To use a travel agent, or not to use one

February 23, 2010

Recently I have come under some fire because I asked the Board of Trustees of John Wood Community College if it was a good idea that they sell tour packages. Let me give some background here, because this story is too long to put into a blog entry on someone else’s blog.

I saw in the JWCC recent Spring catalog that they are offering tours – not only short bus trips to the theater or a quilt show, but longer trips, including to Europe. I will share here one recent experience with that same tour company. It will show why travel professionals HAVE to be in the mix in these days of constant change…

A very good client of mine – he often books last minute, always as a single  – booked a tour from XYZ tour company, to go to Costa Rica. He booked within 3 weeks of departure. When I looked at booking air separately from the tour company’s air, it was higher than what the tour company offered. So we booked the whole trip through the tour provider. (We normally look at trying to save a client money – as well as providing them perhaps with a better schedule than offered from tour operators or cruise lines. After all, it is becoming more and more difficult to find good connections to go anywhere from St. Louis). He was supposed to leave on Monday morning, 15 February, at 6 AM from St. Louis. I received a call on my cell phone (yes, all my clients  have my cell phone number, so they can ALWAYS reach me in case of problems) on Sunday, 14 February, after 9:30 PM. He was very agitated, because he could not seem to check in online for the flight the next morning. He told me he had turned the computer off a couple of times, but it still showed that his flight was cancelled. I asked him if he had already called the 800 number for the tour company, and he said that their answering service had informed him that they were closed. I told him not to worry, I would see what we could do.

I called the 800 number for the tour company, listened to a lengthy infomercial telling me all about their hours of operation before prompting me to punch a number for emergency help. I was routed to a nice person in the United Kingdom who told me I had to call the next day. My next call was to the airline, to see what was going on there. I found out that the plane had not left the East Coast because of weather, and thus was cancelled for the next morning’s flight. I worked with the airline to protect my client on the very next available flight to his destination. He was re-booked on the same flight, next day. When I finally got through to the tour company on Monday, I asked them to make a note in his file that he would arrive same time, same flight number, just one day later. However, when I called back that afternoon – I am getting paranoid about these things, and I want the provider to read back the messages just to make sure the client is taken care of – there was nothing in the record. I was told that if my client would not arrive at the destination airport to start the land tour, he would be considered a no-show. For those of you, who don’t know what that means, when you are a no-show, you have absolutely no recourse. Your trip is cancelled, you won’t get any money back, even if you have insurance….. I discussed the implications of this with the tour company’s agent for a little while, even talking to a supervisor, and finally had the necessary notes in his record that he would arrive the next day. I also filed a claim – he did have insurance through the tour company – to get him a portion of his money back for the part of the trip he was going to miss.

My question to JWCC was this – what would you have done, what could you have done?

I have been in the travel business off and on since 1969, and full time since 1991! Because of my experience and industry knowledge, I was able to get this problem resolved for my client. The tour company was not able or did not care to help him at the time he needed something done! By the way, this is a good tour company – we sell it here in our office, and the other travel agencies in town do as well. So I believe that this was a personell problem – nevertheless, it would have been a huge problem for my client, had I not been able to get it worked out.

Yes, you can often purchase airline tickets cheaper online than through a travel consultant. That is simply because the airlines don’t pay us anything! NOTHING! Should I do business by giving airline tickets away?Tour companies and cruise lines, on the other hand, still pay commission to travel consultants because we provide a valuable service to our clients as well as to the providers. We make sure that the traveler is truly prepared for the trip – has documentation necessary, has answers to questions about all sorts of issues, in other words, is truly prepared for the trip. Normally tour companies and cruise lines sell the trips to the general public for the same price as they sell them through us. So a client will not pay anything more for such a trip. However, even if the price should be a little different from the online price, the peace of mind a traveler gets when he knows he has someone he can call if he encounters a problem, and even more so that this someone he calls knows them, and knows how to take care of the problem at hand, is worth more than getting a trip for the cheapest price! After all, when you pay good money for something in the future, you want to make sure you get a return for your investment!

