Self -service travel booking. Could the travel agent be making a comeback?

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When I drove into the gas station in Vancouver,B.C. this weekend, the sign said Full Service. I looked for the self -serv line but couldn't find it.

When I didn't see an attendant coming my way I got out of the car, put my credit card in the scanner--just like at home .However, before I could  start pumping, the attendant grabbed the pump out of my hand.

 Was I supposed to tip him? He didn't wash my windows, check under the hood, he just pumped. I would have preferred doing it myself.

It's been quite a few years since I enjoyed full service gas stations. It felt odd to have someone doing a job I have gotten used to doing even though I don't exactly like pumping gas particularly in Minnesota's winters.

And so it caught my attention this weekend that some are predicting the return of the travel agent.

In 2008, US travel sales booked online will reach $105 billion, up 12% from 2007. But even though sales are growing, fewer travelers are booking their trips online.

The US Online Travel report analyzes why the dynamics of one of the Internet's most successful categories are changing. The fact that fewer travelers are booking online is not due to economic concerns: online travel bookers are an affluent demographic.

The drop is caused by frustrations related to the planning and booking capabilities of online travel agencies. This, in turn, is spurring a renewed appreciation for the expertise and personalized services offered by traditional travel agents.

I can't even remember the last time I used a travel agent. Pre 9/11?

In the interim I have gotten used to the idea that travel, like pumping gas, is something I do for myself.

And because I know that there are huge variances in price,I have become obsessed with getting the very best deals possible.

To achieve this savings I spend a ridiculous amount of time searching travel discount sites.

Bargain shopping is generally not my MO. I have no idea what the price variances are for eggs in one grocery store vs. another. If I happen to buy clothes on sale its only a fluke. I don't go to clothing stores unless I have to buy something and I have no interest in waiting for it to go on sale.

Travel is another issue. I don't mind investing the time to get the deal. As I write this I am sitting in the Alaska Air Board Room in the Seattle Airport. I am completing a four day trip where I booked air, hotel and car rental at discount travel sites.

The benefit of booking with a discount travel company is the discount. The disadvantage is there is no wiggle room for substitutions and change of plans.

My trip had lots  change of plans.Some worked well, others, not so much.

When my friend Dan called at 11:00 on Saturday morning asking me to take my time driving to his home in Bellingham, WA., my bags were already packed and I was just about to shut down my computer to check out of the hotel.

After a brief conversation I suggested that I reschedule the visit. I decided instead of fighting the border traffic I  would just stay in Vancouver one more day.

But there was a catch. I had booked my room at the Vancouver Hyatt Regency on Hotwire. I got the room for $159.00 .

When I walked down to guest services to see if I could stay an additional day I was informed that yes they had vacancies and the room would be $302.00

Bryan, who was working the desk, said he could go as low as $243.00 but that was the best he could do.  I was not interested.

So I went back to my room and logged on to Hotwire which still had a four star hotel in Vancouver for $159.00. My hunch was that it was the exact hotel I was staying in. So I booked my room and got it at the rate I wanted.

I did have to go back downstairs and exchange keys but that was it. By booking my room on hotwire I saved nearly $100.

Bryan congratulated me on getting the lower room rate. But my question is -- why didn't Bryan give me that rate?

It would have been one thing if the hotel were booked. It would be one thing if Hotwire wasn't still advertising the hotel at the rate of $159.  But they were.Wouldn't the hotel have made more money (no commission to Hotwire) if they had just extended the rate and had me pay them directly? 

  Knowing that I saved $300 in hotel costs this weekend, is a great motivator.
Shauna Arthur of The Travel Insider shares her strategy for getting great deals.

