Have Agent, Will Travel

Here goes. I pick up the telephone and dial my travel agent, while on my computer the Web browser is loading. Google is up on the third ring; he answers on the fourth. I want to go to Salalah, Oman, a destination that I'm sure he's never sold before. While I explain that I'd like to find a good seaside hotel there--"Oman, not Amman"--I'm simultaneously typing "Salalah hotel beach" into the search engine. Up come a bewildering array of hits on Web sites you'd have never dreamed existed: "oman-hotels.reservations.org" seems likely. It turns out to be a dummy site, one of literally hundreds, that bounces me somewhere else. As I navigate from one to another, each trying to collect its little referral fee, I'm bombarded with pop-ups; I turn Ad-aware on and block them. By now my friendly human has named the three most likely hotels, and wants to know my dates.

Meanwhile, I've turned in exasperation to a well-known travel site, Expedia, and come up with only two of the three hotels he's named. My travel agent says the Hilton looks best, right on the beach, lots of amenities, so I cheat a little and go for Hilton on Expedia. No availability, it says, and offers up the Crown Plaza in downtown Salalah. I cruise over to the Hilton site; six or seven pages later it tells me there actually are plenty of rooms. My travel agent already knew that, and has held a room; I haven't even had a chance to start filling out the laborious online booking forms yet.

When it comes to speed, a human travel agent wins every time. But can he match the rates? Now that I know the best hotel, I quickly find a discount site that offers a room for $120 a night, but I have no idea if they're legit; even Hilton is offering it for $135, and the agent can do it for $105. I do a little more searching and find a price that nearly matches his, but I'm cheating now, and by that time he's already tentatively booked the flights. It's a complicated routing with either two or three changes of planes, depending how much I'm willing to pay, that would have defeated any Web site's booking forms. And none of the sites will tell me if there are ocean-view rooms, or even what the phone number of the hotel might be.

The Internet is still a long way from replacing a good, smart travel agent, though I've often used the Web as a travel resource and a reality check. For one thing, most travel agents have better online tools, in the form of GBSs, Global Booking Systems, like Sabre and Galileo. They may yet reach the general public, but until they do, most travel sites can't handle the simplest of overseas connecting flights, let alone complex, long-haul travel through a welter of rules and competing deals on various carriers. "The Internet is great on travel from A to B, or on simple city breaks," says Nick Wallace, owner of Abacus Travel Ltd. in Letchworth, England.

"But on any reasonably difficult itinerary, you'll need an agent to do it." Wallace specializes in business travel, and since 9/11, it's been hard times in the business travel industry. Though travelers have come back, airlines have been slashing commissions and promoting Web sales, and business clients have been looking for ways to cut costs. "We had some companies who gave up using us to do it on the net, and they've all come back," Wallace says. "It just wasn't cost-effective."

His agency is hardly the only one that's bucked the Web travel boom. The Flight Centre, an Australian chain of 1,000 retail outlets in various English-speaking countries, boasts that if you find a good deal on the Web, "Flight Centre guarantees to beat it." The company can do that with bulk-buying muscle, but the key to the Flight Centre formula is hands-on service in their offices and by telephone. Other agencies have responded to the Web threat by specializing. Wallace says a big part of his business has become "golden oldies," older clients who like to spend a lot of time talking over their travel plans in person. Smaller agencies stay afloat by selling travel packages tailored to targeted groups like gays, or adventure packages in exotic locales. "We keep hearing that we're a dying breed," says Wallace. "That we're all doomed. It hasn't happened yet, but let's see what the next year or two brings."

Many travel agents are worried that the worst is yet to come. As travel Web sites improve, the tiny markups their automated systems can offer will be hard to compete with--or so the theory goes. But there are trends in the other direction, too; already the proliferation of bogus sites has rendered search engines all but useless for travel research. Travel agents spend more and more of their time traveling, building up the sort of local knowledge that will always be hard to beat. And personal relationships will always count for a lot; when I got back from Oman, I gave my agent my take on what turned out to be a great, under-discovered destination. Now he's recommending it to other clients. My bet is they'll take his word over the Web's, any day.