7 trips you should never book online

By | January 10th, 2010

Carolyn Fletcher’s honeymoon started heading south the moment she and her husband landed in Cancun. No one was there to pick up the newlyweds.

It took an hour for her to convince a van service to deliver them to their hotel. But when they checked into their four-star resort in Akumal, they discovered it was a “a two-star, at best,” she remembers.

“The grounds were unkempt and there was trash everywhere,” she said. “Our room smelled of mildew. I sat down on the bed to cry, only to find the sheets and mattress wet from the moisture and mildew. There was mold growing on the curtains, the walls and the furniture.”

Why am I telling you about Fletcher’s post-nuptial nightmare? Because she booked it online.

Some vacations should never be booked through anyone but a travel agent, and a honeymoon is arguably one of them. But there are others, too, as travelers like Fletcher are discovering.

A recent Forrester Research study suggests there’s something of a backlash when it comes to booking travel online. It concludes 15 percent fewer travelers will use the Web in 2009, compared with two years ago — a finding that comforts many travel agents who previously saw themselves on the endangered list.

(People have gotten a little carried away with the Forrester study, though. One headline writer suggested online booking might be the “worst part” of the trip. Right. That would be the flight, actually.)

It’s little consolation to Fletcher and her husband. “While most people will remember their honeymoon with happy memories, ours are filled with disparagement, frustration and regret,” she adds.

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In trying to figure out when you shouldn’t book online, I thought I’d ask someone who works for an online travel agency. I put the question to Ginny Mahl, Travelocity’s vice president of sales and customer service. “There is still a place for traditional travel agents, particularly those that have carved out a niche, like adventure travel,” she said. “Depending upon the traveler and their needs, a face-to-face meeting with such a consultant could be wise.”

Of course, she adds, “higher fees will apply.”

Of course.

So when should you not book on the Internet? Here are seven kinds of trips.

1. Cruising
Travel agents remain your best bet for a floating vacation. Why? Two main reasons: First, cruise lines give travel agencies access to special deals that you probably won’t find anywhere else. And second, because a cruise can get complicated. There are airline tickets that have to be bought, hotel rooms to be booked, shore excursions and lots of options on the ship. “Often, cruise agents will book group space on popular sailings, which often entitle them to offer their clients bonus items — onboard money to spend, champagne toasts, discounted deposits and more,” says cruise expert Carmen Shirkey. “Plus, because they’ve booked space on the best cruises, other sites may tell you that there’s no availability, when a cruise agent can get you onboard, no problem.”

2. Traveling around the world
An around-the-the-world itinerary is usually far more complex than a straight-up roundtrip airline ticket. Never mind the hotel arrangements and activities you’ll want to plan. Travel agents are best suited to these kinds of vacations. Blogger and frequent traveler Steven Frischling has taken several around-the-world trips for business. “Last year, in a 3 1/2- day span, I photographed jobs in Philadelphia, Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Incheon — departing from and returning to Providence,” he says. “There was no online booking engine that would allow this itinerary.”

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