A great travel agent is hard to come by. He or she must be trustworthy, knowledgeable, attentive and eager to find you the lowest price on the best option for your trip.
The world has gotten to be a much smaller and specialized place. The trick is: no one agent can do it all.
If you’re looking for a discount on Business Class to Europe, don’t consult with a Caribbean cruise specialist. If you want to whale watch in Alaska, don’t work with an agent who books ski lodges every day.
Travel doesn’t apply to the one-agent-fits-all mold. Be sure to find yourself an agent who speciliazes in where you want to go and what you want to do.
But, how do you find a trustworthy agent? Here are three questions to ask an agent you’re considering working with, from consumer advocate and USA today columnist Christopher Elliot:
- Ask for references: a competent agent should be willing to supply you with a short list of clients and their phone numbers.
- Verify the travel agent’s professional memberships: most reputable agents belong to either the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) or the Association of Retail Travel Agents (ARTA). This signals that the agent pledges to adhere to basic ethical and business standards.
- Look for accreditation: make sure your travel agency has an acceptable rating with the Better Business Bureau.
But, when is the best time to use a travel agent? Some trips are so simple to book that you shouldn’t bother to use an agent. For a simple transaction like a roundtrip flight or hotel booking, it would be easier to book yourself over the phone or online. Also, travel agents aren’t able to help when redeeming award miles and discounted packages on sites like LivingSocial, Groupon or Travelzoo.
A good travel agent is worth his or her worth in gold for the following situations:
- Complicated Itineraries
- Large discounts on long-haul International Business and First Class flights
- Large group or corporate travel
- Theme park travel
- When you want more options than what you can find online
- When you don’t have the time to plan an elaborate trip
- When you don’t know a lot about a faraway destination
- If you expect to need an on-the-road advocate in case of cancellations, delays or other mishaps
- If you need an expert for special occasions like a destination wedding or anniversary cruise
The definition of an airline ticket is changing, and it will continue to change.
What is it you’re paying for exactly, asks consumer advocate Christopher Elliot. Transportation? A seat?
Today’s tickets are stripped of the basics, including food, drinks, reservations, checked (or carry-on in some cases) luggage and the ability to change an itinerary.
Airlines have raked in $2.8 billion in the last year alone by changing the definition of a ticket. While nickel-and-diming its customers, carriers continue to make the outrageous claim that fares have never been lower.
Fliers rightfully feel duped, saying that once you factor in all the fees, flying costs more than expected. A USA Today survey found that 55 percent of polled air travelers say it costs “somewhat more” and 44 percent say it costs “a lot” more.
So what should a ticket include?
The airline industry is pushing to separate even more fees from its tickets with the proposed Airline Transparency Bill of 2014, which would allow them to advertise a ticket price that doesn’t include taxes and mandatory fees.
Although airlines have managed to turn the average ticket into a virtual abomination that no air traveler from a generation ago could understand, omitting the taxes to further market unbelievable bargains is taking it too far, and the government seems to agree.
The Department of Transportation proposed a rule that would define an airline ticket to include two checked bags, one carry-on item and advance seat selection. It would also require all ticket agents and airlines to display these basics at the point which fares are being compared.
Passengers say the fare word-games have gone too far, according to a USA Today survey. When asked to rank the most important components of an airline ticket, 94 percent said they wanted the advertised fare to include all taxes and mandatory fees, followed by the ability to reserve a seat (91 percent), the ability to carry a bag (90 percent) and the access to a bathroom (87 percent).
If airlines want to separate seating option and baggage fees from the cost of a fare, then they should develop technology that allows passengers to choose amenities for comparison. This would allow airfares to be compared apples to apples. Instead, customers are constantly being tricked.
With today’s system, it’s not easy to distinguish what is – and isn’t – included in the price of a ticket without an extensive amount of homework. Peeling away essential features of a ticket only benefit investors and industry apologists, not the consumers who keep the industry afloat.
Christopher Elliot’s Guide to Keeping Airlines Honest:
- Book a ticket from an airline that doesn’t aggressively “unbundle” its fares. For example, JetBlue and Southwest still include checked bags in their ticket prices.
- Let the Transportation Department know what you think of its proposed new airfare rules. Click on regulations.gov and search for rulemaking DOT-OST-2014-0056.
- Tell airlines what you think of their nickel-and-diming. By simply paying the fee and remaining quiet, you are tacitly endorsing these fees.
The Department of Transportation proposed a new rule Wednesday that would force airlines to disclose fees for services such as checked bags and advance seat assignments at the point of sale, rather than later in the traveling process.
The new consumer protection rule comes as the airlines are trying to accomplish the opposite with the Transparent Airfares Act of 2014, which would give them federal permission to lie about the actual price of fares, making them appear lower only to add on a slew of additional fees later. A Change.org petition denouncing the act has garnered almost 64,000 signatures.
As it is, fees are not always clearly stated when buying a ticket, and fees simply listed on the Web site leaves travelers unable to understand the total cost of a ticket before buying it, according to the DOT. Airlines made $27.1 billion in ancillary fees in 2012.
“Knowledge is power, and our latest proposal helps ensure consumers have clear and accurate information when choosing among air transportation options,” says transportation secretary Anthony Foxx.
The rules would apply to all tickets, regardless if booked online, in person, on the phone or with a travel agent. It’s the third of its kind, with rules in 2009 and 2011 that raised penalties for long tarmac delays and required airlines to announce full fares, including taxes, in advertisements.
“Passengers have lost their faith in the travel industry,” says Katrina Roberts, a travel agent at CookTravel.net who specializes in airfares to the South Pacific.
“On a Business Class flight to Sydney, taxes alone could cost $1,000 per person. If I didn’t disclose a fare including the taxes to my clients up front, they wouldn’t trust me enough to handle their travel arrangements,” she says
The proposal would put an end to “unfair and deceptive” practices, says the DOT. But, just as the airlines fought the rules in years past, they will continue to fight this one, despite the benefits it will provide to its customers.
A statement from Airlines for America says the proposal “overreaches and limits how free markets work.”
And it’s no secret why the airlines are upset. Over the next year, the proposal is set to cost them $5.1 million and $24.7 million over the next decade.
“The proposal we’re offering today will strengthen the consumer protections we have previously enacted and raise the bar for airlines and tickets agents when it comes to treating travelers fairly,” Foxx said.
The DOT also wants to extend the rule to cover third-party flight search Web sites like Kayak and Google’s Flight Search. The department will collect public comment for 90 days before implementing the rule.
USA Today rounded up the other goals the rule hopes to accomplish:
- Expand the airlines that much report information to the DOT about how many times the flights are late, how many times they oversell flights, and how many times they mishandle bags.
- Require travel agencies to adopt minimum customer-service standards, such as responding promptly to customer complaints and holding reservations for 24 hours without payment.
- Require airlines and ticket agents to disclose the airlines actually providing flights, under code-share arrangements, on initial itinerary displays on their Web sites.
- Prohibit travel agents from ranking flights of certain carriers above others without disclosing the bias in any presentation of carrier schedules, fares, rules or availability.