What’s the difference between a travel agent and an online agency?

What’s the difference between a travel agent and an online agency?

Think booking through an online agency is the same thing as buying through a human travel agent? Think again. I explain the differences.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • VoR61

    I like your USATODAY videos, Chris, but wish they were about twice as long with a little more information.

  • TonyA_says

    Very good. I would like to add that when you buy online you are DIY-ing. So blame yourself if something goes wrong.

  • LFH0

    I don’t understand why one would want to use an online “travel agent.” If I think I can do it myself, then I’ll go to the carrier’s website directly, and avoid having a middleman who’s only purpose is to confuse and provide additional avenues for things to go wrong. If I don’t think I can do it myself, then I certainly would not be able to do it myself with an online “travel agent.” In that case, or if I simply want the extra service only a knowledgeable agent can provide, then I’ll go to a real travel agent. (Unfortunately, I believe that most travel agents really do not know travel very well, and at best, they only know how to hit keyboard keys and regurgitate whatever comes up.)

  • bodega3

    There are a lot of very knowledgeable TA’s out there. I am highly disappointed with the newbies hitting the web. They don’t know air and that is such a part of travel that it really bothers me. They want you to book online, often using their booking engine, but when the rubber meets the road when there is a problem, they don’t know what to do to help. Sad!

  • polexia_rogue

    it’s the pokemon known as cheaper!

    CHEAPER!

    CHEAPER!

    CHEAPER!

    cheaper -use confusion attack to make all the people think that they are being smart by booking travel on non refundable sites!

    super effective!

    cheaper- use metal block to make them believe “price match guarantee means anything at all!

    pokemon known as cheaper wins!

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    So do I. But time is limited. We have to keep them around one minute.

  • TonyA_says

    There is a new breed of travel “agents” who only use their consortium’s (or consortia’s) web interface and not a raw GDS. They are dumber than a traveler who can use ITA matrix.

  • Annie M

    From every travel consultant out there, thank you! A travel consultant can help fix things that go wrong, an OTA usually doesn’t. If you are traveling and have a problem, good luck getting help – if you book through a consultant, you will usually have a phone number to reach them.
    All the travelers through our agency receive our cell phone numbers so they can reach us whenever they might have a problem while traveling.

    Thanks for differentiating!

  • Annie M

    I disagree with your statement about most travel agents – I don’t know ANY that don’t know travel well and if something comes up that we might not know, most of us have a network of people we can find the information for a client.

    Many OTA agents even agents who work directly for a supplierand even those working for cruise lines have never used that agency to book a trip or even have been on their own companies cruise line. Next time you book a cruise through a cruise line, ask the agent how many times they have sailed with the line they represent.

  • lvswhippets

    Yes there are. And I am fortunate to have one of the best. But having said that I do sometimes book my own air through the air lines.

  • Annie M

    And that is why anyone who is going to use a travel consultant should pick up the phone and speak to them. Ask questions and interview them – you can tell by speaking to them if they know what they are talking about or not. We don’t have a booking engine on our website because we want to speak to a client – sometimes what they think they want isn’t what they actually want and we can help discern that for them to make sure they are getting the vacation they want.

  • VoR61

    Wow, I’m surprised. Is that a USATODAY requirement. A two minute video takes up very little storage …

  • bodega3

    Are you GDS trained?

  • LFH0

    I am actually being more general than just “air” travel. Rather, I mean the entire spectrum of getting from here to there. Air travel is a very important component of contemporary travel, but there’s more as well. It is not just hitting computer keys blindly and seeing what happens; it is about knowing how to approach a travel request, probably knowing the general answer (or at least an approach) at the beginning, and doing computer searches intelligently. A good, well-rounded, travel agent should know geography well, should know in general terms where particular carriers operate, what their strong trunk routes are, where the national rail and bus network operates (and where the services can be time-competitive with air line service), how to put together a trip manually (allowing routings, fare construction) so as to have the insight as to how to best construct a client’s trip, first hand knowledge of places and connecting points.

