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Using a travel agent: Peace of mind or needless expense?

Pricewatch: Travel agents have found myriad ways to adapt to the brave new digital age

Not long ago a woman got in touch with this page looking for help. She was planning to spend a portion of an inheritance on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday to Asia with her family and couldn’t decide whether to travel independently or use the services of a travel agent.

She had done the sums and reckoned that it would be possible to cut at least €3,000 off the final bill for the three-week multi-destination holiday if she booked all the strands herself. But despite the savings on the table she was conflicted.

She dreaded the notion of booking her transfers with strangers she had come across online, and knew that if she did she would spend months fretting endlessly about whether or not the people she had paid would actually be where they were supposed to be at the appointed hour and who she would contact if they were not.

And she was worried about the impact on the whole journey if just one flight was delayed or one train ran late.

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Persuasive

As we spoke, she quoted a line from a conversation she had had with a staff member at the tour operator she had asked to provisionally put together her holiday itinerary. It was a very good line.

"You are planning to fly out of Ireland in December. If it snows on that day and you book with us, then it's not your problem, it's our problem."

We are impressed with how persuasive this tactic is even though we can only recall one single time in the last 40 years that snow proved to be a significant problem for Irish airports in the run-up to Christmas.

We talked about the pros and cons of going it alone versus taking the package for a while before we agreed that, although it would cost more, in this instance, it might be a price worth paying given the peace of mind it would give both now and while she is away.

The conversation got Pricewatch wondering about the value or otherwise of travel agents and whether or not they have a future in a digital world where a holiday can be found and paid for in a heartbeat using only a phone.

If we had asked ourselves this question a decade ago we might well have said no but today we are not so sure. As a business, travel has been on a rollercoaster over the last 100 years.

Until the end of the second World War leisure travel was the preserve of the super-wealthy and people who went in search of adventure. While Thomas Cook and a handful of others were organising trips for rich Britons to the US and Europe, the idea that an Irish person would travel to the south of Spain or to the north of Africa, spend two weeks lounging by a pool having endless Sex on the Beach cocktails, before returning home tanned and relaxed, was simply unimaginable.

But with the end of the second World War came a broadening of horizons and a dramatic improvement in air travel.

The first package holiday in a form we might recognise today was in 1950 when a company called Horizon Holidays took a handful of British tourists on to Corsica. After that it was a slow burn. The flag-carrying airlines were frequently to blame for the slowness of that burn.

In 1955 a company called Wings tried to sell package holidays from the UK to Portugal for 49 guineas for two weeks – that is around €1380 in our money. It was forced to shut up shop after fierce objections from British European Airways which was offering a return fare to Lisbon – a fare which did not include any accommodation – for around €1,500.

While the big airlines held back the tide for years, eventually the dam burst. By the 1980s sun holidays were becoming the norm and the tour operators and travel agencies were making all the hay at home while the sun shone elsewhere. JWT flew the flag in Ireland from the 1960s and flew Irish tourists with cash to Sitges just south of Barcelona and Benidorm further south again. In the 1980s Budget Travel took over and democratised sun holidays like nothing that had gone before it.

For years the package was the only deal in town – or at least the only deal that could get you off this rain-sodden island to sunnier or snowier spots at prices that weren’t ludicrous. But then the internet came along and spoiled the travel agent’s party.

The fact the charter market has fallen by 80 per cent over the last 10 years means travel agents can be anything but complacent

In the mid-1990s the notion that Ryanair could ever disrupt the sun holiday business would have been ridiculous. But then Open Skies happened and the EU imposed rules which broke the monopoly of flag-carrying airlines and while low-cost carriers like Ryanair and EasyJet initially focused on the city break market they soon turned their attention to the sun spots too.

Their job was made easier by the emergence of disruptive technologies and platforms from TripAdvisor and Booking. com to Airbnb and Expedia that allowed consumers bypass travel agents completely.

Some 15 years ago independent bookings started to outstrip travel agency bookings and things looked bleak.

But the agencies have held their own and while there have been many closures – from small operators to one-time giants like Budget Travel – agencies have adapted and used new technology to their benefit.

