In praise of the lowly travel agent …

When your mind turns to the question of where you’re going to go on your next holiday, what are your options? In the good old days (that I’m old enough to still remember) the answer was simple. You just visited your local travel agent as he (or more usually she) had access to the information that you did not. Nowadays, it’s gotten a lot more complicated as there are any number of sources and resources that you can access or tap into in your quest for the right advice. For starters, you’ve got the Internt itself — or more usually the Google search engine. You’ve got the recommendations of close friends and acquaintances and you’ve also got the recommendations of people whom you’ve never met, via various social media channels. You also have blogs, vlogs and the various articles (both online and off) that travel writers and journalists of various hues contribute to the ever growing corpus of work that intending travellers refer to. So, the $64,000 question is: which is best?

Wearing my ex-travel agent hat, I would have to say that, on balance, I would still tend to recommend the services of a competent, professional and fully bonded or licensed travel agent over all those other sources. Why? Well consider the following: Many online resources (including the reputable ones) can often be manipulated so that you’ll rarely be 100% sure that what they’re telling you is reliable. Perhaps the best example of what I’m talking about is the Trip Advisor website which, despite its size and good intent, has repeatedly been exploited by certain ‘elements’ intent on causing confusion, simply because they can. One of the more recent examples involved a Trip Advisor-lead online poll that featured a property amongst its top 100 hotels in Britain which turned out to be a mens’ hostel in Glasgow.

Ok, so if you can’t completely rely on excellent online resources such as Trip Advisor, then presumably one’s next best bet is to trawl the Internet, using Google or other similar search engines? Not necessarily. The sophistication of search engine algorithms and software in general is such nowadays, that many websites will return filtered results that differ from user to user based on even the computer hardware that you’re accessing the Internet through. A classic example of how easily consumers are ‘played’ in this way was exposed by no less august a publication as the Wall Street Journal recently when they were able to show that users of certain smartphones were often being charged up to 50% less for products on certain websites, when compared against those of other users.

And lest you think that such misleading behaviour is confined to the online experience, a recent two-page travel feature within a leading Irish broadsheet clearly showed that you can’t always depend on what you see printed in ink either. The article in question related to a certain destination and I was struck that all of the website addresses featured within the article were all ones when clearly there were plenty of equivalent Irish websites that should have been referred to. When challenged by this observation, the editor immediately confessed to the fact that sometimes, when caught for time, journalists will plagiarize someone elses’ work in the interests of expediency but not acknowledge that that is what has taken place. In that particular instance, an Irish consumer could have been forgiven for (wrongly) assuming that there were no Irish suppliers featuring the destination/product in question and gone off on a potential wild goose chase pursuing avenues of enquiry that were simply not relevant to someone commencing their travel plans from this jurisdiction. You also need to bear in mind that in many instances, travel journalists get wined and dined when they are taken out as guests by some airline, tourist board or hotel chain to view a particular resort or property. Such journalists rarely travel economy class; rarely get allocated the ‘standard’ room and often don’t even experience what their readers are going to read about. Don’t get me wrong. There is no malice intended and more power to the travel journalists if that’s what their hosts feel they are entitled to. My point is simply this: If you are planning to spend your hard earned money visiting someplace you’ve perhaps never visited before, then you would be well advised (in my humble opinion) seeking out the services of a good travel agent as you would be much more likely to get unadulterated, unambiguous, totally objective advice and perhaps most importantly of all — if it subsequently fails to live up to your expectations, you’ll at least have someone to complain to!

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