Who needs travel agents?
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I got on a bus to JFK Airport from central New York once with a young German man whose document bag was stolen from the pavement at his feet seconds before we boarded the bus. He climbed on the bus and headed for the airport without a passport or a dollar to spend. He didn’t know what to do and his panic was almost palpable.
Wally Gaynor, the managing director and founder of the Club Travel network, winner of numerous industry awards, has been there. He travelled with a small group of people to remote Burma (Myanmar), where one of the party had his backpack stolen, containing everything he owned.
“So we were stuck in Burma, he says. “No South African embassy. The British embassy is meant to look after South Africans in Burma, because we are part of the Commonwealth. They were very nice, but they said there was nothing they could do – the nearest embassy was in Bangkok.
“I got people here in South Africa to get hold of the South African embassy in Bangkok, and they were amazing. They got all the forms we needed to the British embassy in Burma. The embassy couldn’t do fingerprints, so I asked the hotel to get hold of the police to do them. Some of the party were able to leave at that point, so they took all the documents back to the embassy in Bangkok.
“It was quite a thing. I needed all my contacts and experience to solve it. It brought home to me that if it had happened to me without anyone to help, I would have had a problem. And without the back-up at home, it would have been very difficult to resolve.”
Then there was 9/11, when the Twin Towers came down and the entire airspace over the United States and Canada was closed for two days. “I had clients in California; no money left, no planes,” Gaynor says. “No airline was answering the phone or answering emails. I got hold of a contact who invited them to stay.
“That’s what happens when there is a crisis. All the airlines have cut costs; try and get hold of a human at SAA, especially if you are sitting in Los Angeles, or wherever. You won’t get a human on the other side of the phone.
“The sad thing for travel agents is that people appreciate you only when something goes wrong. They can do 10 trips trouble-free, then, on the 11th trip, all hell breaks loose. We’re there, before, during and after travel.”
Making travel bookings directly through airline and accommodation websites is a bit like buying short-term insurance directly through a call centre, without the help of a broker. There’s a certain satisfaction in cutting out the middleman (who might have his own agenda when giving you advice); the process is brisk and decisive, thanks to the call centres’ eagerness to move on to the next customer, and the price is likely to reflect a no-frills, direct transaction. Right?
Not necessarily. Insurance brokers understand the industry and can:
* Compare products and prices more efficiently than you may be able to do;
* Seek out options you might not consider;
* Ask the right questions (instead of following a call-centre script) and answer your questions;
* Get to know you and your lifestyle by meeting and/or talking to you, and therefore find you the most appropriate product;
* Keep you informed of changes to the terms and conditions of your policy and price increases; and
* Fight your corner when something goes wrong.
All those statements could just as easily be applied to travel agents. And if those travel agency shopfronts offering cut-price flights and all-in island holidays look outdated and out of step with the age of technology, consider these risks associated with booking online:
* Impulse buying (oh, so easy to like the look of a hotel, or the price of a flight, and click on “buy” in a burst of enthusiasm);
* Being unaware of itinerary options that could improve your trip;
* Booking the first cheap flight and finding out afterwards that there are disadvantages (such as awkward arrival times, poor connections to your ultimate destination, an uncomfortable stopover, or a badly located airport);
* Failing to get the correct information about vital matters such as visas, travel insurance and vaccinations;
* Failing to receive information about flight changes or cancellations, or changes to baggage regulations; and
* Having to wage a lonely battle if things go wrong, either while you are away or on your return home.
If you are booking a return flight on a reputable airline to a single destination you’re familiar with, booking online is ideal: quick and convenient and you can find what you want and pay for it – and get the boarding pass – at midnight, if that suits you. But if your plans are more complicated, or you are open to ideas, a travel agent could save you a lot of time now and all sorts of problems later.
There is a middle road: online travel agents, such as Flightsite.co.za and Travelstart.co.za, offer a compromise between online, agentless booking and the face-to-face service of a travel agent. A simple flight request, for a local or international destination, will produce a range of airline/time/price options (200 in the case of a flight to London), sparing you the tedium of going to each airline’s website separately, but if you want something more complicated than a direct flight, you have to deal with the call centre. For example, if you want an outbound flight to one city and a return flight from another, or you want a stopover on the way to your destination, you have to make a call.
You can book hotels and car hire on the sites, and the call centre agents can offer information and advice on the telephone (or via the chat facility on the website in the case of Travelstart). The sites offer flight “specials” and sales from time to time, and a limited range of local and international packages to tempt you to book flights. Both sites offer emergency support after hours via email.
