Use an agent or choose the Web? Travelers can find value in both

It’s 10 p.m. Saturday, and you’re dreaming of a getaway to San Francisco.

Do you know where your travel agent is?

If you’re cozy with the Internet, the nearest help may be that computer on the desk in the next room. You can sit down, book your plane fare, hotel and rental car, buy some theater tickets, print out a map for a walking tour and be back in bed by 11.

But if you’d rather talk to a human being about the trip and can wait until Monday morning, or if - heaven forbid - you don’t own a computer, you’ll probably end up calling a travel agent or two for help in planning and booking your trip.

More than 90 percent of computer users are also travelers, an industry survey shows. So turning to the Internet to make travel arrangements seems like a natural. Travel is second only to books in the e-commerce arena.


For those who like to surf the Web, the waves of this trend have been building in recent years. More and more travelers are going online more and more often.

According to Jupiter Communications, a research and marketing firm, online bookings have jumped from $911 million in 1997 to $2.2 billion in 1998 - roughly 2 percent of all bookings. But online ticketing is expected to increase to $16.6 billion by 2003.

The number of travelers who have used the Internet for travel planning grew by 1,000 percent from 1996 to 1998, from 3.1 million to 33.8 million. This year it’s grown to 52 million, according to studies by the Travel Industry Association of America.

However, the expansion of Internet travel-planning opportunities often makes it more difficult to be a skilled, agile consumer. It may mean spending more time and energy to get the reliable answers you want.

Meanwhile, many travel agencies are fighting for their economic lives.

As some lose that battle and others lag in adapting to the new technology, travelers ultimately may have fewer choices among “live” agents.

One factor plaguing agents is commission cuts by airlines, which are determined to steer travelers to their own online and phone reservation services.

Four years ago, the airlines started slashing the fees they pay agents to issue tickets. They cut the commissions from 10 percent to 8 percent, and they capped them at $100 for international flights and $50 for domestic travel. This year, on Oct. 7, United Airlines announced it would cut commissions from 8 percent to 5 percent for all flights, to save an estimated $150 million a year. American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and 14 other carriers followed suit.

Realizing that airlines probably will eliminate commissions altogether, travel agents are starting to panic.

To make up some of their losses, agents are beginning to charge travelers. In 1995, about 25 percent of travel agents charged customers up-front fees. Today, 75 percent charge an average $10. Now, some travel agents are boosting their fees to $20 or $25.

They fear the new fees might drive customers away, but they don’t know if they can survive without the charges.

Some agents definitely can’t. There were 33,000 travel agents five years ago, according to the American Society of Travel Agents in Alexandria, Va. Now there are 30,000. James Ashurst, an ASTA spokesman, expects many more to bail out in the next five years.

So, where do you turn for reliable information? Are the lowest prices always on the Internet? When is the Internet your best adviser - and when should you seek out a travel agent?

Here are some things to consider.

How comfortable are you with the Internet?
When a question pops into your head, is your first inclination to click the mouse on your Netscape “search” button? Do you have a DSL line (a fast digital connection) at home? Do you subscribe to “Wired” or “PC” magazines? Then you’re probably already making at least some travel arrangements online, and you’ve come to love the convenience of booking at all hours as well as the fun of snapping up limited-time offers that flash onto your screen.

For others, the choice is simpler because they’re not very familiar with the Internet. Either they don’t use the Internet for anything but e-mail, or find Web surfing too frustrating because they have a slow modem or a natural aversion to technology. They’re still flocking to the travel agencies.

“We have a lot of repeat clients, and some just don’t want to bother with the Internet,” said Nancy Stang, manager of Stang Travel in downtown Seattle. “I also deal with a lot of elderly people who do not have computers or don’ot want them; they’ll call around or read the papers for fares, but they’ll never use the Internet.”

Even for those who use the Internet often, the search for travel information quickly becomes overwhelming.

“There’s just too much information out there, it drives me crazy,” confesses one computer nerd.

In the end, there’s more than one way to get where you’re going. To get the best of both worlds, try meandering on the path that runs between the Internet superhighway and the travel agent’s country store.

Locations like Travelocity or Expedia can offer information, advice and comparisons that you can then use when talking to your agent. The agents actually welcome customers who have done some homework in advance.

A growing number of agents often use the Internet extensively themselves to get detailed information that’s up to date. “It’s a lot easier to read and understand (Internet) information, when you can pull it out and print it rather than finding it in a book that’s three years old,” Weidenbach said.

Although many agents still see the Internet as the enemy - and a surprising number don’t have a Web site to promote their services - others are embracing it. Some savvy agencies are using Web sites to lure customers, and actually offer an ideal combination of both “bricks and mortar” and the virtual travel agent., an international travel franchise that went online more than two years ago, probably represents the wave of the future. Its site offers not only search and booking for all its products, but “live chat” service for its speciality, cruises. You can chat online with an agent in its Renton office, 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekends. You can also request that the agent call you back, and the company promises you’ll hear from them by phone within 20 minutes.

Uniglobe sees the relationship between the agents in its 1,100 offices and its Web site as “symbiotic,” not competitive, said CEO Martin Charlwood. Agents gets a commission for referring people to the Web site; it pays off because “when they come to us they’re a more informed consumer, and the amount of time we have to spend on them is less,” Charlwood said.

He sees this as beneficial to both the industry and the consumer.

“We’re not trying to drive (customers) either to the Internet or to bricks-and-mortar,” Charlwood said. “We want them to meet our company in their zone of comfort.”