Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

May 21, 2012

Cutting the travel time

More people using travel agents

By Joe Olenick
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

— For the most part, there is a lot of planning that goes into traveling. Some like to handle the details on their own, making arrangements on the phone or using travel websites to book hotels, planes, vehicles and so on.

But lately, working with a travel agent is becoming more popular.

An industry facing tough competition from the Internet is apparently making a comeback. According to Forrester Research, more travelers are becoming frustrated with booking trips online. About 28 percent of study respondents said they would use a local travel agent instead.

Part of that rise could be the frustration from booking online. IBM Institute for Business Value’s survey of 2,000 travelers reports 20 percent of them said it took more than five hours to search and book travel online. About 50 percent said it took more than two hours.

“When you put all of the pieces of a vacation together, that list can be pretty daunting,” said Ruth Nagy, director of travel operations for AAA East Central. “We get phone calls from people struggling on websites, investing hours. An agent saves time and frustration.”

PhoCusWright, a travel research firm, said about one in three agencies are hiring. In 2011, bookings made by travel agencies increased, making up about a third of the overall travel market nationwide. American Society of Travel Agents reported 57 percent of travel agencies saw an increase in business in 2011.

Working with a person instead of on your own has a few advantages, said Chuck Teal, owner of Teal Travel in Pendleton.

“You’re dealing with someone who has a lot of experience,” Teal said. “And there’s a better opportunity to find the lowest rate.”

Websites don’t always let you shop and compare rates, Nagy said. Commercial travel sites don’t always have the lowest rates. On the other hand, an agent can compare multiple rates at the same time. Often, Nagy said, booking through a travel agent can lead to lower costs overall.

“Agents also know about insider deals,” Nagy said. “They’re also aware of hidden restrictions.”

“The perception was, if you book online it’s cheaper, that’s not true,” Teal said. “You have limited choices.”

Hidden restrictions, such as those online policies or agreements viewers click without reading, could be as simple as saying a hotel isn’t responsible for the type of room the customer receives.

“That beach room you thought you had may not be on the beach,” Nagy said.

Another advantage is when the unexpected happens. For example, two years ago an Icelandic volcano erupted and spewed ash so far it caused all kinds of airline disruptions across the globe. In Western New York during the months of October through March there’s always the threat of snow.

“Any incident, any delays, if you book online, you’ll handle online,” Teal said. “In most cases, there’s no additional costs for travelers with an agent.”

Nagy recalled the volcano, which erupted in April 2010. AAA travel agents had to act fast.

“We were rebooking people before they knew they had to be rebooked,” Nagy said. “Travel agents can be proactive.”

Ironically, the difference for travel agents now as compared to 10 years ago might be their online presence. Agencies for the most part have their own websites, others still are even more active like Teal Travel. It helps connect with and draw clients.

“We’re doing a number of different things,” Teal said. “It’s changed how you deal with people.”

Teal Travel has a Facebook page and Twitter account. There’s also an email list where customers can receive information about travel packages and deals. Teal specializes in family vacations and sports excursions, such as Buffalo Bills road games.

An agent isn’t the only personal travel assistance out there. Some organizations offer group travel programs, where people just have to sign up to participate. For example, the Dale Association offers a number of traveling opportunities for senior citizens.

Those trips range from going to performances at Shea’s in Buffalo, to one day cruises on Lake Ontario, to shopping trips to destinations like Grove City in Pennsylvania. There are also longer trips, such as to Lancaster, Pa., California and Ireland.

“They like having everything planned,” said coordinator Janet Fedak. “Sometimes they don’t have anyone to travel with. Several go on just about all of the trips.”

The best argument for working with a person instead of a website? The local travel agent can match the customer to the product, Nagy said.

“An agent knows your particular likes and can match you to what you want,” she said.