Agents will explore your options
If you are going to be your own travel agent, you need to do the job properly and research widely, which can be incredibly time-consuming. Say you dream of travelling the 14 000km (as the crow flies) to Japan for the Olympics in 2020 – your first trip to Japan. If you could book today, you could get the very reasonable price of about R10 000 return on Emirates via Dubai – simple. Then there’s the small matter of finding suitable accommodation in the right part of Tokyo – a metropolis with the largest urban population in the world: 37.8 million people. In the US, that many people live in New York and Los Angeles combined, an area 10 times the size of Tokyo.
Or, since you are going halfway around the world, you could travel to Tokyo via Paris, London, Singapore, Mauritius, Hong Kong, Beijing, Seoul – or a magical combo of, say, Mauritius and Hong Kong. The airline options, according to the US-based website Farecompare.com (a mine of information for the enthusiastic researcher) are Air France (the favourite airline of travellers from Johannesburg to Tokyo, according to the website), British Airways, Air China, Cathay Pacific, Etihad Airways, Korean Air, KLM, Lufthansa, All Nippon Airways (ANA), Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, Egyptair and Turkish Airlines. Prices, with one or two stopovers, range from R9 000 on Etihad (two stops), to more than R40 000 on the Japanese airline ANA (one stop).
Unless you are very resilient, by now you are in a quandary: how expensive are these destinations? Can you fit in more than one stopover? How much time will you need in each place? What will the weather be like? How far is the airport from the beach? Will you need visas? And so on. Finding the answers to these questions could take hours … or you could leave them to the travel agent and be presented with a coherent itinerary by email in a day or two.
Or the agent might have another idea: since Japan is so far away, you could even consider a round-the-world ticket from R40 000 and make it the trip of a lifetime. These popular tickets are great value for money: they are valid for a year and allow you between three and 15 stopovers as you travel in one direction around the globe. So if you chose to travel westward to Tokyo, via the US, you would continue in the same direction and travel home via Thailand, India or the Seychelles.
All flights must be booked in advance and the tickets are issued by the two big airline alliances (Star Alliance, which includes SAA, and Oneworld Alliance, which includes BA), so you are restricted to the airlines within that alliance and to a certain number of flights and a certain mileage. You can book on the website roundtheworldticket.com if you are brave enough … but then you might not know about this opportunity of a lifetime without a travel agent suggesting it.
If you are planning your first visit to a country where the language and culture are a mystery (again, Japan is a good example), or the geography is complicated and the climate varies enormously from one end to the other (India, China), a good travel agent can advise on internal travel routes, the best time of year to travel, accommodation, local transport, things to see and places to go (and places not to go). Gaynor says Club Travel has feet on the ground in these countries and always arranges for travellers to be met by local agents on arrival, so they can ask questions and have a contact should anything go wrong.
Cheap flights in perspective
Another hazard of booking online is the tendency to put price first, without considering the consequences. You might find what looks like a good deal by including a low-cost airline in your journey, for example. With your destination Dublin, you find you can nail down a great fare from Johannesburg to Paris and then pay next to nothing to get to Dublin on Ryanair. Click, click and the booking is done; you are pleased with your bargain.
But have you considered whether Ryanair flies from the airport you arrive at, or what it will cost to travel across Paris? And will “low cost” still apply once you include 20kg of luggage per person and much-needed refreshments on the flight? There is a joke that you even pay to use the toilet on some low-cost carriers … at least I think it’s a joke.
“A good consultant is worth his or her weight in gold,” Gaynor says. “There are certain airlines I wouldn’t recommend. I’ll say to somebody ‘you can get a flight for a couple of hundred rand less, but this is the risk’. You’re not going to get that online. The first one that pops up that’s cheap, you book.
“For example, it will probably cost R200 to R300 more to go to London via Doha on Qatar Airways than via Addis Ababa on Ethiopian Airlines, but it might be worth the extra. There’s nothing wrong with Ethiopian Airlines in the air, but on the ground the service can be a nightmare. Doha is slick, beautiful – you could have your holiday at the airport it’s so stunning. Addis is a building site of an airport, so when there are delays and flight cancellations, it can be a nightmare being stuck there. If an unaccompanied minor or an old person is travelling, you don’t want to go that way.
