Travelling dilemma travel agent, travel website, or booking directly with the airline?

TAM Airbus A330-200 in the former livery

Traveling internationally requires a lot of planning and consideration. This means starting early and devising a realistic budget based on the time frame that is available. In order to meet a budget one question that gets typically asked is it cheaper to book directly with the airline? Alternatively, is it cheaper to book through a website or a travel agent? The answer to this question is it depends and this article will explore this question a bit more in detail.
With the dawn of the internet and travel web sites, I find travel agents suffering the fate of the dinosaurs. Travel agents are unable to compete with sites offering low airfares and airlines trying to save money by cutting expenses. To highlight some of issues with using a travel agent, on the trip that I am currently planning I consulted a travel agent and was advised they could not book internal US flights. I was further advised they could book me on a flight to a US that cost more than what I would pay on the web. Then I looked at other alternatives that they had to offer. They offered me a great 7 day holiday in Greece. However it was on a small island far from Athens that had nothing but beaches and if I wanted to go to the mainland I had to travel by ferry at my expense. As I sat there asking what was included, I soon learned I would be paying for everything including water and food on the plane. After researching the island further and finding out everything that I will be paying for, the Greek paradise soon sounded like a holiday money-pit. The one advantage a travel agent can give over the internet is their knowledge. Using a travel agent’s knowledge can be helpful if you are traveling some where you have never been or if you are a nervous traveler who is afraid they might miss something when planning a holiday / vacation.
This leads me to the question is it better to book directly or use a large travel portal? The answer comes down to four questions that seek to balance cost against needs.

  • when are you traveling?
  • where are you traveling?
  • what is your tolerance level for journey time and connections?
  • will you need a hotel?
  • Are you bothered where you sit on the plane?

For example, if you are traveling to a popular tourist area from a large metropolitan city, for example Las Vegas from London then you might find a good deal off of travel portal such as Expedia or Opodo. On a recent trip to the States from Manchester, I had a multi-stop flight that included Las Vegas for around £500 per person from Expedia and since my need a was a hotel for a part of the trip, I was able to book separately a hotel on the site for about £30 a night in Las Vegas. However, I had lousy seat selection for one segment of the trip and it was not what I requested.

Another, possible drawback to using an online search portal, is some sites will buy seats in bulk and then sell them to you. This means your choices are limited and you have to in most situations deal with the site for any issues, not the airline. For example, I recently looked at flying to Taiwan by using a travel web site. The flight would have been cheap if I was willing to accept a 35 hour journey time and two changes of planes in China. However, the price would be more if I did no use their selected carrier but my journey time would have been halved.  This can mean you are at their mercy and unless you are willing to be flexible you may find you have to give up a lot to save some money.

Final drawback, I have noticed, is the search sites tend to favor certain airlines. This means you may not always get the best connections, routes, or prices. Instead it means shopping around to different sites until you can find the best deal.

In contrast, if your destination is a less traveled area like Israel then it may be cheaper to book through the airline. Plus when you book with the airline then you deal with them directly and find you have more control over your journey. Another advantage I am finding is with some airlines their fares are about the same or slightly lower than the same flight being advertised on the travel portals. On my last trip I did no use a travel web site. The fare was about the same on the travel web sites, I was happier since I made the decisions about flights and hotel.
From the above you may feel as though I am recommending booking with an airline instead of a travel web site or a travel agent? I am not a fan of travel agents and I feel they can offer advantages. The biggest advantage they offer is their expertise and they offer an advantage for people who do not like searching the internet for the best possible deal. Nonetheless, I feel booking with an airline can offer some advantages. However, I have found airlines can charge significantly more than if you book through a travel website and the advantages they can offer is outweighed by the potential cost. Also, I have found travel websites can offer tremendous savings if you book a flight with hotel. Therefore in answer to the above questions there is no right answer. Instead it involves researching along with trying to strike a balance between cost, needs and comfort. By doing your research, identifying your needs, and planning your budget you will be able to determine the best route for your journey.

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Finding a cheap flight

 

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Finding a cheap flight is not as simple as simple as using social media web site and waiting for a deal magically appearing. Furthermore there is not one web site that consistently offers the lowest fare on every flight with the best connections and the best seats. Instead means finding a low fare based on your criteria. This means taking the time researching, logging your entries to identify trends, and determining your criteria. Criteria in this situation means, determining those factors that are important to you, such as: travel dates, airport, airlines, length of flights, and number of stop-overs.

It also means, the earlier you start the more time you will have and the more options you will have.

The starting point is by visiting several sites and entering in your departure city, destination city, and dates traveling. Typically traveling on a Monday – Thursday will produce the lowest fares. Other factors that will influence your fare is the airport, length of stay, and when you are traveling. For example if you are traveling during the holidays in December there is a good chance you will not receive the same fare if you traveled in October. This is due to the fact December is a busy time for traveling due to the holidays and airlines tend not offer reduced fares during this time. Likewise if you are traveling to Florida in June or July you will not find, as cheap fares, if you were to travel in September. Hurricane season tends to peak around September and children return to school. This means families are less likely to travel when their children are in school and it means, though the risk of hurricane hitting Florida is low the risk rises thereby discouraging some travelers. The point that I am trying to make is the time of the year you travel can have an impact of the price you will pay.

