Using a Travel Agent vs. Booking Online: An Infographic
What would you say if I told you that travel agents aren’t in competition with online travel agency giants like Trip Advisor, Booking.com, Expedia, Priceline, and others? Maybe you’re waiting for a punchline, but I’m honestly not telling a joke.
While starting a home-based travel agency in the shadow of internet giants like Expedia can feel like a David vs. Goliath scenario, I’m here to bring you glad tidings of the ways in which travel agents have an edge over OTAs. It's true. Travel agents have the ability to save travelers TONS of time (and money) on their vacations.
Suspend your doubt and hear me out.
No Seriously, Americans Spend So Much Time Online Planning Travel, It’s Ridiculous.
Expedia Media Group's research documented that American travelers spent an aggregate of 8.7 capital-B-BILLION minutes of travel planning and booking time in 2015. It seems ludicrous, right? I know, I did a double-take. But that is the amount of time Americans spent consuming digital travel content in 2015, according to their white paper, “The American Traveler’s Path to Purchase.” 1
In the 45 days prior to booking travel—from beginning research to final purchase—the traveling American visited a whopping 140 travel websites. No seriously, that is not a typo.
How much time does this add up to? Well, the report indicated that in the six weeks prior to booking, Americans consumed 22.95 hours of digital travel media.
Is your jaw on the floor yet? Well, it’s about to get even more slack: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly wage in the U.S. as of Jan. 2021 registered at $29.96/hr 2, which means that it costs American travelers roughly $687.58 of work time to plan and book vacations.
What does this mean for travelers?
A). A traveler can plan and book their vacation while they’re on company dime (preferably not one they own) and hope they don’t get fired for it. Or, better yet . . .
B.) Go with a travel agent, don’t get fired, and save over $700 of their time.
How OTAs Work, and Why They Don’t Save Travelers Money Anymore
The $700+ savings in work time really just scratches the surface. There are tons of other ways that using a travel agent vs. booking online saves clients money.
1. OTA Access to Inventory Is limited
When you were a kid and asked your parents for a snack, they probably didn’t open the fridge and cupboards and let you have at it (let alone take you to the grocery store to pick whatever you wanted). No, they probably pulled out a few choice items and said, “this is what you can choose from.”
OTAs operate in the same way. OTAs used to rely on ample off-peak inventory, and empty seats on planes and rooms in hotels to offer discounts, and it worked3. Vendors would dump their excess inventory on OTA sites for a premium commission to OTAs. Heck, at the end of the day, selling a hotel room for cheap is better than zippo, right? But the OTAs are no longer the land of milk and honey they used to be.
There was a huge rise in the number of OTAs and suppliers smartened up, doing things like having contracts where OTAs were not able to offer prices lower than what the traveler could find directly on the brand site. They stopped offering premium commissions, and some vendors (like Southwest) even refused to sell their inventory on OTAs. (Does this sound familiar? Airlines did the same thing, cut commissions to travel agents in the 90s).
In fact, it’s the vendors that price the products—not the OTAs themselves. So, like the stingy parents, OTAs will not offer the smorgasbord of travel products and discounts they used to. They can’t.
Now let's jump back to the travel agent vs. booking online thing. A travel agent will open all their cupboards and find the best value available. Heck, they’ll even take you to the grocery store and present a full range of available travel options. Travel agents not only have access to products and pricing, but they also have the savvy to know the nitty-gritty of things like which airlines offer more spacious seating or provide better beverage service for the same price.
2. Price Discrimination and “Steering”
According to the same Wired article above, the OTAs' pricing would shift constantly due to supply and demand. This means that customers could potentially be directed to sites that weren’t the best deals, depending on the quantity demanded while the traveler books their trip, trying to create a false sense of urgency for travelers to book with warnings like, “2 rooms left at this price?”
OTAs with their Big-Brother-like technology know when and how a traveler is booking. So if a traveler is attempting to book a hotel on a mobile phone the same evening of their desired reservation date, the OTA’s magic algorithm will smell their desperation and potentially steer the customer to a more expensive booking.
Price discrimination comes into play when they charge different consumers different prices for the same product (which is illegal). According to the Wired article, at one point, “Orbitz was steering Apple OSX users, for example, to more expensive hotels, since the algorithm assumed that an Apple user was more affluent than a PC user.”