“On the other hand, people are nervous about Turkey, but Turkish Airlines is a great airline. The way they handled the attack at the airport in Istanbul was very good … and you only know how good people are when the chips are down. In fact, the best time to fly is when there have been problems, because the airline and host country really appreciate the fact that you’ve come when everybody else is staying away, prices are lower and there are no crowds.”
Advisers, not agents
Clearly, there is no sensible way of separating price from advice, and some travel companies are beginning to refer to travel “advisers” and “planners”, rather than agents, to better reflect the role of travel agents in the internet era. Forbes magazine recently compared travel advisers with financial advisers: “Rather than merely booking transactions or acting as order takers, agents now work collaboratively with clients to sort through vast amounts of information and make informed decisions, much like financial advisers assist clients in managing their money,” wrote contributor Irene Levine.
Otto de Vries, the chief executive of the Association of Southern African Travel Agents (Asata), which represents 85 percent of the travel industry in South Africa, says: “Travellers are not looking for an agent who will book airline tickets for them. They can do that themselves, online. Instead, they are looking for added value. Travel agents are required by their customers not only to provide a painless travel experience across all the phases of the journey, but also one that is pleasant. That is defined as the new Duty of Care role that travel agents are required to provide and it is a role that customers are willing to pay a premium for.
“Sourcing information online is difficult and stressful, and travel agents use their expertise to help travellers make the best choice in a much shorter period,” De Vries says. “They can do something that their online competitors can’t do – namely, provide a personal service that meets the leisure traveller’s unique needs, interests and preferences.”
Booking flights online might be simple, and you’ll tick boxes to prove you understand the luggage rules, but will you know whether or not you need a visa?
Sandy Pretorius, a branch manager at Harvey World Travel Blue Planet in Cape Town, says it’s not uncommon to have people come to the shop “in a panic” asking for help with visas, when they have booked online. Whereas visa arrangements went hand-in-hand with flight bookings in pre-internet days, and the agents arranged them for you, stricter monitoring of the movement of people means that many visas have to be applied for by the traveller, in person. But a travel agent can help.
“If you were going to Cuba, for example, I would get all your documents from you, put the application together and send it to the Cuban Embassy,” Gaynor says. “Getting a visa can be a nightmare and we help you as much as we can. For a start, we always ask to see your passport, because so many passports have expired. Clients might not have looked at them for years.”
There are visa pitfalls you might not dream of. “We had a lady who booked online Johannesburg-Perth-Auckland and didn’t realise that she needed a visa to enter Australia. Perth has a domestic airport and an international airport, and the rule is that if you are going to leave the international airport, you need a visa. How could she know that? If she had booked Johannesburg-Sydney-Auckland, she wouldn’t have needed a visa, because she wouldn’t have had to leave the international airport.”
Booking on low-cost carriers can lure you into similar predicaments, Gaynor says. “Say you fly into Frankfurt on Lufthansa and fly out on BA, all on one ticket … you don’t need a visa. But if you fly out on EasyJet, you have to collect your baggage and check in again, and then you need a Schengen visa. A lot of people don’t find this out when they book online.”
Then there’s travel insurance, which travel advisers would insist on for everyone if they could. “Some people try to get away without any, but if something happens overseas, it is very, very expensive,” Pretorius says. “We hear the stories and we try and help clients with their claims, so we always make sure clients take insurance very seriously.”
And she is not just talking about health disasters. Travel insurance is for any emergency or accident, from a terrorist incident or an airline going insolvent, to a missed connection, a cloud of volcanic ash grounding all air traffic, or lost luggage. If a family member dies and you have to grab the next flight home at any price, or you need someone to fly out to help you in an emergency, insurance will pay if you have the right policy. Needless to say, it has to be the right policy, and you need to read the small print.
Credit card travel insurance is cited regularly as an excuse for not buying travel insurance, to the dismay of travel agents and the short-term insurance industry. As Personal Finance reported in “Credit card travel cover: good to go?” (first quarter 2016 issue of this magazine), an industry brochure says: “The world is full of deluded travellers. They think they’re insured. They have a brochure to prove it. They lack a copy of the policy document which lists the exclusions.”
It’s worth repeating that ordinary credit cards would give you about R150 000-worth of emergency medical cover and no cover at all for lost luggage, stolen personal effects or cancelled flights.
There are few health precautions these days, but a good travel agent will tell you that yellow fever vaccinations are still required for travel to some parts of South America and Africa; if you haven’t had one before you go, you’ll be vaccinated at the airport on your return, Gaynor says.