Regarding the length of stay and the airport, both of these factors can impact the fare. The question in this situation comes down to your needs versus the saving you can achieve. If you are looking at doing the trip as cheapest as possible then it might be worth considering surrounding airports to see if the is cheaper and keeping the length of the trip in the 7 – 28 days range.

As you log the searches trends will begin to develop and you can then begin eliminating searching sites and airlines that show consistently high prices. Normally I would recommend, tracking prices for a least 1 – 2 months and doing it at least on a weekly basis. Once you narrow your search then my recommendation will be to track at least twice weekly to spot trends and begin eliminating more sites. Then once you are ready to make your purchase check the sites that you have been following and book off of the site that offers the lowest fare that meets your criteria.

 

The basics

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Traveling internationally in some ways like planning a weekend get-away or taking the family in the car for a week of camping. In other ways traveling from one country to another requires more planning and requires planning a few months in advance, especially if you are traveling on a budget. However flying internationally can be as cheap or slightly more expensive than staying local.

Prioritize

The first step, even before booking tickets or planning is setting priorities. Priorities are best thought of as your preferences and I have included some priorities for consideration:

  • Number of stops
  • Flying budget airline versus full-price commercial carrier
  • Cost of hotel versus having money to spend
  • Do you want to sight see versus being leisurely
  • Length of stay
  • Time frame for travel

Research

Once you have decided your priorities your next step will be to do some basic research. The starting point for your research should create a log to identify sites that will offer you the best deal on your trip and to identify price trends. Typically I recommend doing this as soon as you know you will want to travel and recommend doing this a few times over, at least, a month. From my experience this should be done at least four to six months prior to your planned departure date. By taking several samples you will begin to notice trends and it will help you refine your search. Also, by starting early it will help by taking advantage of cheaper prices and an opportunity to save money for spending. Normally, I find once I am about two to three months from my scheduled departure date that is the point where the cheapest airfares exist. However, I do find seat selection and choice of routes begin to disappear.

Booking

This brings up the question are you better off booking the hotel and flight together or separately? From my experience, it depends on the destination. I have been able to get a good price on a flight by booking a hotel and other times I found it worked out cheaper to do it separately.

Also, this raises the question is it cheaper to use a large site that offer flights / hotels for several brands instead of going to the airline or hotel site directly? Again, it depends on the time of year you are traveling, your priorities, and the site. At least from my experience I have booked using both methods.

Social Media

Some news organizations recommend using social media to be altered to specials. From experience, I had not seen offers via social media. Instead I have seen updates, an opportunity to contact the airline, and to learn a bit more about them. I have yet to see any substantive offers made via social media and would not recommend using social media as your primary source. Instead I would recommend using it as a secondary source as a way of confirming you have not missed a cheaper offer elsewhere.

Visa

Alongside of researching your airfare another issue that will need to be researched is if a transit visa or a tourist visa will be needed. A transit visa is a visa issued to travelers who are changing planes in a country within a specified period and do not plan to leave the airport. However if you are planning to book a hotel or leave the airport then most likely you will need a tourist visa. Likewise a tourist visa is a visa that allows you to visit the country for a specified period of time. Typically tourist visas forbid you from working and in many countries you are not allowed to immigrate using a tourist visa. Best source for the rules regarding visas is by visiting the country’s consulate web site.

After researching visa requirements and fares you are now ready to look at activities you want to do. Some country’s consulates will provide links to what you can see and do. Using search engines to research sites to see and activities are a good starting point.

Travel Insurance & Traveler’s Checks

Finally this raises the question about currency including how to protect yourself against loss of money and how to buy it. Normally I do not recommend carrying a large amount of cash on you, unless you are willing losing it. Best advice is to purchase travel insurance that will cover loss of cash. However, most policies will only cover up to a certain amount.

Another way is to carry traveler’s checks. In about 99% of the time I never had an issue with traveler’s checks and they are a great way to protect your money from being lost. However, I have found large denominations do cause problems with businesses that do not receive them on a regular basis and I have found in countries such as Japan not every business takes them. This means you may have to cash them in order to have cash. Also, their conversion rate tends to be lower than cash and this means you will typically receive little less than if you converted using cash.

A final solution are credit cards, prepaid cards, and travel cards. Credit cards may seem like a good way to buy items on a foreign trip. Nonetheless the conversion rate and cash withdrawals fees along with higher interest rates can easily add a few hundred more to the cost of the trip. This leaves prepaid cards and travel cards. Essentially these are the same except travel cards can be loaded in the currency you want. Fees on these vary and these cards do not offer the same buyer’s protection as a credit card. Moreover they do offer lower fees and typically protect you if the card is loss. In many cases a pre-paid or traveler card can be the best solution.