Now that everyone can book travel anywhere in the world simply by clicking a mouse, what incentive is there to ask an agent to do it for them?
It’s the nightmare question for agents, who have seen the chance to earn valuable fees or commission disappear as clients turn to the internet to book their planes, trains and automobiles.
The answer is either to give up trying to compete, which is not going to help the bottom line, or go out of their way to show customers that they can provide a better service by saving them time and offering them advice.
But how many bother? Travel Weekly took to the telephone to see how four agents coped with a simple travel request.
An overnight rail journey from London to Nice and return in September
Who did we call?Lupus Travel, Tunbridge Wells.
Where else did we look? On the Rail Europe website.
Agent price: £269 return in first class, £164 return in standard class. The agent said the best route was via Lille, as I didn’t have to change stations in Paris, but I would have to leave in the morning and I wanted train after 4pm so she quoted an outbound train via the French capital. She quoted an early afternoon departure which would get me to Nice just after midnight. The return was via Lille so I could change trains just by crossing the platform.
Our price: £414, which included an overnight train to Nice and a day return.
Verdict: It took the agent an hour to get a price that I found in minutes. She was a lot cheaper, but as her quote meant leaving Waterloo at 1.41pm and I had requested a train at about 4pm it didn’t fit the bill.
A rental car for one week for two adults and one child in the Algarve during October half-term
Who did we call?Travelbank Worldchoice, Newton Abbot, Devon.
Where else did we look? On the Holiday Autos website.
Agent price: The agent immediately asked how many people would be in the car and how much luggage we would have and advised a compact car – an Opel Astra or similar – which had four doors and air-conditioning. The Holiday Autos price was £269.50, but her system was flashing an offer, available at that moment, which brought the price down to £181.50.
Our price: from £91 for a two-door Ford Fiesta or similar, which was very small. Prices then went up to £386 through a confusing array of cars, many of which appeared to be identical at first glance. An Opel Astra cost £139.
Verdict: The agent asked my requirements, went on line while I was on the phone and got a quote in an instant. It was a lot more than my quote, but as I was baffled by the choice, the extra money would have been worth the quick service and sound advice
A ferry crossing from Plymouth to Santander, returning from Roscoff to Plymouth in September
Who did we call?Thomas Cook, Guildford.
Where else did we look? On Brittany Ferries website.
Agent price: The agent said she hadn’t done a ferry costing for two years because everyone booked on-line these days. Nevertheless she explained there would be a £25 fee for making the reservation “because the companies don’t pay us” and phoned Brittany Ferries. She called back with a quote for £417, which covered the cost of the travel and the fee. About 10 minutes later she called again to let me know the shop didn’t charge a fee for bookings over £300 so the cost was £392.
Our price: £382, including a £10 discount for booking on-line. It also included a four-berth inside cabin for the outbound journey, which was the same as the agent had quoted for. In fact, if she had asked what I wanted, I would have specified an outside cabin, which took the on-line quote to £392.
Verdict: I put in my request at 3.25pm. By 3.30pm, I had the quote, which was about the same time it took to get a price from the website. The agent was obviously a bit rusty on the ferry front as she had to call again to get the car details, but handing it all over to her to sort out saved me time and trouble so I would have given her the booking.
A return flight from Heathrow to Rome in October
Who did we call?Thomson, Guildford. Flight Centre, Guildford.
Where else did we look? On the Opodo website.
Agent price: The agent at the Flight Centre found an Alitalia return for £204 and a British Airways return for £206. The flights departed Friday afternoon within two hours of each other and left Rome on the following Monday afternoon within 10 minutes of each other.
Our price: £188.50 for the Alitalia flight, £179 for the BA flight, which was £5 cheaper on the BA website.
Verdict: My first search was for a direct Gatwick-Rome flight, which didn’t exist. But instead of telling me that and offering an alternative London departure airport, Opodo gave me numerous one-stop options.
Despite wasting time on four attempts to find direct flights from the wrong airport, it was still quicker than Thomson. I spoke to one agent there at 2.45pm one day, called her back the next morning at 10.20am as I had heard nothing, only to be told it was her day off.
Another agent took the details, promised to call back but four hours later, having still heard nothing, I gave up and rang the Flight Centre. The agent there gave me an quote while I was on the phone. He was pleasant and efficient, took time to explain the taxes and offered to find me a hotel as well. It was a top service, but I doubt many people would consider that was worth the extra cost.