A UK study published last year looked into the enduring appeal of the package holiday and it found, unsurprisingly, that 75 per cent take that road because “everything is taken care of”. Perhaps more surprisingly was the finding that 58 per cent book because they see packages as the “best-value option for price”. In the bronze medal place was peace of mind with many people booking packages because they want assurances in the event of a terrorist attack.

Another reason is that tour operators have got better at what they do because they had to and the ones that continue to improve will likely be booking holidays for generations of Irish people yet to come. Although the fact that the charter market has fallen by 80 per cent over the last 10 years from 2 million seats per year to less than 400,000 means they can be anything but complacent.

The travel agents’ view

Click&Go is one of the new breed with both a significant online presence and an offline one too with 60 per cent of its bookings made online.

"By offering consumers the ability to book their holiday online or over the phone in one simple transaction with interest-free easy payment options and giving them all the choice they have from DIY, yes travel companies have a future," says its chief executive Paul Hackett.

“You just have to look at the snow and hurricane events in 2018, or the Ryanair strikes and subsequent flight rescheduling and cancellations, or airline collapses; where a consumer booked with a travel agent they were totally looked after. The travel company has a contractual and legal responsibility not to mention good customer care and lifetime customer value approach that does not exist in the DIY market.”

He says operators “get great rates from the airlines and accommodation providers [and] because we package up holidays so they can discreetly discount flights and accommodation. We have to be able to match or beat what the consumer can get themselves via the DIY channels or they won’t book with us.”

Tanya Airey is the MD of Sunway, one of the longest standing Irish-owned travel agents still standing. She has seen good times and bad times and says things are steadying now. "We are finding that everyone is using travel agents now – from the family of four or five maximising the value of their holiday to the clients who want to know whether they should go on an MSC cruise or a celebrity cruise."

She says college students are now using travel agents when booking holidays as “they are usually travelling with groups of friends and can’t get group fares online. They also like to pay off their holiday week by week when booking with a travel agent. The ability to spread the cost of payments is a big advantage offered by travel agents.”

She also points to savings in time and money. “Your travel agent will do the research and most likely have been to lots of destination choices so they can point out the advantages and drawbacks of a particular resort or holiday in terms of you and your family’s needs. They also have the experience to cut through the noise of the internet, experience that would take you a long time to achieve.”

And of course there are the bags. Package holidays include baggage costs which can be as much as €80 per person for checked-in bags to some summer destinations.

“It’s all about the service and added value. As people become more time-poor and work harder, they want their holiday to be really special. So they are happy to ask expert advice and draw on the experience of a travel agent rather than make an expensive mistake.”

Claire Doherty is product director at Travel Department, a company which has carved out a significant niche with its tours to exotic destinations like China, and many closer to home, and its adventure holidays.

She says people “definitely do more research online now in advance so they don’t need to rely on their travel agent for all the information, but the agent is definitely still the best source of relevant information.” And like her counterparts in other agencies she highlights references the fact that operators “buy in bulk [so] get better rates with hotels and airlines which the individual traveller does not have access to.

“As there are more low-cost airlines going bust, along with some of the bed-banks (online hotel booking companies such as Low Cost Beds) and more severe weather, the trend has gone back to booking with agents for the protection you get. With more and more people coming home with stories of being abandoned abroad when they have booked online versus those who have been able to brag about being looked after and not being out of pocket, the word is spreading about ensuring to book with a fully bonded and licensed establishment.”

Charlotte Brenner is Marketing Manager with TUI – the brand formed after the merger of Thompson and Falcon Travel. She highlights the huge choice available to Irish holidaymakers and says "travel agents can help customers narrow down this choice to help them find the holiday that suits their requirement and budget."

She stresses that customers “need to compare the fully inclusive price [covering] flights, transfer costs, baggage allowances, flight seats and services in resort as well as the standard and amenities that the hotel offers.”

Your view

We asked Twitter users if they believed travel agents and tour operators had a role in 21st century holidays and given the platform we were posing the question on we fully expected a resounding no. We were surprised by the response.

