Agents are turning to smaller specialist operators as they face waits of up to an hour on the phone to larger operators.

The consolidation of the big four and the relocation of call centres overseas are being blamed for making companies’ phone services worse than ever,with agents namingVirgin Holidays and First Choice as the worst culprits.

Rendezvous Travel director Gabi Birbeck said: “I steer clear of the big operators and use the smaller ones when I can. They offer to call you back and you can speak to the same person.”

Stowaway Travel managing director Paul Stowe blamed overseas call centres for the deteriorating service. “I’ve been waiting up to 45 minutes to get through to Virgin Holidays. It costs a fortune and when you do get through to a call centre in India the staff are ill-trained or can’t understand you.“

Travel Weekly columnist Maureen Hill said: “If you call direct bookings you get through, but if you call the agent line they keep you hanging on.”

Virgin Holidays general manager Chris Roe admitted the operator was experiencing “teething problems” after introducing a reservations ­system for long–haul trips. “We have a call centre in India for overspill but it has been performing as well as, if not better, than the one in Crawley.“

A spokesman for First Choice said call centres were operating as usual. “There may have been limited periods where staff have been in training, which may have slightly affected the number of operators taking calls.“

Association of Independent Tour Operators chairman Derek Moore said: “It’s not surprising agents are deserting the big operators as they grow weary of being treated poorly, especially being made to wait on thephone. It’s more satisfying to deal with a smaller ­operator that wants to help agents, rather than a massive company that isn’t interested.“

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