I must admit to a certain level of glee in watching the accelerating death spiral of Blockbuster Video. Those ridiculously high rental fees and the iron-fisted inflexibility on forgiving late charges are finally coming back to bite the company, which was too slow to adapt to the digital revolution, in the backside. It won’t be long till Blockbuster is just a distant, painful memory.
That’s also the case with travel agents. It seems like an eon ago, but I used to book all my travel through a nice Polish lady who ran a small agency with a few friends. Such shops are few and far between these days, killed off by the same internet forces as Blockbuster. The Polish lady and her friends long ago went on to different careers.
I travel a lot, both for fun and for business reasons. I flew a ton of places while working on Sex, Bombs and Burgers, and for its promotion – something I’ll be continuing to do for the next year. I haven’t used a travel agent in ages; I’ve found that booking online is easy and almost always cheaper.
A few friends and I decided we wanted to have a guys’ weekend in Las Vegas this fall, so I set to pricing the trip out. For kicks, and because there’s five of us involved, I thought I’d check with an agent at the Flight Centre to see whether he could come up with anything I couldn’t. The result: not really. The prices he quoted were pretty much exactly the same as what I found, and in at least one case, they were higher. Still, I figured he’d done the work and booking with Flight Centre would mean a small savings in hassle for me, even though there was the downside of having to pay for our flights and hotel up front (if we’d booked independently, we wouldn’t have had to pay for the hotel until we checked out of it).
The trip was booked and paid for and we all thought we’d be on our way, when all of a sudden the travel agent dropped a nice little surprise in my lap: there’s going to be an extra “resort fee,” payable to the hotel once we get there. Uh, okay then…
I write about cellphone companies all the time, so I’m well versed in hidden bullshit fees. The “resort fee,” which ostensibly pays for the newspapers and bathrobes you enjoy at the hotel, is about as bullshit as they come. It’s an extra tax, plain and simple, that should be included in the cost of the room.
That’s not what bugged me about the situation, though, nor was it the amount ($15 per day per room). What really got my goat is the fact that I wasn’t told about it before I booked. When I brought this up with the agent, he predictably claimed (backed up by his manager) that he did mention it. But like I said, I’m unfortunately a hawk for such charges and I most definitely would have remembered it had he actually brought it up. The correct course of action, as far as I’m concerned, should have been an apology for the oversight and a reimbursement in the amount of the resort fee. After all, isn’t the customer always supposed to be right?
The situation leaves me asking: what exactly is a travel agent good for? If it’s not to make the booking any easier or cheaper, and if it’s not for looking out for things such as hidden fees on behalf of the customer, exactly what do they bring to the table?
Strangely, although many of the independent travel agents have gone the way of the dinosaurs, the Flight Centre seems to be doing okay. My suspicion is that the majority of the chain’s business comes from booking corporate travel, something that still isn’t that easy to do online. But that’s going to improve and travel agents are going to have an even tougher go of it as it does.
The Flight Centre would do well to learn from Blockbuster’s fate. Not looking out for the customer and then ultimately telling them they’re wrong just doesn’t cut it. As for me, so endeth a short-lived stray from booking my own travel online.