Agents don’t, and can’t, do that. There is a level of price stability when purchasing from a travel agent—who can put holds on tickets and packages to preserve the price until the end of the day or for 24 hours.
3. Fine Print
Surprise! There are taxes and fees that might sneak up on the purchaser when they get to the checkout of an OTA. With travel agents, the full cost to clients is transparent at the time they are quoted the price. (Enough said!)
4. Group Bookings
Travel agents can especially save money for clients traveling in groups. According to SmartFlyer’s CEO Mike Holtz in a Travel Market Report's "Here's Why You Should Use a Travel Agent Instead of Booking Online" article, “travel websites will only show the lowest fare available for four tickets. But an advisor might be able to find three seats at a fare hundreds of dollars less, with savings into the thousands of dollars.”
Travel agents, who are not governed by algorithms, have the experience and ability to analyze the options in front of them, filtering through them quickly in order to build group packages that maximize value and save money for their clients. Yet another reason to use a travel agent vs. booking online.
I know, I’m probably preaching to the choir. But what does this mean, and what does this add up to? Well, according to ASTA’s 2016 study, “Best of Both Worlds: Quantifying How Travel Agents Save Consumers Time and Money," a travel agent saves the traveler, on average, $452 per trip. 4
So if you count money and time, that brings up our tally of savings to $1,170+. Dang. Good job, travel agents.
But how do you articulate that to clients? How can you tell them that you’ll save them a ton of time and a nice wad of cash by booking their trip for them? They might look at you like you’re bonkers. But that’s okay, we’re here to help you with talking points with a snazzy infographic explaining the differences between using a travel agent vs. booking online.
How to Talk to Clients About Using a Travel Agent vs. Booking Online
Don’t you get tired when people express alarm at the existence of travel agents? Does it take a little restraint and energy not to roll your eyes when people say they can just book online? I know it does for me.
So we made an infographic that walks you through the data. You can print it out and post it above your office desk to use as talking points when your clients call and ask why they should use a travel agent vs. booking online. Better yet, just send it directly to your client and save yourself a lot of talking.
Do you want it for a keepsake? You can go ahead and sign in below to download the infographic! You can even print it and use it to wallpaper your office!
This Is to Mention Nothing of Customer Service and Client Satisfaction
Travel agents save clients money, but the benefits of booking with a travel agent go way beyond. Travel agents also create high-value travel over OTAs because (the living, breathing, talented humans that they are) are able to advocate for clients when things go awry.
Travel Market Report published an article, "What We Did for Love: Tales of Travel Agents Who Went the Extra Mile," in May 2019. It recounts stories of travel agents like Linda Schreiber, who pulled her bride out of a hurricane-riddled Cancun to the safety of home and rebooked the 70 other guests for the following month. Or Valerie Gossett's warm fuzzy in our Travel Agent Chatter podcast who coordinated with her BDM to have her client's father, a 90-year-old retired colonel, celebrated and honored for his service on his last cruise with his family.
What can an OTA do for a traveler who is unhappy with a hotel room, let alone stuck in the middle of a natural disaster? The answer? Not much, if anything at all.
Travel agents are able to leverage their relationships with vendors in order to provide the best customer service possible to travelers. So not only will the traveler save money, but they can travel with the peace of mind that a travel agent can help them out in a bind if they transfer hotels, switch rooms, or re-book a flight.
In the same ASTA study referenced earlier, it was documented that “63% of consumers polled said using an agent makes their overall trip experience better.” So not only will travel agents save travelers time, money and stress during the planning and booking process—they’ll also help create a more satisfying and relaxing travel experience during the trip itself . . . and that, my friend, is the entire purpose of a vacation.
Now Go Tell Your Clients (and Friends, and Travel Agent Naysayers)
Nothing speaks louder than data, right? Go let those skeptics know. If you don’t want to go on a monologue about the value of travel agents, just direct them to the infographic, and save your breath (and sanity).
What are some other ways you help save clients time and money? How do you pitch your value to clients? I want to hear about it in the comment section below!
[This blog was originally published in Oct. 2017. We periodically update this article with new data as it becomes available.]
- As of 2022, this study has not been republished with more current numbers. ↩
- Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics ↩
- Source: Wired article, "Why Bargain Travel Sites May No Longer Be Bargains" ↩
- Source: Travel Market Report, "Why Consumers Don't Use Travel Agents" ↩