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Using travel agencies versus online booking websites
In an age where you can buy almost everything online, many thought that travel agencies would soon disappear. Although many travel agencies had to close their doors, studies show that there’s a comeback.
The arrival of online booking websites made it much easier for independent travellers to book their own holiday online. But do they also make it easier to travel? In this article we compare the use of travel agencies vs booking online with popular travel booking websites.
The advertisement of booking websites like Booking.com and Expedia make you believe that you don’t need any travel agency anymore to plan your holiday and if you use their website it will be very fast, easy and cheap to travel around the world. But is it really?
Is it really faster, easier, cheaper and better to book your holiday through an automatic online booking website instead of using a travel agent?
There is no universal answer to this question. The ‘right answer’ will depend on your timing and what you’re looking for, for example, flexibility, the lowest price or less stress.
Travelling by yourself
If you have time, like to organise, are flexible and speak the language of the country where you want to travel, then DIY (do it yourself) travelling is the most authentic and cheapest way to travel and really get to know a country and its people.
But what if you don’t have much time, don’t like planning, don’t speak the language and/ or just want to be able to relax as much as possible during your holiday?
Planning your holiday is time consuming
Different studies show that modern travellers are spending more and more time online to plan their holidays. A study from ComScore and Expedia in 2016 shows that American travellers now spend an average of 23 hours online within the 6 weeks prior to their actual departure date!
Travellers who want to have a flexible itinerary and more freedom, like backpackers now even spend hours online in their hostels. While looking for the best next destination, hostel and way to get there, they’re losing days of their holiday,
If you like doing research and planning every detail of your holiday, then all this time online can be seen as part of the fun and travel experience, but if you have a busy job and want a holiday to relax, then all this time preparing your holiday is quality time that you lose. Time spend on planning will leave you with less leisure time to sport and/ or spend with your friends and family.
Another comparison shows even that if you would express the loss of time in money, then a traveller from the USA with an average salary of 21.30 US$ an hour potentially loses 490 US$ extra on planning his holiday.
One of the reasons why it is so time consuming to prepare your holiday online is because there is just so much information available and it is not always clear which information is correct.
Although search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing are getting better and better, they are still programmed to find and show the most popular information. Search engines don’t know the difference between true or false information. If you want to be popular, or sell something, you can basically write anything you want as long as you know how to make your information convincing enough and popular with the online search engines. No one actually checks if the information online is also true.
Deceptive travel information
Good examples of deceptive information are the extremely altered pictures which show real destinations, but with unrealistic beauty.
It isn’t uncommon that pictures are slightly altered to look better and I believe that it doesn’t surprise anyone that most pictures of tropical beaches and sunsets that we see online have been slightly improved. But what about highly altered pictures of un-known destinations like the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, or the Rainbow Mountains in Peru?
The current urge to show the whole world your best pictures on social media like Instagram and Facebook has prompted many travellers to highly alter their pictures. These amazingly looking pictures are obviously more attractive to look at. More views make the unrealistic pictures even more popular with online search engines and in return making it more difficult to find out how a tourist attraction really looks like.
Recently I’ve seen some amazing pictures from the Salar de Uyuni, where they show a pink and blue Milky Way reflecting in the rainwater on the salt flat.
I’ve been more than 20 times to the Salar de Uyuni and can tell you that the Salar is beautiful, but it is impossible to be able to see such a reflection, or even one that resembles these pictures. Unfortunately the existence of these pictures meant that I had to disappoint one of our clients who had found them online and wanted to see this reflection with her own eyes. Imagine how many other travellers are getting fooled by pictures like this.
Some travellers might even decide to alter their own pictures to make them look similar. The Rainbow Mountains are a good example of this. Less than four years after the first altered pictures of the Rainbow Mountains arrived on social media sites, tourism increased from an average of six visitors a day to around 300 visitors a day!
Besides showing the world their best pictures, some travellers also want to spread their story and write a blog about their travel experiences. Many stories will be accurate about real experiences, but there are also travellers who write about things that aren’t true, either because they don’t know, or because they want to attract more visitors to their blog.
Romanticised travel stories are great to read, but not the best source of neutral information.
Tripadvisor is partisan
When comparison websites like Tripadvisor made it easier for travellers to publish independently anonymous reviews about hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions it started an online competition with a snowball effect. The reviews on Tripadvisor made it much easier for travelers to compare the many different hotels, restaurants and other tourist businesses, while their good or bad reviews directly affected the popularity of a business. Good reviews likely increase the popularity of a business; in return attracting more clients.
It may sound logical and fair, but unfortunately the option to publish your review anonymously can provoke abuse of these comparison tools. At first business owners asked friends and colleagues to leave a good review. Later, several tourist businesses fabricated their own additional consumer accounts to be able to leave more good reviews (a friend of mine was able to create 200 Tripadvisor accounts), while some others promised their clients additional services in return for good reviews.