Some of the successful bids I have made in the last year serve as examples:

4* Hyatt in Downtown Miami - Rack rate $179 paid $60
4* Monte Carlo on the strip in Las Vegas - Rack rate $249 paid $69
3* Holiday Inn Airport Miami - Rack rate $129 - paid $50
4* Hilton Airport Chicago - Rack rate $279 paid $60
An alternative to priceline is Hotwire.com. In this sister site's system, you put in your criteria and a bid amount, and then the search engine will return with an offer or several offers. You WON'T know which hotel/s are bidding for your dollars until you accept an offer. Based on location and star ratings, you can usually have a fairly good idea which hotels are involved. I often use Hotwire and Expedia as testing gorounds to see what the going rates are, and then place my bid/s through Priceline.

Had Hotwire not had any good rates in Vancouver I would have simply left town and looked for a good rate at my ultimate destination, Seattle.

While booking that additional day at the Hyatt in Vancouver worked out great, the same cannot be said for my rental car. Again, I booked on Hotwire. 

For the days I needed, an SUV was going for $90 at the rental car sites. At Hotwire, I was able to book an SUV through Hertz for $37.50 a day. 

There was just one catch. I miscalculated the number of days I needed the car. By the time I realized I was a day off, I was stuck with the reality of either returning the car at 11:00 am or paying a whopping $90 extra for being an hour late.

That's why I am all set up to spend the day working in the Alaska Air Board Room at the Seattle airport. My flight on Sun Country airlines back to Minneapolis isn't scheduled to leave until 5:50 p.m. but because of my booking error I either had to turn in the car or pay up

I did try to bargain my way out of it. Hertz wasn't interested in negotiating. I suggested that I pay $45 to bring the car in two hours late.  I thought that was beyond reasonable.

They said that their policy states after an hour it goes to the next day and they were sticking with that decision.

I didn't have the energy to argue particularly because I knew the rules ahead of time. When you book your car on a discount travel site, the rental car company feels no compulsion to make your life easy. Or provide customer service. Their attitude is "you are not really our customer, you are a Hotwire customer."

Or, in other words, " you got a deal, what more do you want?"

Had I not gotten room for a second night at the Hyatt I may have opted to pay the extra $90 -- although it would have pained me beyond rational thinking.

I am not alone in feeling the pain of not reading the fine print on discount travel sites. When Lori E booked a hotel on Priceline she later discovered that she paid $30 more than the price the hotel was advertising. Despite her rant, fellow members of Planet Feedback had little sympathy.

From Readhead Glasses,

You deemed the room rate acceptable when you booked the room. You
don't get a refund because you didn't do your homework and contact the
hotel directly to find out what they'd charge for a hotel room

From Zan,

"BUT THE CUSTOMER NEEDS TO REPORT THE BETTER RATE WITHIN 24 HOURS!"

So, now you know - the next time you use Priceline, make sure you
contact the hotel and find out their regular rates within 24 hours. Or
better yet, do that before.

Which brings me back to Travel Agents, Miss Thrifty who is based in London. She was planning a trip from London to San Francisco which would eventually take her to Phoenix. She tried unsuccessfully to book it online.

Flying into one airport and out of another, with three different flight dates, meant that I spent an age scribbling prices and codes down on scraps of paper, while tapping my fingers irritably as the various flight sites’ price options loaded. The car hire was a challenge too: a couple of the companies will let you pick up the car in one state and drop it off in another, but with various stipulations and with various additional charges whacked on. I must admit, the prices quoted weren’t particularly attractive either. Not unless we wanted to fly from London to San Francisco via Germany (hello! wrong direction!) and New England.

I hummed and hawed. My husband phoned from work to say he would have a go. Just minutes later, he called back to tell me that the flights and car had all been booked! What’s more, the prices he had found beat my online “bargains” by quite a hefty margin.

His secret? It’s a simple one: he popped into the independent travel agency across the street from his workshop. The travel agent tapped our dates and airports into her computer, and came up with prices for direct flights and cross-state car hire that knocked the socks off anything I’d been able to come up with online. Easy peasy - job done.

Do you use a travel agent? If you don't what would they have to do to win your business?

Elana blogs about business culture at FunnyBusiness

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