New Airline for Quincy

October 27, 2009

By now I am sure everyone has heard the news that we are indeed getting a new airline to service our Quincy Airport. First of all, let me say that I LOVE flying out of and into Quincy! What is not to like – free parking, close proximity to home, small amounts of people to be checked, courteous service by those people involved in checking people in, etc., etc.

Now the news is that Cape Air will fly their 9 passsenger planes between Quincy and St. Louis six times a day for $50 each way! GREAT NEWS! There is a big BUT there, though!!!! There is NO code share agreement, so if you plan a trip, you must have about 3 hours between flights! You will have to pick up your luggage and then recheck it with another airline at least 90 minutes before that flight! Some may say that means only 2 hours – I don’t believe so. I have had the experience that the Quincy airline personnel have handwritten the luggage tickets and thus made sure that the luggage was transported to the next airline in St. Louis. HOWEVER, I have also had the experience that I could only check my luggage to St. Louis on my way home – so there still is a 3 hour wait in St. Louis at the end of a trip, when people generally just want to get home! Great Lakes Air’s gates (which, I am sure Cape Air is going to get now) are a good hike from the baggage carousels of the Main Terminal! I also need to see FIRST, BEFORE I sell this to anyone, that we can truly trust that the air schedule is going to be true! That means that planes take off and land on time! Or at least VERY close to it!

Another thing I am hesitant about also has to do with the code share agreement – without one there basically have to be two tickets, which means two change and cancel penalties. Airlines do assess these fees (not travel agents) of about $150 per ticket. So if one has purchased a ticket from Quincy to St. Louis to some other destination, and because of a schedule change affecting Cape Air does not make their connection in St. Louis, they loose at least $150 of that ticket – plus will have to purchase another ticket at that time at a much higher cost in order to complete their trip.

I have heard in the local media that American Airlines has been in conversations with Cape Air. I find that not quite believable – because American Airline supposedly also was in conversations with Great Lakes Airlines about a code share agreement….. Makes you think!

Benefits of Travel

September 2, 2009

I have recently read several articles referring to a program on NPR (National Public Radio) about how leisure activity affects our daily lives.  According to this information, it seems that increased leisure activity runs concurrent with an overall increase in health and wellness.

We can probably all agree that normally people return from a vacation refreshed! We know vacationing can be a great stress reliever. Many people may even feel healthier, be in a better mood, have higher energy levels, and just generally be happier during a vacation.

In the US, people normally have one or two weeks of paid vacation, while in many European countries (I know it from Germany personally) people start out with three weeks off (they also often work less days in the week than we do)…

So, if you want to do something good for your health, think of where you might want to go on vacation! We would love to send you to the right spot on this big earth at the right time!

New Domestic Travel Requirement

June 4, 2009

TSA (Travel Security Administration) has issued new rules governing domestic airline travel. We have started to collect the information which will be mandatory to be in all travel records starting in August. All clients will be asked their full name (not just first, middle initial and last), and we will have to pass on their gender and birth dates. I have copied and pasted from the TSA website (italic added by me for emphasis):

1.   The Full name, as it appears on the government issued picture ID, including middle name and any suffix.
2.   Date of Birth
3.   Gender
 
The TSA will then take this data and verify it against their government watch list and will supply airlines the boarding pass authorization results. Passengers will be denied online check in, kiosk check-in and delayed boarding until this information is supplied and may even miss their flight.
 
We encourage all our clients to assist us in making sure they can take their trips with as little hassle as possible.

New Travel Requirements

May 30, 2009

On June 1, 2009, a new rule will affect all international travel. I have copied and pasted from the government’s website here (cursive and bold were added by me for clarification):

AIR TRAVEL

  • All U.S. citizens traveling by air are required to present a passport book to enter or re-enter the United States.

LAND AND SEA TRAVEL

On June 1, 2009, the U.S. government will implement the full requirements of the land and sea phase of WHTI. The proposed rules require most U.S. citizens entering the United States at sea or land ports of entry to have a passport, passport card, or other travel document approved by the Department of Homeland Security.

It is ALWAYS a good idea when traveling to a foreign destination, to have a passport with you at all times. A passport is – simply put – a document issued by MY country that identifies me as one of its members. And yes, Canada is a foreign country!  In the summer, we have lots of clients taking Alaska cruises, and yes, they travel through foreign waters (Canada) during the Inside Passage. In the winter lots of clients take Caribbean cruises or vacations, and even though we consider the Caribbean our backyard, these are foreign countries! I am always glad to know where my passport is when I travel.

I travel to my home country a lot, Germany, and I would probably be able to pass as a German still (have not been a German since 1975, when I had to give it up because I wanted to become an American). My command of the German language is still excellent (can’t lose that, my mother would have something to say about that!), and I still know my way around over there. But I still have my passport with me when I leave my mother’s house.

We also have to consider that other countries have rules different from ours. I have traveled to countries, where there are sporadic police checkpoints. They check their own people as well as visitors. How much easier when all documentation is in order, since I am a guest there….

Regarding the passport cards – I personally don’t think they are a good idea, as you will need a passport book in addition to them most of the time anyway. So it becomes just one more card to clutter up my billfold…. If I travel by air, I cannot use the card anyway! The only reason one would want a passport card is if they travel to Canada or Mexico routinely via road, rail or sea. So a truck driver, train conductor or someone who works on a ferry could benefit from the passport card. For the rest of travelers, a passport book, even though it is more expensive, is the best way to go.

See our agents about requirements necessary to obtain a passport. By the way, for adults 16 and older, the passport costs right at $100, and is good for 10 years. For younger citizens, the cost is lower, but the duration is lower as well – only 5 years.

Swine Flu

April 29, 2009

There is much in the news about the current epidemic! When will that end??? There have been many “outbreaks” of various viral illnesses related to the travel industry – when we can’t stay healthy on a cruise, should we park all cruise ships? Now Mexico seems to be the bad name – should we not all just stop going to Mexico??? Ridiculous!

I have gotten information from tour operators we commonly use for Mexico vacations.  They are offering to change people’s vacations to different dates or even different locations at this time, provided booked passengers cancel now and rebook their new destination/date by 12 May, AND take their vacation before 15 December. I think that is going well above and beyond anything they need to do.

I also talked to a local doctor and his advice is what I liked best: wash your hands often, and be careful not to be coughed or sneezed on – in other words, go on your vacation and have a great time! The end of the world is not yet here! We are often around people who are not well – but by keeping good hygiene we can stay healthy! We also need to be sure to get enough sleep, diet and exercise in order for ourselves to stay healthy at any time, not just in this time of dire health epidemics!

The whole point here is that every person has to take responsibility for their own actions! When I go on a cruise, I have to sign a paper at check-in that is an affidavit that I am healthy! How many people have signed that paper, even though they may have known they were ill with some contagious virus? Perhaps that is why there are viral outbreaks on cruise ships? When any of our clients book vacations in our office, we offer them insurance. This insurance is there in case a traveler gets ill before the trip and thus cannot go, among other coverage. I encourage anyone who books through our office to ask what is covered by insurance! We will be glad to give out the detailed information provided by the insurance company.

Amtrak News

September 25, 2008

This week a client came in and wanted me to issue an Amtrak ticket for a reservation he had made directly with the rail company. This is routinely done here, as our Amtrak station is not manned, and people traveling on Amtrak still need a paper ticket to get on the train.

I could not claim his reservation, so I called Amtrak only to be told I should send my client to the Amtrak station where there now is a kiosk where a traveler can print out a ticket. I had not heard of that, and since my client was already in my office, I was finally able to claim and ticket his reservation.

At the end of that day I went to the Amtrak station at Wisman Lane to see this kiosk for myself. Yes, there is a machine inside the building. A person can swipe a credit card and thus gain access to his reservation before ticketing it.

We discussed this at our office. While we think that generally speaking, this is a good step forward, we wonder about it a bit as well. We have a ticket printer here, and sometimes it has paper jams. Who maintains the printer at the station and how often? Who loads in the ticket stock paper? What happens if it jams? We are always told by Amtrak that all passengers MUST have a ticket in hand before getting on the train, however, many times when I was on the train, people just had a reservation number and paid the conductor….. I know this is done in unmanned stations like this one, but I also know that you cannot get on the train in Chicago, for example, without a ticket in your hand.

I encourage our clients who still want us to print their tickets for them, to continue to come in and have us do that for them. I feel a little hesitant about swiping my credit card number when this is an unmanned station – why not my drivers license to get my ID, or why not type in my reservation confirmation and then, if there is no credit card number in the record, ask for the credit card….

Just food for thought…..

And more bad airline news, next part….

June 16, 2008

It is really sad. Here, in the best country on earth, we have some big businesses (in this case airlines) who have our government believe that the country cannot function without them. I only remind you of the bail-outs that have happened in the past. Yes, airlines were hit by various events which caused bail-outs, but the rest of the travel industry was hit as well – not to mention regular American citizens! Most of these airlines – especially the big ones – have been experiencing financial troubles for many years. I would call that bad business management, but I guess I don’t know anything about that!

When the airlines started to bleed, instead of looking at their business model and changing some things there, like other businesses would have to, they looked at the one thing you cannot possibly be in business without – customer service! That is where they cut, and cut, and cut…. Instead of treating their customers with respect and gratitude, they shove travelers into ever smaller seats, give them less and less amenities, and now charge them for basics – like the first bag, a can of soda, seat reservations and so forth.

When the airlines cut out travel agencies in the late 1990s, which is the only reason why we have to charge our clients ticketing fees, they made the first big mistake. We did not receive any commission payments unless we sold seats on their planes! And what we did get was directly linked to the price of the ticket – it used to be 10% of the base fare (that is the fare without any taxes) of a ticket. Then it went to 5%, then 5% with a cap, and finally 0%. These airlines had an international sales force that worked their hearts out for them. We took care of our clients – and we still do! – if there were changes to a client’s schedule, we did the work. We also continue to make sure our clients’ flight schedules are correct (like checking the requirements about how long they need to be at an intermediate airport in order to safely change planes), that the travelers are informed about luggage and other rules, that they know how early they need to be at the airport, etc.

For our valued clients we still do whatever necessary, so they can have as good a trip as possible. But it does not look like most of the airlines care for their passengers, our clients. That is the saddest part about this…

And more bad airline news

May 22, 2008

By now you have all heard about American Airlines trying to get out of the red by going to drastic measures: 

American Airlines will start charging $15 for the first checked bag, cut domestic flights and lay off workers as it grapples with record-high fuel prices, the airline said today.

“The airline industry as it is constituted today was not built to withstand oil prices at $125 a barrel, and certainly not when record fuel expenses are coupled with a weak U.S. economy,” said Gerard Arpey, American Airlines parent AMR Corp. chairman and CEO, in a statement. – from Chicago Tribune

Customer Service seems to be a way of the past, if travelers will take this move. I do trust in the public! They will NOT take this! American – and other major airlines – have mismanaged their business for years! Now, in addition to high ticket prices, multiple surcharges and “fees”, they try to add baggage fees for the first bag! What is next? Will we be charged for the seat belt we have to use? Instead of being more customer friendly this airline thinks they can just keep on charging!

I urge all travelers to talk to us! We will always be able to help with reservations, provided we made them in the first place, even though we get NOTHING from the airlines for it!

Flying to and from Quincy

May 1, 2008

I just returned from a trip to Germany on Tuesday, 29 April. I flew from Quincy because I wanted to test how Great Lakes worked. Well, I was disappointed!

On the way to Germany, my luggage was checked in Quincy and I picked it up in Frankfurt, no problem. On the way home would be the real test – I always knew that! When I checked in at Frankfurt Airport for my trip home, I could only check my luggage to St. Louis! US-Airways could not see that ZK was the abbreviation for any airline – it IS the abbreviation for Great Lakes Airlines. So I had to pick up my luggage in St. Louis, and then take it upstairs to the counter and check it in again. Also, the gate for Great Lakes is half way to the East Terminal, a long way to walk!

This is the reason why we won’t sell Great Lakes as long as they don’t have an interline agreement with a major carrier. There is also the consideration, that the way it is now, if a person is booked on another flight from St. Louis, and something changes, there are change and cancel penalties for TWO airlines that will be incurred. While schedule changes normally don’t incur a change fee, the Great Lakes portion would! I really don’t like to state this, because checking in at Quincy Airport is so easy – parking is free, there are just a few people checking in at any time…. but what is that convenience for everything else one has to go through?

More on this subject when there is an agreement…