for National Geographic News
With travel Web sites facing revenue losses, not to mention Orbitz's highly publicized lawsuit and Priceline's sudden job cuts, travel agents could cash in. Traveler Editor in Chief Keith Bellows talks about the fate of online booking sites, how travel agencies could make a big comeback, and what this means for travelers.
When such mega-sites as Travelocity and Expedia first hit the Internet, many people predicted that travel agents would soon be obsolete. What happened?
Five years ago, the Internet seemed like a great way to eliminate the middleman, which in travel was the travel agent. The belief was that the Internet would replace travel agents just like it would replace magazines and many other services and media. Which, of course, was an extremist point of view that has yet to prove true. Right now, the profit margin of many major travel-booking Web sites is very slim because not enough people are using their services.
How's business for travel agents right now?
Travel agents are going out of business in droves, partly because the airlines provide major incentives for people to buy tickets online. Right now, for example, you can fly between dozens of U.S. cities on Southwest or Jet Blue from $38 round-trip. But you must book your ticket online. So, to survive and be successful over the next five or ten years, travel agencies will have to do big-volume business, and not many agencies are in a position to do that right now. Or they will have to specialize in a particular niche of travel. Those that specialize in African safaris, for instance, could develop a really good clientele because safaris are expensive and complicated to book on your own. An agency must save the traveler a lot of time and hassle to thrive.
What are the benefits of using a travel agent?
Booking travel online is convenient if all you want to do is fly between two cities. But if you've tried to book a flight online that involves visiting several cities, you know how time consuming and confusing it can be. You could spend hours online, with your computer crashing, or trying to find an actual person who can help you solve a problem. It can be downright frustrating. And that's just booking a flight. Then you add in hotel reservations, rental cars, and guides and it really gets complicatedsort of like trying to get medical advice online. I'd rather go to a professional.
But isn't it cheaper to book online?
Usually, but many good travel agents are using their time and their online expertise to get you those deals. The key is finding those agents, which you can do by talking to friends, people at the embassies, and tour operators. You can also consult the American Society of Travel Agents. They have lists and resources to help you.
If you see a great deal online, how can you be sure it's not a scam?
In many cases, a travel agent can help you book it. If you're going to do things on your own, stick with such well-known sites as Expedia or Travelocity, which print their guidelines clearly and have good track records. They're not going to cheat you. Or consult newspaper travel sections such as The New York Times or The Boston Globe, which are filled with trustworthy consolidator deals. It's the little operations, the fringe outfits, that you have to worry about. If in doubt, contact the Better Business Bureau. And always read the fine print. On a bidding site like Priceline, for example, you could get a really low rate and then suddenly find out that you're traveling from New York to Miami via Dallas or Denver. Sure, it's cheaper. But you're going to be exhausted by the time you get there. Overall, it's best to go with a brand that you know and trust. It's not worth the risk.
How does the future look for booking sites and travel agents?
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