Because Tripadvisor now also provides its own online booking services, their opinion and rating system is now biased, like those of Booking.com, Expedia, Trivago, etc. Depending on the commission rates that businesses pay to them, Tripadvisor will decide which businesses are easier or more difficult to find.
Booking your holiday through booking websites
Booking websites like Booking.com, Expedia and Hostelworld decided straight away to combine the options to compare hotels and book them directly; this turned out to be a golden business idea. At a low commission of 5%, these websites provided better communication between the hotels and potential clients.
But what started with a good balance of mutual needs and benefits between booking websites, hotels and clients shifted when the booking websites became too popular and powerful. The commissions went up to between 10 to 30% and the higher commission a hotel pays, the higher they show up on the popularity list. As a result some of the less popular and lower quality hotels started to pay higher commissions and seduce more clients. While some of the better hotels who thought that they didn’t need the online booking sites and didn’t want to pay the higher commissions, actually lost clients.
If hotels don’t want to pay the high commission anymore, some of the booking websites inform their visitors even that this hotel is no longer available, so people are discouraged to contact this hotel.
Popularity based on commission rates can result in a decrease of quality of the services for customers.
Booking websites also monitor the behavior of their visitors and research from Wired in 2017 shows that some booking websites use this information to direct their visitors to either higher or lower bargains, depending on previous search history, location and even type of computer that’s been used during the search.
Booking websites don’t seem to use the collected information yet to raise the prices of the hotel rooms. But if you look for flights it can save you hundreds of US dollars when you book from a different location and/ or computer, with a browser that doesn’t show how much money you might have!
To prevent part of the data collection and save money, it is also important to search for your flights through the Incognito Mode of your web navigator and delete all the cookies after the search.
If you like planning and have time, then I recommend that you visit several comparison and booking websites, find the best services at the lowest prices and then contact the hotel or transport company directly to see if they can offer you the same price, but with an even better service. This way all of your money goes directly to the hotel, instead of the international online booking corporations and you will receive a more personalized service.
The advantages of having your trip organised by a travel agency
The main advantage of booking your holiday with a travel agent is that you will be saving time and stress before and during your travels.
Personalized travel advice
If you plan your holiday with a travel agent, even with an online travel agent you’re dealing with a human being who works hard to help make your travel dreams a reality. Talking with a real person who knows the travel world makes it much easier for you to know what your options are within the time you have. The travel agent knows which questions to ask and based on your answers and wishes he/ she can give you personalized recommendations and plan a customized travel itinerary, suited to your preferences.
Travellers with special needs
Especially for travellers with special needs like allergies or a handicap, the help of a travel agency can be very useful, or even indispensable. If you have a gluten allergy and don’t speak Spanish, it can be hard to order food in Latin America. If you want to travel in a wheelchair, this will be almost impossible without the right local help. An experienced travel agency will be able to help and can take you to places you thought you might never be able to see. Like visiting the archaeological site of Machu Picchu in Peru!
To be able to make their recommendations and provide you with accurate information to help organizing your holiday, a good travel agency doesn’t have to surf the whole internet, relying instead on their own personal experiences and local network.
Travel agencies will also show you some slightly altered pictures, but will be careful not to alter their pictures too much, or they will later have to deal with disappointed clients.
Especially with the competition of booking websites, it is now increasingly in the interest of the travel agencies to gain and maintain the trust of travellers by providing them with reliable personalized information and services.
Better prepared before travelling
Due to their knowledge and experiences, a travel agent is able to inform his/her clients about things they might not have thought about themselves. Important tips that can be vital to your travel experience include information about visa restrictions, recommended vaccinations, the best season to travel, the current political situation, travel times, opening dates and times of museums and much more.
Help in unpredictable situations
When you organize your own holiday and something goes wrong before or during your trip, you will be on your own. Problems that frequently arise include flight delays, schedule changes, visa complications, political problems (strikes), natural disasters, or issues with the hotel room and/or facilities.
Booking websites spend huge amounts of money on advertisement, but seem to try to save money on salaries, therefore only employing the minimum amount of employees.
When you want personal contact to change a reservation, file a complaint, or in case of an emergency it is very difficult to get in contact with the right person. You first have to find out who to contact, how to contact them and what your rights are, before you can think of the most effective way to solve your problem.
When you book your travels with a travel agency, they will be able to help you with most of the complications. Their knowledge and experience make it much easier to deal with unpredicted situations.
Imagine that you want to travel from Puno to Cusco in Peru and there is a roadblock. It is impossible to pass and no -one knows how long it will last. It happens at least once a year along this road, so is a realistic situation.
If you have time, you just wait it out and explore the surrounding of Puno and Lake Titicaca, but if you have to be in Cusco, because you have a reservation for the Inca Trail, then you might be in trouble. How do you make it in-time to Cusco?
