A surprising number of people believe the statement, “You can find the best travel deals on the Internet.” Of course, travel agents have known for ages that this is pure bunk.
For starters, “lowest price” and “best deal” are not the same thing — far from it. Second, the sheer number of travel sites and Internet offers for most travel products makes it virtually impossible to be sure you have searched every possible source. And finally, who’s to say that the prices being touted are “real”? Check the fine print of sites like Orbitz and you will discover that they don’t promise that “its Content will be accurate, complete or timely.” Wow!
For many years, I was willing to concede (if you twisted my arm) that it was possible to find either the “lowest price” or the “best deal” on the Internet, but that it was highly unlikely. Now you’d have to water board me before I’d agree to a statement like that.
The sad fact is that many travel suppliers have turned the amazing technology of the web against their customers. Anyone who logs on to the ‘Net these days to avoid travel agents to get that illusive “best deal” is on a fool’s errand.
Suppliers, airlines chief among them, are using advanced technology to examine a web surfer’s browsing and buying history before offering up a fare.
Bill McGee has been tracking this trend for some time.
Back in 2007, on behalf of Consumers Union, I spent many hours examining this issue, and conducted extensive testing using multiple computers with multiple browsers. In one case, we searched a major travel site for a fare from New York City to Sydney, Australia under identical, real-time, apples-to-apples circumstances with two different browsers; one was cleared of all cookies and one had a robust history of purchasing flights. We found the cleared browser offered fares ranging from $1,770 to $1,950, while the second browser could only find a fare of $2,116. Although a company spokesperson said there is no “user differentiation” based on buying histories, industry analysts, journalists and consumers have been noticing this trend for years now.
And it’s getting worse. Welcome to the age of “online micro marketing.”
Using devices like “cookies” which sit undetected on your computer and vast consumer databases that aggregate buying behaviors that can be linked to specific individuals, suppliers now have the ability to track your past interactions on their site, know which sites you visited before arriving at their site, where you surf after you leave, and what your overall purchasing habits are.
Armed with this information, and with a little more algorithmic magic, they are able to hand craft a price designed to wring every possible penny out of the hapless consumer, who may be happily thinking, “Boy, ain’t I smart! No travel agent for me. I’m getting the best deal by booking on the Internet!”
What About Using A Travel Agent?
McGee’s article is worth reading in full, following the links provided. But there’s an aspect of the article that’s worth noting and that might escape the casual observer.
At the end of the article, McGee offers some “tips for travel shopping.” Essentially, they boil down to this: spend even more time on the Internet, visit even more travel sites, read the terms and conditions on each, do more comparisons, and on and on. He never suggests the obvious solution: use a travel agent. Why?
Well, Mr. McGee is the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter (CRTL), which back in 2001, ran a major “expose” claiming that travel agents couldn’t be trusted. The evidence? Many of them were unwilling to waste their time catering to anonymous telephone “shoppers” asking for the lowest fare.
The uproar from the travel agent community was as vociferous as it was predictable. Many travel agents, myself included, cancelled their subscriptions. It turned out an large percentage of CRTL’s readership was travel agents. Whether there was a cause and effect relationship I don’t know, but CRTL ceased publication shortly thereafter.
So if Mr. McGee had a low opinion of travel agents before his job disappeared, the experience probably didn’t do much to change his opinion. Obviously, I have no way of knowing whether Mr. McGee failed to mention travel agents in his recent article out of animus. Maybe he was short on space. But it seems to me a glaring omission.
Travel Agents Are Increasingly Vital For Consumer Protection
As hideous as online micro marketing sounds, there is a silver lining. In spite of being ignored by Mr. McGee, there is an opportunity here for travel agents.
In this brave new world, travel agents are increasingly the consumer’s best line of protection against this increasingly common (and in my opinion reprehensible) marketing tactic. In fact, marketing is too nice a word for it.
While airlines are at the forefront of this trend, other suppliers will inevitably follow suit, just as they have mimicked other airline “innovations” like unbundling and ancillary fees.
The travel agent, with her intimate understanding of the industry’s little ins and out (as well as its darker secrets) is there to protect the client. A good travel agent will have followed my advice (and that of many others, I might add) and developed strong relationships with supplier BDMs, putting her in a good position to go to bat for her clients and assure a happy outcome.
Still, if nothing else, Mr. McGee’s article helps demolish the myth that the Internet is an unbiased and certain route to the “lowest price” and the “best deal.” And for this we owe him a vote of thanks.
Some recent articles about the Travel Industry that might interest you: