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FAQ: Air Traveler's Handbook 2/4 [Monthly posting]
Section - [2-1] Travel Agents

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   It pays to use a travel agent only if you know a *good* one. A
good travel agent will know when a small change in your schedule can
save you a lot of money. If you buy direct from the airline, you may
not find out such information, since they will only quote you the
rates for the times you ask. So if you're going to use a travel agent,
make sure that you find one who is willing (and able) to search
through the morass of fares and restrictions to find a good deal for
you. A travel agent who just punches your data into the computer and
tells you the prices is no better than the airline's 800 number. A
good travel agent can probably save you about 10-15%.
[Actually, if the airline goes bankrupt between ticket purchase and
flight time, and you bought your ticket from a travel agent, you may
be able to get a refund, especially from some of the larger agencies.
If the airlines goes bankrupt within 10 days of the purchase of the
ticket, the agency may not have paid the airline yet (they are allowed
10 days to do so), so you can ask them for a refund. Better yet, buy
your airtickets with a credit card, and the federal credit protection
act will allow you to get a refund from your credit card company.]

There are several major differences between using a travel agency and
using the airport (airline) ticket agents:

   1. A travel agent can look at all the airline fares, not just
      those of a single carrier. A good travel agent will check fares 
      on at least three carriers. Airlines can only give you their own
      best fares. Then again, you can always call up three (or more) 
      airlines yourself to discover the best fares on each.

   2. A travel agent can check for special deals with consolidators.
      Airline ticket agents can't. Airlines sell heavily discounted
      tickets only through consolidators, not direct to the passenger.

Given the frequency of fare changes these days, a good travel agent
can often find you some real bargains. A bad travel agent, on the
other hand, may miss getting you the lowest possible fare. So it is
best to find yourself a good travel agent.

If you don't care for consolidator tickets, the travel agents get the
same pricing information as is available from most of the online
reservation services and the airlines themselves. So you can do your
own legwork if you wish by calling the airlines themselves. But why do
it when a good travel agent can do it for you? After all, when you buy
a ticket direct from the airline the airline still keeps the
commission, so why not give the commission to a travel agent, who'll
do a little work to make sure you get the cheapest fare?

One reason to do the legwork yourself, either through an online CRS or
by calling the airlines directly, is to get full details on the fare
rules governing special fares. Many travel agents do not know how to
retrieve the rules from their CRS, or aren't willing to do so. If you
read through the rules yourself, you may find a loophole or two to
your benefit.

Note that some travel agencies try to funnel all their business to
a specific airline, because the more tickets they sell to a single
airline, the more money they get. Airlines have incentive programs to
encourage this practice. The travel agent may also know how to look up
fares on only one airline.  This means that your travel agent may be
checking the fares on a single airline, instead of hunting around for
the best fare from several airlines. This is especially true for
travel agencies near airports that are dominated by one carrier. Your
best bet may be to call several airlines before you go to your travel
agent, doing the research on your own, or to tell the travel agent to
check fares on two or three specific airlines. (Don't tell them to
check on all airlines -- nobody is going to do that much work just for
a $20 commission.)

   Also, airlines sometimes sell bulk tickets to large travel
agencies at bargain basement prices if they think they cannot fill the
seats. So depending on the travel agency, you might be able to get a
really good deal. Travel agents sometimes get complimentary tickets
(e.g., one free ticket for every 25 sold), which they can sell as they
wish. (These are called "Promotional Tickets" and are for standby travel.)

   But then again, travel agents get a commission on air tickets
and hotels. The commission is a fixed percentage of the fare (if you
order direct from the airline, the airline pockets the difference). So
the agent can earn more money by selling you a more expensive ticket.
So be cautious when using a travel agent. Look over the agent's
shoulder and see if they're overlooking a really cheap flight. Most
travel agents will try to find you the cheapest possible flight,
because they want your repeat business. But that's the only incentive
for them to try to hunt down an inexpensive fare, so they may not be
as thorough on the cheaper routes. All computer reservation systems
provide a method of displaying the applicable fares in order of price,
from cheapest on up. 

   Since discount flights have restrictions on day of week and
flight times, make sure that you let the travel agent know that you
are flexible and will change a day either way if that will save you money.
Also don't be shy of stating the obvious -- that you're looking for
the cheapest possible fare -- since (most) travel agents aren't mind

   Airport ticket agents tend to be better informed than the
people at the toll-free reservation number, since they often have to
deal with special situations (missed connections, bumped people, etc.)
that require really knowing the reservation system's ins and outs.

   But beware. Airport ticket agents are not beyond lying or making
mistakes.  A frequent complaint of air travelers is being quoted one
price over the phone, and finding that their credit card has been
charged another. Sometimes this happens because the computer system
has trouble completing the transaction and delays it until the
following morning (whence the fare change). But other times it is due
to human error (as if computer problems aren't due to human error
either). When you get your tickets, be sure to verify that the price
charged matches the price you were quoted. If they're different, be
prepared for a fight -- airlines seem very reluctant to own up to this
kind of error. Give as much detailed information as possible, such as
the time you called, the name of the ticket agent, the price quoted,
any unusual occurrences. Get the problem fixed *before* you use the
ticket. They probably won't refund you the difference, as the price on
the ticket is almost always the correct price, but they are required
to (by law) allow you to cancel the ticket and get a full refund
without penalty. If they give you any trouble, pursue it with your
credit card company. It is worth repeating, however, that you can get
the refund only if you don't use the ticket, and initiate any
complaint promptly. [Note that this circumstance is different from
when the airline prints an incorrect price in the newspaper. Not only
is the error clearly documented, but the error occurs before the
transaction is completed, not after.]

Even though most airlines are now matching their lowest discount
fares, it still pays to have your travel agent check several airlines.
For example, USAir has a virtual monopoly out of Pittsburgh, some
sometimes they don't feel the need to reduce the fares. If you don't
mind making a connection, you can sometimes save some money by taking
another airline. 

Most airlines have a "tickets by mail" service which lets you charge
the tickets to your credit card over the phone, and have the tickets
mailed to you at no extra charge. Allow 5 business days for the
tickets to reach you.

When using the airline ticket agents (the ones you get when you
call the airline's reservation number), if you find that you're having
trouble with the ticket agent, try hanging up (politely) and calling
again. Some of the agents are more knowledgable and helpful than
others, and by calling again you may reach one of the better agents.
If you get very good service from an airline ticket agent, write to
the airline commending his or her performance. Thank you letters do go
into the employee's permanent file.

To find a good travel agent, ask the secretaries where you work and
your friends for recommendations. Note that most people will recommend
a particular agent -- don't assume that every agent who works at that
agent's travel agency is as good. Don't be afraid to ask for the
recommended agent by name. Most people tend to use the travel agent
that is closest to where they work or live. If you don't like the
service you're getting, try a different agent.

A good travel agent will become familiar with your travel preferences,
and keep track of your frequent flyer numbers and any special
requirements, such as special meals, seat selection (window/aisle),
non-smoking, etc. They'll also let you know if changing your itinerary
slightly will result in a lower fare. They'll also advise you of any
changes made by the airline on your tickets, by calling you (or if
they can't reach you, by mail).

When you get your tickets, be sure to check them for accuracy,
especially if they are non-refundable. Many airlines will correct
genuine errors, but only if they are reported in a timely fashion.

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Top Document: FAQ: Air Traveler's Handbook 2/4 [Monthly posting]
Previous Document: News Headers
Next Document: [2-2] Unusual Travel Agents: Commission Rebaters

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