Planning a trip has never been easier, but what’s smartest and fastest – calling a travel agent or hunting for your own deal via search engines? Whether you follow the gnome or Captain Kirk, technology must be quicker and smarter, right? I set out to discover whether new apps and travel tools help or hinder the process. I encourage you to try the following fun, unscientific experiment.
The scenario: plan a trip to Toulouse, France, book a moderately-priced hotel for one week, research a list of potential excursions. I chose a 90-day stay because that’s the tourist visa limit for France. I chose Toulouse, because I wanted to test flight connections within Europe, beyond typical destinations like Paris, Rome, London, etc. And because I live in a perpetual daydream about France, but that’s a different story.
Many of us would hit popular internet travel sites to price airline tickets. However, I had been researching curated travel websites, taking a specific look at luxury travel. I wondered how a person accustomed to having others manage details for them might begin their research, in other words, was it smarter to do all this work myself or delegate it?
First I called Visa, then American Express. I felt like the main character, Bernadette, in Maria Semple’s novel, Where’d you go Bernadette. She outsources her travel planning to an administrative assistant in another country (somewhere in the old Eastern bloc), because it’s pennies an hour and she’d rather spend time with her daughter. In the book, alas, Bernadette’s administrative assistant rips her off and Bernadette loses her savings after foolishly giving too much personal information, you know, small inconsequential details like her Social Security Number.
Each call to Visa and AmEx took about 15 minutes. At Visa, Yi (pronounced ee), promised to send an e-mail full of choices and data within 24 hours. At AmEx, I worked with Brenda, who may have been working from home – either that or her phone headset wasn’t working properly as every time she exhaled the huff echoed into my ear with the slightest edge of disdain. Brenda offered to e-mail me the flight and hotel information. However, instead of agreeing to research local activities and possible festivals for me as I had asked, she informed me that I needed to research that myself on the Internet, then she suggested a car rental, a sure sign of a sales commission in the offing.
Visa’s customer service expert kept her promise. Brenda’s headset must have died because I never heard from her again. Yi selected three airline rates to compare, including two with brand-name airlines where I have frequent flier accounts. The fares were $1966, $1973 and $1640. Predictably, the longest duration flight cost the least. The Delta flights she found cost significantly less than those found via my own search on Kayak.com. (Baggage fees not included in prices.) Yi also took the initiative to suggest pricing trains from Paris to Toulouse to lower the flight cost, a value-added service as she priced those fares for me too, saving me more time.
When I performed the same search online for flights, I came up with similar schedules and pricing – with one exception. Kayak.com pointed out to me in an easy-to-read visual that by changing my departure date by about 10 days, I might score savings of more than several hundred dollars per ticket. Neither Brenda nor Yi had offered to check this for me. I searched on Kayak three times over 24 hours, twice using an I-pad and once with a laptop. The I-Pad application instantly shows an entire month of fares. The non-mobile Kayak site has the same feature, but it’s tucked over on the left column and requires an additional click, so you have to know to go look for this.
The day I delegated work to Visa and AmEx, I strode through Piedmont Park in Atlanta and people watched, guessing at their thoughts, expanding characters and writing story lines for them. (Remember, I write for a living.) The day I slogged online myself started with coffee and my keyboard and a few hours later the sun shone without me. I sat indoors hunched over a computer comparing costs.
For hotel fares, Yi came up with a range from $718.74 to $1,159.44, tax and service included, for a 7-night stay for two. Straightforward formatting made the pages easy to use for comparison and each page included a room photo. My online search for hotels netted a wild variety of pricing – from an implausible $43 a night to well over $200 a night. Online search also produced a hotel located nowhere close to Toulouse. Yikes.
Savvy travel agents tailored their services to those like Bernadette who don’t want to spend hours online. Unlike Bernadette, those clients will pay far more than pennies an hour for research. The Atlanta CBS affiliate ranked local travel agencies in May last year. The top five included AAA and an Atlanta area agency called Explorations Travel. For comparison, I chose Explorations because the CBS description mentioned its French travel expertise. Katie answered the phone within one ring (no voice mail maze like Visa and AmEx) and in a matter of minutes she politely informed me of their $250 research fee. When I explained to her the nature of the experiment, she gamely offered to give my information to an expert, who would call me back for no charge if she had time. (She did.)
What conclusions can be drawn? It depends on the goal. I’m not inclined to waste hours searching on the internet. When I’m ready to book tickets and a hotel in Toulouse, I will call the travel agency for several reasons. First, I value my time and I don’t want to spend hours on the Internet. Second, to quote New York Times travel writer Michelle Higgins, “… if you want a personal advocate in case your flight is canceled and you end up stranded at the airport instead of ensconced in that perfect Tuscan villa, better call a travel agent.” I would rather spend three or four hours writing or consulting, net $250 and spend it with the travel agency, than get stuck in an airport because of a cancelled flight that I bought on the cheap.
When the local travel agent called me back, she pointed out agents have access to deals that aren’t online. For example, if any of the nights you book are in a four-star or five-star hotel, an agent can often negotiate dining and spa credits, or a room upgrade.
It comes down to individual preference and I’m in favor of spa credits and more walks in the park. I look forward to reading about your experiences and I invite you to post a comment. I smell the salt air of Spring Break… do you?