A travel agency will not be able to solve the roadblock, but they have a lot more experience with situations like this and can rely on many resources to try to find a way to get you in time to Cusco.
If you have limited time, but want a unique holiday, without the stress of all the research and planning, you can ask your travel agency about the travel possibilities according to your preferences, time and budget. With all their knowledge and local contacts, travel agencies can help you to get to amazing places that are difficult to reach and you might have never heard about.
To make the tour even more attractive, they might also be able to include special perks like decorating your room, making a reservation with a famous chef, or including tickets for an important soccer match.
Is it more expensive to book your holiday with a travel agent?
This is an important question for many travellers. Strictly from the point of view of spending less money, DIY travelling is often the cheapest way to go. But if you would compare the price you pay with the services you receive, the answer isn’t very clear.
Some travel agencies will also argue that DIY travellers don’t have the same special understandings with local operators and therefore don’t have access to all the special deals. This is true and in the past the special deals that travel agencies had with hotels, tour and transport companies gave them enough advantage to be able to offer very sharp price deals.
But websites like Booking.com and Expedia are now so powerful that if hotels want to be enlisted, then they have to provide these booking sites with the lowest room fares, often taking this advantage away from the travel agencies. Except with the special All Inclusive holiday packages, these packages are often so cheap that not even the independent traveller can compete with those prices.
Besides the online booking websites for hotels, travel agencies also have to compete in prices with transport search and booking websites like Skyscanner, Travelocity and RedBus. Especially for last minute bookings, these websites make it much easier for DIY bookers to find and book their own transport worldwide.
With all the online last- minute prices it is almost impossible for travel agencies to compete. But be aware that the prices you see during an offer online are often incomplete and usually only valid for a limited timeframe and for certain seats.
Is online booking more expensive than it looks?
Not only the transport booking websites are often unclear about their prices, also the prices at online booking websites for hotels are often not all-inclusive. To make hotel rooms on booking websites look cheaper, they often offer the least attractive rooms and cut out all the ‘extras’. It isn’t uncommon that while booking the room you still have to add the following costs to the price: state tax, local tax, breakfast and service costs!
The advantage of a travel agency is; once you make a deal with them, there are no hidden additional costs.
Another disadvantage of booking your room through a booking website is that you often have very limited control over which room you get. If you book the room directly with the hotel, or through a travel agency you will actually be able to ask for a room close to your preferences, like a quiet room on the second floor with mountain-view.
Hotels, especially the bigger chains are starting to exploit this advantage they have over the booking websites. According to their contract with the booking websites, hotels have to provide them with the lowest prices, but they are still allowed to offer the same price with better services and perks towards independent travellers and travel agencies.
Prices of local tours and excursions
In general, the separate excursion and tour prices within your holiday are not higher when you book them with a travel agency compare to when you book them directly. Most local operators have agreements with travel agencies that if they help with selling a certain service, they will receive a commission for their help. For example, if you want to book a tour into the Amazon Rainforest and the online sales price with the local agent is 550 US$, your travel agency will also sell this tour for 550 US$, but for his effort he receives 10% commission from the local agent.
Some travel agencies nowadays do charge pre-booking fees. This is because it happens too often that travellers ask their travel agent to plan an itinerary and then they use this information to make their own bookings online…
However, most of the time these pre-booking fees will be deducted from the overall tour price when clients actually book their tour with the travel agency. Therefore, regardless of whether or not clients have to pay a pre-booking fee to the agent, they still pay the same total price for the tour.
When you book your travel arrangements directly with the local businesses, all of your money will go directly into the local economy.
If you book your travel arrangements through a travel agency, part of the money will stay with the travel agency, including the person who helped you to organize your travels.
When you book your hotels and flight with online booking websites, part of your payment will go to huge corporations. Studies from 2017 even show that it is actually Google who earns most from this whole online travel business.
Plan your travels
As I wrote above, the best way to organize your holiday depend highly on your time, budget and personal preferences. However, unless you have unlimited time and no preferred travel route, it is important to remember that it will always save you money and stress if you plan your holiday correctly. In contrary to what many people think, a well-planned holiday even makes you more flexible.
When you travel with a good plan and a clear itinerary, it will help you to decide faster how you can adjust your travel itinerary to your new preferences, without missing out on your most important highlights.
Less flexible, but the best way to relax and still see all your preferred highlights is to plan and book your holiday with the help of a good travel agency.
Links to online articles which support this story:
Price comparing graphic http://hostagencyreviews.com/travel-agent-vs-booking-online/
Buying review: https://www.bbc.com/news/business-45916368
Are you special, or just one of many… http://beachmeter.com/5-reasons-why-you-should-not-book-your-hotel-through-otas/
Clear cookies for cheaper flights https://www.businessinsider.com/clear-cooking-when-searching-for-flights-online-2015-9
Recommendations from the writer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evo7tt4VPkQ