Are you being played?

I have lost count of the number of times that I’ve been told that the days of the travel agent are gone and that — sooner or later — everyone will be making all their travel arrangements via the Net. Whilst I agree that more people are using the Internet, my experience is that they tend to use it primarily for what i would describe as ‘commoditised’ travel product — e.g. low cost carriers, hotel bookings, car hire etc — in other words, the type of travel products that meet the following criteria:

1. They are relatively cheap in cost;

2. The decision-making process involved in booking them is relatively straight forward.

Almost without exception, all high-value or complicated travel arrangements are still booked through travel agents and this appears to be consistent throughout the world, whether you’re resident in the US, Ireland or Singapore. The reasons for this are quite simple when you think about it: the higher the value of the transaction being considered, the greater the fear that getting it wrong is going to have a high cost consequence. In other words, consumers can live with making a mistake with a Ryanair ticket from Dublin to Luton but are going to be much more circumspect when it comes to booking their travel arrangements to, say, Thailand. So many routes, so many options, so many other ‘variables’ to consider such as weather, vaccinations, visas, personal security etc. etc. That’s not to say that there isn’t a cadre of keen DIY types who love the thrill of the chase and who get as much of a buzz of out researching their trip online as they do actually undertaking it! So here’s my personal message to all of you self-sufficient travelers out there: Make sure that you’re not being played!

What do I mean by that statement? In a recent exposé that was conducted by no less authoritative a publication than the Wall Street Journal, it was discovered that Orbitz — one of the largest online players in the world and the owner of EBookers in Europe had been using cookies to track users of Apple products and directing them to hotel products that were often up to 30% more than what other users were being directed to, for the simple reason that extensive research has shown that demographically speaking, Apple users are usually ‘prepared’ to pay up to 30% more!

This wasn’t of course the first time that cookies had been found to be tracking users surfing habits but it was one of the first times that the content that they were being directed to was having a cost consequence for those users. The fact of the matter is that all websites use tracking cookies nowadays but the bigger ones tend to use them in a much more sophisticated and manipulative way.

Take another example: TripAdvisor. The world’s most used travel website turns out to be less than squeaky clean because it can no longer guarantee the provenance or accuracy of the reviews being attributed to various establishments because no one knows if any given review has been posted by a genuine tourist, a disgruntled former employee with a grudge, the hotel owner himself/herself or even a competitor. Bottom line: you need to take everything that you read there with a pinch of salt.

Don’t get me wrong, the Internet is a brilliant medium and travel agents themselves use it all the time. The difference is that as travel professionals, it is but one tool within an extensive toolbox that they have at their disposal so like an investigative journalist hot on the trail of a good story, they have to verify and cross verify the authenticity and veracity of everything before they even consider recommending it to a client. Better still, they are prepared to stand over everything they sell — even when the other parties fall down on the job or fail to deliver. They are, in effect, the consumers’ last line of defense in an increasingly hostile, complicated, confusing and scam-rich world where everything is not always as it appears at first glance.

The one thing that agents have tended not to be good at is self-promotion as they are usually too busy getting their hands dirty at the coal face. Your local travel agent is worth every single penny of their service fee and more because how can you put a price on honesty, integrity and the delivery of a service that probably exceeds your expectations?

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