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Bricks vs. Clicks – Where will you book your vacations this year?

Excerpt from The Toronto Star (14 Nov 05) by Kevin Scanlon.

The internet is a great source of information for both leisure and corporate travelers, but when it comes to making a booking, what are the key factors to consider? Here we raise some valid issues to consider when deciding where to book your vacation.

Price & Availability or Bait & Switch?

For many travelers, price will decide how they book their trip. Are you going to find the best deal on-line, or from a travel agent? When you find a low deal online, is it available? Or do you need to upgrade to a higher category to find availability? Seeing the offer on a web site does not count as getting an offer in writing. A web site can be easily changed and provides no proof of what the offer was like when you first saw it. (Source: National Fraud Information Center , part of the National Consumer League)

Kevin Scanlon, writer for the Toronto Star, researched booking online vs. with a travel agent for three different styles of vacation (see sidebar). The conclusion was that in some cases the internet offered a more competitive price, but this doesn’t include the value of an agent’s travel expertise and knowledge.

“Personally, I have always found travel agents are worth the expense, like having an accountant do your taxes. This is their business and they’re just better at it than me.” Kevin Scanlon

Of course, if you are looking for a flight across the country, a couple of nights hotel accommodations, and are familiar with the city, the internet may offer the cheaper deal. However, if you are considering an international vacation, you may want the expert knowledge of someone who’s already been there and can make recommendations.

How Long Does It Take?

From deciding where to go, to having all the tools to make your decision? It may be your leisure time, but there is a value in your time. Ian Walker of the University of Warwick in England came up with a formula a few years ago to help assess the monetary value of you time. (CNN Money, July 8, 2004) Jeanne Sahadi). Taking the formula into account, even if the cost of booking with a travel agent is $100 more, this may well be worth the investment. Consider the two options: a) call a travel agent, give them an overview of the destination you are considering, the departure date and length of your vacation and an indication of the budget you are willing to spend. Within a matter of days you will receive an itinerary and budget based on the knowledge of a travel professional.

Alternatively, you could b) research the destination, hotels, travel options online, and then search through a number of sites for flights, hotels and tours for the best deals, possibly taking up 10-12 hours of your precious leisure time!

Is Your Money Safe?

There are two ways to ensure that your funds are secure; Escrow Accounts and Consumer Protection Schemes. Escrow accounts are required in provinces such as Ontario in Canada , and states such as California in the USA , and ensure that the money that you pay for your vacation is held in the account and funds cannot be withdrawn until you return.

“The internet makes it easy for unscrupulous tour operators and travel companies to misrepresent themselves.” Bob Whitley, USTOA President

Consumer Protection Schemes such as the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) require the member to post a bond with the organization which may be used to reimburse passengers in the event of member bankruptcy. Always try to pay with a credit card, as card companies will reverse a charge in the event that you don’t receive the product and/or service ordered.

The internet may be the new frontier for travel misrepresentation and fraud, reports the non-profit USTOA. The internet makes it easy for unscrupulous tour operators and travel companies to misrepresent themselves and provide unsubstantiated claims, says Bob Whitley, USTOA President. Before you put down a deposit on your next vacation, online or with your agent, check to see if the company is a member or a reputable travel industry organization such as USTOA.

Who Do You Contact For Changes?

Who do you contact in case of emergency? In accordance with Murphy’s Law, if you have an umbrella, it won’t rain. Similarly, if you have a travel agent to call in the event of changes or an emergency, you won’t need to! Most travel agents work with tour operators that have offices at the destination, or at least a toll free number, so in the event that you need to make any urgent amendments to your travel, you can quickly place one call and let the operator take care of you (they’ll also let your agent know what changes are made.)

Who’s Better-Travel Agents or the Web?

The same three trips were booked online and with two agencies. Experts charged a fee but their advice is worth the price.

“In financial terms, the travel agents did well enough that the money they saved me would have covered their service fees. But it was in the advice department that they shone. Overall, I find the scale tipped in favor of the travel agents.

Who do you call if you make a mistake when booking on the Internet? Having an agent take the rap for you is a good thing. Personally, I have always found travel agents are worth the expense, like having an accountant do your taxes. This is their business and they’re just better at it than me.”