Forbes DEC 1, 2015
“4 Reasons Booking Your Own Travel Online Can Be Hazardous To Your Vacation
The idea of booking one’s own travel online has lots of appeal. I, like many of you, have done it many times. Enough of us do it that online travel agencies registered over $150 billion in revenue in 2013. After all, there is a certain amount of fun and excitement querying searches on Kayak and Trivago, and then going to Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline or one of the other OTAs and doing it yourself.
In some ways, it’s similar high to piloting a Boeing 747 in Microsoft Flight Simulator or trying to take your team to the Super Bowl in Madden 16. Unlike games, where there are no consequences for a crash landing or dropping the game winning touchdown pass, booking your own travel can create lots of headaches for yourself and trip mates.
Better Business Bureau, Consumer Affairs, Trusted Pilot and Pissed Consumer are filled with thousands of complaints from consumers who did it themselves with OTAs, and then came to regret it. Even experienced travelers have problems. The CFO of a UK company expressed his frustration in trying to get a post-trip charge to his credit card fixed. Simple trips can be more complicated than they seem. A woman who was trying to book a roundtrip to Charlotte, but wanted to stay in two different hotels while in North Carolina, posted to Facebook a long and frustrating conversation chain with multiple customer service reps at Priceline.com.
“When it comes to travel, it’s not if something goes astray, it’s when,” says Matthew Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso, a network of travel agents who specialize in luxury. Rick Mazza, CEO of TRAVELSAVERSand NEST, two groups that also represent independent travel advisors, referring to the billions of dollars OTAs spend on advertising adds, “The message from the OTAs is that they want the consumer to play doctor or lawyer. While it may seem like fun at the beginning, these stories illustrate how easy it is for even sophisticated travelers to lose money, vacations and lots of time. It’s very sad. Maybe there should be a warning during the ads like they have on cigarette boxes or during the pharmaceutical commercials so consumers understand the potential consequences.”
Even Congress has noticed the customer service problems of the OTAs. An amendment filed last week to the Senate FY2016 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies (THUD) appropriations bill by Senators Ed Markey (D-MA), John Thune (R-SD) and Bill Nelson (D-FL), is designed to protect consumers by removing language from the Senate FY2016 THUD bill that exempts online travel agencies and metasearch sites, like Kayak and TripAdvisor, from consumer protections such as providing timely refunds to passengers, 24-hour ticket hold and cancellation requirements and prompt responses to consumer inquiries.
Portrait of American Travelers, a survey published earlier this year by MMGY Global, showed that usage of OTAs is dropping dramatically. According to the study, consumers who consult OTAs for research dropped from 84 percent to 58 percent in the past year, while the number of consumers who regularly book with OTAs went to 13 percent from 36 percent in just 12 months.
For those of you who want to play travel agent on your laptop, here are some issues to consider:
- Do really know what you want?
A 2014 study by Google showed that most leisure travelers are undecided about specific brands when they start planning a trip. Only 23 percent of you were set on a particular airline. For cruises it was 25 percent, however, only 16 percent were set on a specific provider for hotels and vacation packages when you started planning your vacation. Another Google study showed it took leisure travelers in the UK 32 visits to 10 different websites to book an airline ticket.
Ninan Chacko, CEO of Travel Leaders Group, another group representing independent travel agencies, told the audience at the Skift Forum, 35 percent of OTA users would rather use a travel agent if they could find a good one. When I read reviews at Trip Advisor, one thing becomes apparent. Two people can stay at the same hotel and have very different experiences. Good agents know the products they are selling and will take the time to understand what you want. A resort may have 15 villas. The three villas next to the kids’ pool are perfect for families. The two at the end of the beach are great for romantic getaways. Then there’s the villa next to the loading dock. It’s practically impossible to get this type of information from an OTA website, whereas a good agent knows which villa is right for you, and because he or she has relationships with the hotel manager, can make sure you get that specific one.
Agents constantly tell me price is often an issue. Many times you’ll find a low price, but what you are getting is whatever room is available when you check-in. Savvy agents know about special packages where you can get perks like free breakfast, club access and upgraded rooms. While it might cost a bit more, in the end it can save money and create a better experience. If you are traveling with kids in the same room, you want to have enough space for their rollaway beds, right?
- Do you know the rules and regulations governing what you are buying?
When Carl Icahn bought TWA he was frustrated every time he wanted to change something, one of his VPs would drag out a different, large encyclopedia sized manual, and after several minutes of flipping through pages, find a rule on why he couldn’t do what he wanted. Finally, the story goes, he got so frustrated he tossed the manuals out the window of his office.
The point is when purchasing services from airlines, hotels, car rentals and cruise lines, when you hit the “buy now” button you are entering into a binding contract that means like Icahn, you are subject to a plethora of rules and regulations, some government imposed, others developed by the company, many that change from time to time, and often are so arcane, employees of the company don’t quite understand them. Many complaints I came across looking at BBB, Consumer Affairs and so on were based on consumers who just didn’t understand the rules of what they bought.
The logic can be confusing. You think you bought a first class ticket because that’s what it says, and that’s where you are seating. Your flight is cancelled, and you are rebooked, but now in a middle seat in the next to last row. Why? You actually bought an economy class fare that had an automatic upgrade to first class. When your flight changed, you lost your seat up front, and by the way, you don’t get a refund, because you bought a coach ticket. Just last week, Hilton Worldwide announced it is testing new cancellation policies where there will be a penalty even if you cancel right after booking. Good travel agents, like lawyers, can explain what you are getting yourself into and give you options that might make more sense.
- What happens when something goes wrong and you need to make changes in the middle of your trip?
Travel is about creating memories for a lifetime. But strikes and calamities such as the Paris attacks can throw the best plans into chaos. During the recent Lufthansa strike, customers had wait times of over two hours to get through to the airline. Others were stranded at the airport. After the Paris attacks, two of the OTAs posted pleas on their Facebook pages to not call unless you needed emergency assistance as they were at peak call volume. A benefit of using a travel professional is that your advisor is just a text message away. Good agents monitor their customers’ trips. Customers who bought Lufthansa tickets through traditional travel agents often found they had been rebooked without a problem. If there was a delay, the agent was also able to change hotel arrival dates and get penalty charges waived. Again, it comes down to having an advisor who has good contacts and is on the ball.
- How much leverage do you have with airlines, hotels, cruise lines and car rental companies?
Good agents have relationships with the suppliers they sell, and it goes beyond just having visited many of the properties they are selling. This is important from a few different angles. Firstly, top producing agents often have preferred amenity programs not available directly from the hotel, with upgrades, free breakfasts, late check-outs and so forth. Secondly, good advisors know the good rooms and bad rooms in a hotel, and they will ensure that you get a specific room, not just room type. What’s more disappointing than getting to that hotel overlooking Hyde Park and finding out your room is facing an alley?
Perhaps the most important point is because agents are booking the hotel repeatedly, if you get there and have a service problem, a quick text to your agent and they’ll be on the phone to their contact to get it resolved. Unless you’re a Super Platinum Double VIP in that hotel’s program, your chances of getting what you want is entirely dependent on the attitude of management at that hotel. It’s no fun when it becomes apparent they know that you’re not a regular and probably not coming back.
Here in Cannes at the International Luxury Travel Mart (#ILTM) over 1,500 top travel agents will partake in 58,000 meetings with suppliers in the next three days. The benefit to you is the contacts they are making to help make sure you get the right room or to help you out when something goes amiss. It’s something the numerous complaints about the OTAs show to be a weakness when booking online.