Savvy Travelers Go Old School

Savvy Travelers Go Old School

Forget the deal-seeking, internet-savvy tourist. Experienced travelers continue to go old school, using local agencies to book millions in travel per year.

"We're actually flourishing, we write millions of dollars of travel every year," said Mark Allen, branch manager of the AAA office in Traverse City.

In spite of the easy point-and-click method of online booking, most clients prefer to book their travel through a person, Allen said.

"We know that travelers may go online to look for the best deals, but sometimes they get stung and then they come to us the second time around," he said. "A lot of our clients are just more comfortable dealing with a person; someone they can talk to about their trip."

Indeed, national studies show that travel agencies everywhere are thriving. According to a recent PhoCusWright Travel Agency Distribution Landscape Report, travel agents still sell:

– 85 percent of cruises

– 70 percent of all tours and packages

– 50 percent of all airline tickets

– 30 percent of all hotels

– 25 percent of all car rentals

"We're doing more volume today than we did 10 years ago with half as many people," said Tom McIntyre, president of Passageways Travel, based in Traverse City. "We use special software and we have people who have been here for 35 years. They know where the deals are."

So why would someone work with a travel agent when they could simply log on and click out their vacation plans? One area travel agency owner says that agents have experience that no web browser does.

"Personalized customer service is the best thing that any business can offer its customers," said Jim Kan, owner of Andrew Kan Travel with offices in Traverse City and Petoskey. "Andrew Kan Travel offers over 80 years experience in the travel industry from its travel consultants."

Kan acknowledges that his agency sometimes struggles with those whose only focus is the bottom line.

"Can we fight the internet? No. Can we keep people from tapping our resources and knowledge, only to have them book online? No," he said. "However, we are always there for those who would like to talk to someone about their travel plans no matter how simple or complicated they might be."

Despite popular opinion, travel agents do not cost more to use. In fact, most agencies don't charge clients for their services because vendors like hotels and cruise lines pay the agents' commissions.

As far as internet pricing goes, McIntyre said that agents do their best to match any online price. If they are unable to match it, the deal might be a scam.

"It can be really deceptive when you look for a trip price online," he said. "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. There are scary situations out there and people get an online deal and they can get in trouble. Then they call us. Sometimes we can help them, sometimes we can't."

McIntyre said that one thing many clients might not realize is that travel agents often have inside information such as special flight prices, hotel rates and cruise deals that consumers could never find online. Travel agents often have access to special amenities like ship board credits or insider tours.

So where are northern Michigan residents heading?

"We do a lot of Disney and package tours in the U.S.," said Allen, whose AAA office doesn't work with business travelers. "The Caribbean used to be hot, but now Europe, river cruising and Africa are popular. We're really set up to serve someone who wants to go to Europe with a total package. We want those customers."

Founded by McIntyre in 1980, Passageways Travel's business is evenly divided between business travelers and vacationers. In 2012, the agency was bought by ALTOUR, a global leader in travel management. With sales of more than $1.5 billion in 2012, ALTOUR is one of the largest agencies serving luxury and mid-sized markets. It has 57 offices and more than 1,100 travel pros around the world.

Passageways' most popular destinations haven't changed a lot over the past 20 years, McIntyre said.

"Cruises are very popular," he said. "Other top destinations, in no particular order, are Florida, Hawaii, Caribbean and Europe. About one-third of our business goes to Florida, either to stop there or to go on to a cruise."

January's recent blizzards and cold are a good example of a travel agent's value. Travelers stranded at airports have a better chance of easing their stress if they can call a travel professional they know rather than an 800 number. Travel agents often have connections with hotels or airlines that can reduce the hassles of travel delays.

"[The early January freeze was] a perfect example of why people should use an agent," McIntyre said. "Thousands of flights were cancelled. People were upset. But if they worked with an agent, they can call for help and we can help them."