The Zika virus is not just Brazil’s problem; it is endemic to parts of other South American countries, and to Egypt, some other African countries and India, so pregnant women need to avoid mosquito bites at all costs. If you book online, you would need to check the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov/travel), but Gaynor suggests you don’t get hung up on their recommendation that you vaccinate against hepatitis and typhoid when you travel to developing countries. Vaccinations are expensive, he says, and sensible precautions are enough.
Paying the price
The comfortable days when travel agents were paid commission by the airlines are long gone, and consumers should welcome that, Gaynor says, since, in any industry, commissions can influence advice and may not operate in the interests of consumers. It’s a fairer, more customer-focused industry now, but the struggle for survival has been tough: who wants to pay an agent when websites are available?
In fact, direct booking is not always cheaper: in a simple search for a return flight to London on a certain day, Flight Centre’s website (which handles flight bookings only; if you want anything more, you are encouraged to visit a branch) produced a better price, including the booking fee, than I could get by booking exactly the same direct flight on BA’s website. (BA: R14 335; Flight Centre: R13 754, including a R275 booking fee; Flightsite gave me the same price as BA, plus a R299 “traveller support fee”, totalling R14 634.) Flight Centre and Flightsite both offer a low-price guarantee that promises to match any lower price you find for exactly the same flight (but beware: strict terms and conditions apply).
Gaynor says people take it as “gospel” that booking direct is always cheaper. “Actually, I can often beat online prices, because I know where to look. I have someone going to Malawi soon, and I could get a flight for R1 000 less than they could get online. So don’t think that the travel-agent price is always going to be higher. We can often get it cheaper, though certainly not always.”
Gaynor and Pretorius say the volumes of bookings done by their agency networks give them some privileges with the airlines – in terms of influence when things go wrong, but also in terms of special offers that make it possible to undercut the airlines.
The rationale behind paying for the services of a travel agent is simple; it’s less simple to say how much they charge. Flight Centre and Travelstart could not be drawn on the subject – Flight Centre’s spokesperson, Sharmila Ragunanan, said: “We charge a fair and reasonable professional margin in exchange for the services provided.” Travelstart’s supply and product manager, Candice May, said simply: “Unfortunately, I am not able to share our mark-up structure with you.” Neither would say whether they discuss fees with customers upfront.
The travel industry is unregulated in South Africa, and neither of these two agents belongs to Asata, whose members voluntarily comply with a “strict code of conduct and constitution” and “commit to transparency in all dealings related to product and price”, according to De Vries.
“Travel agents have, in the past, been dependent on commission and overrides from suppliers for their revenue,” De Vries says. “So their focus tended to be on the supplier instead of on the customer. This has changed: travel agents now have to monetise the additional value they create for the traveller.”
However, he says Asata has a delicate balancing act fufilling its mandate as both the industry representative and a consumer ombudsman, and consequently “cannot get involved in commercial aspects of its members’ businesses, or discuss their prices or fees for service, or anything, in fact, that might affect prices or fees, such as costs, discounts, terms of sale or profit margins”.
Club Travel and Harvey Blue Planet, both Asata members, were more forthcoming, but cannot supply the price list that you might expect. Both companies follow certain guidelines of their own making and readily admit to exercising a degree of discretion. Club Travel works on a maximum of 10 percent of the cost of the travel package, Gaynor says, but that is flexible, depending on the nature of the booking.
“It takes time to do travel research – it takes a lot of time. Most of our clients are referrals; they know there is a cost involved and they are quite happy to pay. We get a net fare, which we pass on to the client. Then it is a negotiation,” he says. “Obviously, if it’s a family – four or six people – going on one trip, we’re not going to charge the full 10 percent on the overall cost. And if the client says what we are charging is too much, we negotiate. But sometimes, yes, they take the information away and book online. It’s a tough business.”
Pretorius agrees that people are, on the whole, reconciled to paying for travel agency services. “Time is money to them, and it is much quicker to get to know a travel agent, tell them what you want and say ‘right, you put it together and let me know’. There is a lot of value in ‘face-to-face’.
“We have worked out our own fee structure, like any retailer. Obviously, you have to be competitive or you are going to knock yourself out of the market. We started out charging 10 percent on fares (excluding airport taxes), but that worked out a bit high sometimes; if you are booking for a family of eight, you are not going to charge for all eight as you would for a couple. So you negotiate. Or, if you are going to lose the deal for R50, you’ll negotiate.
