £255...." )

We agents use a GDS or Global Distribution System (the system which travel tech types hate because it came about in the 1980's and still works very well). Another reason why airlines and travel tech types hate it, is because what a GDS system (in my case, Sabre) shows the agent are hard, raw facts. All the marketing and advertising have been removed. It is fast, 99.9999% accurate and allows the agent to see at a glance, how busy flights are and where the cheaper seats are available. Agents can quickly change dates, times, boarding points and arrival points, add flights in, take them out, compare - and all certain in the knowledge that the prices shown are accurate - and come from the airlines concerned.

Benchmarking is, to my mind, helpful when deciding what to pay. Only an agent can do this easily. That is, when given a price for any set of flights, in order to determine if the choice is of good value, it is helpful to confirm the value of any proposed purchase by looking at the cost of alternatives. For example, if I wish to travel from A to B via C, and that costs, say $400 - I can look at the direct fare. If the direct fare is $420, the $400 is not good value, if it is $600, then it is. If a flight that causes me to arrive at some terrible hour costs $400 and I can arrive at a sensible hour for $410 - same principle applies.

This way of getting a much more reasonable overview of any proposed travel spend cannot be done easily online.

Of course, the big plus of using an agent is that we are fully mobile enabled. You don't even need an app - all you have to do, is call and say "Can you get me to Nairobi on Thursday and back on Saturday?". Try it. Could be the latest innovation in travel.

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