"We're just back from a month in Australia/NZ. After a little online research I asked a travel agent to check flights - they couldn't even match web prices from @cathaypacific (excellent airline). Booked it all, long haul, internal flights, car hire, Airbnb etc directly via www." Terry Treanor

"I booked through a travel agent last year for the first time because of the baggage, transfers etc making it easier to travel with a baby and having a rep etc, before kiddies I never would have used one." Wendy Grace

"What's a travel agent?" Valeria Ruslana

"We use the likes of Trailfinders etc to arrange long haul. Also early and late in year to take advantage of special offer. We are seniors." Michael O'Brien

"Used Trailfinders recently for a long-haul trip, usually organise my own travel plans, but going so far it was great to have the comfort of the back-up and support of such a great company. Their local knowledge is invaluable." Vivienne Clarke

"Travelling to a place outside Europe where English is not spoken, better to be guided by the professionals. Older people, who can afford it, best to get someone else to plan and deliver the trip. The only downside is the lack of independence." Sheila Deegan

"I never do. I did a three-month trip across Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and China and relied on Rough Guide travel books and the likes of TripAdvisor to plan my route. In terms of flights, TrailFinders were excellent in getting very affordable flights." Ciarán O' Driscoll

"I book short trips myself and things like summer holidays with a travel agent. They usually have the good hotel rooms and transfers. Increasingly they have online booking discounts too which makes the trip the same or slightly cheaper than booking yourself." Jennifer Stevens

"For me, travel agents save time and lower the stress of booking; Essentially you pay them to be accountable for arranging the details of your trip which, when your trip is 2+ weeks long and includes a lot of separate activities, can be very helpful." Conor O'Carroll

"I used one once around 10 years ago. Never did before or since." David A Marra

"We used a local travel agent for our honeymoon. Used them for piece of mind, and personal touch, on a larger than usual travel budget." John Gallen

"Haven't used one for decades." Arlene Harris

"I use an agent often. Especially booking trips Down Under when I can pay off the fare as opposed to having to pay all upfront. They also organise the Aussie visa." Barbara Scully

“Only ever book with an agent if it’s an adventure holiday, like mountain climbing. Just to be comfortable in the vetting of the guides etc. Heard too many horror stories of people getting screwed with substandard guides, equipment etc when trying to save a few quid. Not worth it.” Steve Conlon

"Handy if you want to book the holiday you really want in advance and pay off on it over time." Helena McGee

"We booked our honeymoon through one. Our trip was due to begin in Hong Kong the same day a typhoon was due to make land there. Agent called us up & rearranged the whole thing for us. We went to Singapore instead & then on to Indonesia. It didn't cost us a penny. They even upgraded our hotel in Singapore to 5 star. Trailfinders took all the hassle out of it. We would always DIY short breaks or holidays to the Canaries but anything long haul we would always use an agent." Sharon Ó Ceallaigh

Pros and cons

PRO: Booking with a travel agent gives you the security of knowing you are covered in the event of missed connections on flights, airline failures, having to be repatriated if there is a problem travelling.

PRO: There is likely to be someone at the end of the phone or behind a desk you can talk to if you need you advice or information about your individual circumstances before you go.

PRO: You can pay a deposit to secure their holiday and then call in to pay it off in stages. It also means they have someone they can turn to if they have any problems during their trip.

PRO: Prices include things like baggage and transfers, things which can significantly add to the final cost when going it alone.

PRO: If something goes wrong – even something small – while you are away there is likely to be someone on the ground you can complain to.

CON: It is impossible to feel like a free-spirited traveller when you are on a charter flight to Magaluf.

CON: The experience may not be as authentic as you might like. While you can get a package holiday to Spain for not much, a low-cost flight to Barcelona and a week in some class of chic Airbnb overlooking Cadiz will be as real as it gets. And it will probably cost less too.

CON: Many, but not all, packages lack flexibility so you have to fly out on set days and come home on set days and that might not suit.

CON: It is harder to get off the beaten track when relying solely with travel agencies, although some agencies like the Travel Department and Trailfinders actually make it easier to get off the beaten track. As long as it's not too far off the track.

CON: Travel agents insist that because they buy in bulk you get better value and while that is true in many circumstances, it is hard to seem them beating the DIY option in most other circumstances and if you take out good travel insurance you will covered for many of the eventualities.