Travel Agents Vs. Cyberbooking. Not Much Of A Debate

Is cyberbooking easier or cheaper than using a travel agent? I decided to find out. I chose two popular Web-based travel services: Expedia (www.expedia.com) and Travelocity (www.travelocity.com). Then I called my AAA travel agent, whose no-frills service has served me well in the past.

The most appealing aspect of online trip planning is that the sites are always open (a big plus for me, since I tend to get most things done during unconventional hours). So instead of having to make all my arrangements between 9 and 5, I can wait until the kids are in bed and Chicago Hope is over.

And The Hunt Begins

I started with Expedia, a travel service by Microsoft that you can use to research and book flights, hotel rooms, and car rentals. Before I could get down to business, I had to register. That took about 10 minutes.

Expedia’s fill-in-the-blanks interface is fairly straightforward. With the Flight Wizard, for example, I simply told it how many people were traveling, arrival and departure dates and cities, and specific search criteria (particular airlines, direct flights only, cheapest fare, and so on). Here’s where I ran into my first hassle: We were traveling to a small town in Idaho and I had no idea whether Twin Falls, Idaho, or Salt Lake City would be closer.

A travel agent could have told me, but not Expedia, so I guessed and typed ‘Salt Lake City’. In less than a minute, Expedia came up with two flights from Oakland that met my criteria. Both were on Delta, both with a total round-trip fare of $560 for four. Since I knew that Southwest Airlines flies that route and often offers discounted companion fares, I went back a screen to change my search criteria and take a look at Southwest-only options. No such luck. It turns out Expedia doesn’t handle Southwest flights. And, as I later learned, even some travel agents don’t have electronic access to Southwest reservations.

Since I had no choice, I added one of the Delta flights to my itinerary and moved on to the Rental Car Wizard. No shortage of options here–11 models, ranging from $34 to $56 per day. Cheap was the order of the day, so I added the $34 car to my itinerary. Total time for fare hunting and booking: 35 minutes.

On to Travelocity, based on the powerful Sabre travel reservation system operated by American Airlines and used by travel agents. The interface is a little more cumbersome than Expedia’s. For example, when entering information for departures and arrivals, I had to provide a city and state (you can’t just type ‘Salt Lake City’, for example) or, for quicker results, a three-letter airport code. Some codes are obvious, but not all of them, which means I ended up jumping over to the identify-the-destination screen pretty frequently to fill in all the blanks on the entry screen.

Just the Info You Want

On the plus side, I had more options for customizing the information I wanted. For instance, instead of Expedia’s requirement that I select just one airline, Travelocity let me choose four, in order of preference (or, as with Expedia, have it search its database for all available airlines). I could also prioritize preferences by prices, flight times, and airline. My favorite feature, though, is the speedy airport locator. Just type in your destination city and state, and up pops a list of airports and the distance of each from your ultimate destination. Neat.

Like Expedia, Travelocity came up with the two $560 Delta flights. It also offered a third option, though: a $560 fare for four on Southwest (so much for those cheap companion fares). The car rates were also about the same, ranging from $36 to $60 per day. Total time spent with Travelocity: 25 minutes.

I needed a hotel room in Atlanta and found Travelocity’s selection to be much more extensive than Expedia’s. Among the lengthy list of choices was a hotel recommended by the conference I would be attending, so I checked availability and booked a room there. I was hoping to stay in a small inn while in Charleston, but Expedia didn’t offer information on bed-and-breakfasts. While Travelocity offered many hotel/motel choices, including bed-and-breakfasts, Expedia accessed only one: the pricey Charleston Place Hotel, with rooms starting at more than $225 per night.

Too late for this trip, I discovered the Ultimate Bed and Breakfast Directory at www.touristguide.com/b&b. It lists and illustrates bed-and-breakfast inns all over the United States (with links to directories in other countries) and includes detailed descriptions and prices, even photos. When I added Charleston, South Carolina, to the search criteria, it came up with 43 bed-and-breakfasts for me to choose from.

With printouts of all my online options in hand, I logged off and called my AAA travel agent to see what she had to offer. She came up with the same flight information as Travelocity and Expedia, with one important exception: Some of the fares were lower. Instead of $560 for the round-trip tickets to Salt Lake City, she got me companion-fare tickets (I knew they were available somewhere) on the same Delta flight for a total of $484–or $76 less than the online services offered. The Portland trip netted a similar savings: $440 for four tickets on Alaska Airlines, instead of the $512 quoted by both Expedia and Travelocity for the same flight on Alaska. Savings so far: nearly $150.

Now I was eager to move on to the final trip. Who knows, maybe I’d save enough to stay in Charleston an extra night. No such luck, though. The travel agent quoted me the same fares on the same flights as both online services: $1100 for two round-trip tickets on Delta. And, oddly enough, the car rental rates quoted by the travel agent were a few dollars more than those offered by either Expedia or Travelocity. Total time spent booking with the travel agent: 15 minutes.

Is Convenience Worth It?

Yes, the online travel services are convenient. I can book flights, rooms, and cars at 3 a.m. or 3 p.m.–whenever the mood strikes me. Sometimes, as with the rental cars, they even proffer the best deals around. But not always. Had I booked flights on either Expedia or Travelocity, I would have paid close to $150 more than necessary. That’s a substantial chunk of change. Plus, as smart as these services are, you can’t ask them questions the way you can a travel agent, or get the promotional or membership discounts to which you may be entitled.

So what will I do for my next trip? Probably the same thing I did this time. I’ll check online, call a travel agent, and then book with whoever has the best prices. It’s not as convenient as calling Michael in the company travel office, but this is my money, so the savings are definitely worth the extra research time.

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