    Several years ago I went round-trip from New York to Churchill, Manitoba, with a need to attend a convention in Winnipeg enroute, and a desire to sightsee where practicable. I put together the following itinerary: Midwest Express, New York – Milwaukee; Amtrak, Milwaukee – Grand Forks; Triangle Transp. Co., Grand Forks – Winnipeg; Via Rail Canada, Winnipeg – The Pas – Lynn Lake; Grey Goose, Lynn Lake – Thompson; Via Rail Canada, Thompson – Churchill – Winnipeg; Grey Goose, Winnipeg – Thunder Bay; Happy Time Tours, Thunder Bay – Grand Portage; Grand Portage Isle Royale Transportation Line, Grand Portage – Isle Royale; National Park Service, Isle Royale – Houghton; Greyhound Lines, Houghton – Milwaukee; Midwest Express, Milwaukee – New York. A good and knowledgeable travel agent would view the above as a challenge, and even if he or she were not able to ticket every segment themselves, would nonetheless provide advice to the extent practicable. That’s what my travel agent can do, but I think many, if not most, would be intimidated. Am I too demanding?

  • bodega3

    If you are paying a planning fee, no. For advice, yes. FYI, most bus companies don’t work with TA’s, but with a planning fee for those that handle FIT travel, they can provide you with that information. The ‘new’ trend in travel consultants are to be ‘specialists’. However, I come from earlier times, where I have sold the world. What I didn’t know, prior to the internet, I obtained the information. That use to take some time, but we also had country travel desks, usually in NYC, that we could call and get your questions answered plus country publications with contacts for us to use. Mexico was always a challenge. I remember requesting information and receiving it 6 months later. Gee, thanks.
    Travel consultants or agencies with online booking engines should be avoided IMHO. As with any consultant, some will work with you better than others. I am glad you have one that works well for you. I have had clients with me for close to 30 years. I have had referrals not work out and some that we just clicked. That is business and happens.

  • LFH0

    A fee for someone who knows travel, can put an interesting itinerary together, can provide useful (not canned) advice–and without being unduly influenced by commissions and overrides, can be money well spent. A fee for someone who knows only how to issue an airline ticket is rarely worthwhile.

    In more recent years I’ve given up flying commercially. My travel agent has no problem with that. My impression is that most travel agents would have a problem with that, fee or no fee. And an online travel “agent”? Certainly incapable!

  • bodega3

    Newbies don’t want to touch air. IMHO, any agent not GDS trained isn’t giving you all that could be offered even with packages. I won’t get started on this, as it is a subject that really gets me going. If your agent is good with what you do, that makes for a good working relationship. Online, as TonyA and I both say, is just a vending machine.

  • TonyA_says

    Yes you are too demanding :-)
    That travel agent will not make money since most people who will travel to Canada from here will not be willing to pay the $/hr rate the TA needs to charge for all that work.
    Most people who really want to travel WELL will READ and PLAN what they want to see and do themselves.That’s why traveling is really a hobby.

  • TonyA_says

    +1 on the specialization.

  • LFH0

    I think your conclusion is correct. The itinerary I posed was complicated and subject to my whims. My travel agent will do such an itinerary only because (1) he enjoys doing that type of planning even if it does not make money, and (2) he would do the same type of journey. I think the same could also be true with specialized agencies. For example, the Alaska Pass agency charges $85 for devising itineraries (and while they take requests online, at least they provide a box for people to describe their special interests).

    Nonetheless, I good general travel agent when faced with a client requesting travel to and from, say, Isle Royale, Michigan, should be able to determine the “best” airport to sell a ticket, based in part on the various ports from which the ferries and seaplanes depart, and the availability of ground transportation between them. It may require the agent going on to Google, but a good agent should be able to piece together an itinerary from more sources than just a single GDS. And this is how a real travel agent differentiates himself or herself from an online “agent.”

    (I also thought a bit “travel” as a hobby, and I think you may be right
    about that, too. I’ve long complained about people who claim that they like
    to “travel.” The verb “to travel” refers to the process of getting from
    here to there. I think many people like being someplace else, but
    most dislike the process of getting from here to there. In that sense, I
    think most people dislike “travel,” and that true “travel” may well be a
    specialized hobby.)

  • bodega3

    A full service travel consultant wouldn’t bat an eye at this. A specialist would.

  • Lindabator

    I agree – LOVE the harder itineraries – they are fun and far more interesting.

  • Annie M

    That is not necessarily true. I know many agents selling millions of dollars in travel that don’t use a GDS and are legit and know as much if not more than I do. Can’t generalize, as many use their consortium so they can add service fees.

  • bodega3

    Not using a GDS for at least informational purposes, especially if you sell packages with air, just doesn’t compute for me.