“If a client comes in here and says they have to travel to visit a grandmother who is dying, but they have very little money, obviously you are going to help the client, because ultimately, if they are happy, they will come back. Sometimes, just helping someone with a visa brings them back. Obviously, you don’t want to go out of your way for too long, but if it’s a small step, it’s worth it.”
While 10 percent might be too high on large groups, it can be ruinously low on the fare portion of an economy ticket on a low-priced airline such as Emirates – as little as R100, Pretorius says, “and you can’t run a business on that. So we looked at the market and worked out a schedule of fees, categorised into domestic, regional (when travel extends to country borders), into-Africa and international, plus a business class service fee and a first class service fee. Some corporate travel agents negotiate fees with their regular clients.
“On all our quotes we list the airfare, the airport taxes, our fee and the total. There’s no hiding anything at all; we’re upfront,” Pretorius says. “The fee also appears as a separate item on your bank statement. If you tell people that, there doesn’t seem to be a problem. And that’s the only way we will survive.”
Gaynor says it is important that the agency fee and the travel costs are charged separately. “If they are not listed separately on your bank statement, it’s a sure sign that someone is ripping you off,” he says. “If we book a BA flight for you, your statement will say ‘BA R1 000’ and underneath: ‘Club Travel R100’. If you see only the total amount, R1 100, to the agent, they are hiding fees. Although the agent will have to pay the credit card fee on the whole amount, they are willing to do so, because they will have added on much more than that.
“Most reputable travel agents do it the way we do: airline amount, then agent amount. With an Asata agent, you have recourse (see “Recourse, if you need it” on page 46). Most complaints come from [clients of] non-Asata members. The problem is that anyone can open up as a travel agent.
From start to finish
Shop around for the right agent, as you would shop around for any other service provider. Travel agents may not have first-hand experience of all destinations, but they should be enthusiastic, have years of experience in travel (or have access to experience through their agency), and, above all, be willing to go the extra mile.
“Our role goes right to the end,” Pretorius says. “When the client gets home, we follow up with a phone call: ‘Did everything go OK?’ You learn from the feedback, good or bad. It gives you hints for use with the next trip: whether the accommodation was good, how the airline was, what shortcomings there were in the journey – for example, the client might say it would have been better to have a three-hour stopover, instead of a two-hour one.
“You learn from the client, while also making sure they’re happy with their trip,” she says. “That’s the ultimate: making sure they’re happy. Of course, it’s inevitable that sometimes something does go wrong and that tends to have a snowball effect when you’re travelling. All you can do is correct things as far as possible as you go along.”
Gaynor confirms that agents are there, not just before and during the trip, but afterwards. “If you have been forced to buy another ticket because an airline let you down, when you get home we’ll take all the documentation and negotiate with the airlines. And it’s difficult; the airlines have cut, cut, cut their services to keep costs down, so even we find it difficult to communicate with them. But we’ve got a better chance, with our contacts, of getting hold of a human and putting something right … and a much better chance than somebody on their own trying to speak to a call centre from heaven knows where.
“There’s no further payment – it’s part of the job. It’s the nature of life that things go wrong, but it is surprising how few things actually do. Club Travel sells R2.5 billion in air tickets in South Africa every year … that’s a lot of business, so we have the contacts when something does go wrong. That is one of the major benefits of booking via a travel agent, without a shadow of a doubt.
“You can take the information and go off and book online, but when things go wrong, you’re on your own. With 9/11, we did help people who had booked online. But people have short memories.”
RECOURSE, IF YOU NEED IT
While the travel industry in South Africa is unregulated, the role of the Association of Southern African Travel Agents (Asata) represents 85 percent of retail travel agents, travel management companies, wholesalers and suppliers of travel-related products and services, who comply with all the laws of South Africa – including the Consumer Protection Act – and the association’s code of conduct.
Asata’s chief executive, Otto de Vries, says: “Consumers who use an Asata member and have complaints about the service they receive have recourse and can contact Asata, which acts as an unofficial ombudsman in the case, to ensure that the Asata code of conduct and constitution, as well as the laws of the land, are complied with.”
There is a complaints tab on the home page of the Asata website, www.asata.co.za, that directs you to the complaints procedure and a complaints form. To find an Asata member in your area, or to check whether a travel agent is a member, go to the “Find a member” tab on the website.
Complaints against non-Asata members may be lodged with the National Consumer Commission through the website of the Department of Trade and Industry: www.thedti.gov.za