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February 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 31, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Travel Agent or the Internet? Part I

which option gives you a better dive trip overall?

from the February, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

When I began traveling abroad decades ago, I always used a travel agent because they had information I couldn’t get my hands on. As I became an experienced traveler and as the Internet developed, I gradually began setting up my own trips, but only if I’m headed to one destination. If I’m going to more than one venue or doing more than just diving, I get help. For example, on a trip to dive Utila, I also wanted to hike in Guatemala. I let a travel agent put that together, knowing there were too many elements to get them all right. Then again, when I dived Little Cayman not long ago, it was easy enough to do it myself.

Most divers I know switch between the two options, depending on what type of dive trip they’re planning. Some, however, always pick one over the other. For example, Undercurrent subscriber Stefani Axelrod (San Francisco, CA) began using Outdoor Travel Adventures in San Diego ever since she booked a dive trip to Indonesia with them in 2010. “After I spent many hours on the Internet, I found using an agent made the whole experience more pleasant and less time-consuming.” Letting someone else do the research for you does indeed save bundles of time and stress.

Another subscriber, Bob Speir (Falls Church, VA), has the opposite view. “In my limited experience with Caradonna and Maduro/Fanta Seas, I found they offer nothing over self-booking and cost you money and hassle. Usually, what the dive travel agent offers is what a resort is already offering online. Doubt it? Try comparing Maduro for prices at Bonaire’s Buddy Dive, versus Buddy’s website. On a trip to dive in Galapagos two years ago, I did $1,000 better arranging my own flights and enroute lodging compared to the arrangements that Caradonna offered. Best deals are obtained using the airlines’ vacation services or Travelocity for flights and lodging, and then deal with the dive operators directly.”

Two views for sure, but travel agencies must be doing something right: The American Society of Travel Agents reports that 54 percent of travel agencies saw an increase in revenues in 2014, and were upbeat about future business. And it’s not just “Internet-illiterate” older divers who use dive travel agencies, says Richard Mitsoda, managing director of Maduro Travel. “An equal amount of Maduro Travel’s business comes from Millennials, Gen Xers and Boomers. The 25-54 age group makes up the bulk of our customers. It’s not that they don’t have the ability to research online; they want information from the people who have the knowledge and who they trust.”

So let us see what travel agents do bring to the table.

Saving Time and, Usually, Money

With countless choices for flights, hotels, tours, etc., unless you’re booking a direct flight to one destination, booking a dive trip online can be headache-inducing. According to one survey of 2,000 worldwide travelers, 20 percent said it took them more than five hours to research and book travel online. If you’re retired, perhaps that’s an enjoyable way to spend time. If you’re employed, you may not have that time.

Some travel agent charge extra for services (say, $25 for their time and research), but Cindi LaRaia, owner of Dive Discovery Travel in San Rafael, CA, says divers don’t pay any more for trips that she, like most travel agents, books. “We make our commission from suppliers, and because we offer their specials and showcase them on our sites, they are happy to pay us.”

Agencies frequently do offer the same prices as operators, she acknowledges, however, they can also add value. “We know the best routing on airlines, and can check that quickly. We also help those who have miles and want to use them to a far destination. I check the routing on the carrier and partners so they can get those flights sorted out -- at no charge to them. That’s a huge timesaver and value.”

While there are those such as Speir, who beat his agency’s airline prices, Axelrod says her agency saves her between $500 to $1,000 on overseas tickets. “My agency was able to get deals we weren’t able to find.”

One subscriber’s dive travel agency saves her between $500 to $1,000 on overseas airline tickets. “They got deals we weren’t able to find.”

Ken Knezick, owner of Island Dreams Travel in Houston, says that’s especially true these days. “If I look at a specific itinerary in our travel agent’s SABRE airline booking system and compare it with the fare quoted directly on United Airlines’ site, in almost every case our SABRE fare is lower. The airlines have gone to great lengths to get travelers to book directly with them, but now they are charging those same fliers a considerable premium over what [we can get].”

Kate Rice, who writes about airlines for TravelPulse.com, says agents who book a lot of flights develop strong relationships with airline sales representatives. “That means they have double leverage that they can use on your behalf—the purchasing power of the agency group they’re affiliated with, as well as the personal relationships they have with their sales reps.” Of course, they have to work that relationship, which may not have happened in Speir’s case.

Many travel agencies offer exclusive deals through their emails or websites. Mitsoda says Maduro Travel has regular deals. They recently announced prices for dive trips to Dominica, Indonesia, and Bonaire that Mitsoda says no one else has. For example, a two-resort combination dive trip to Minahasa Lagoon Resort and either Eco Divers Manado or Eco Divers Resort Lembeh start at $1,078 for seven nights, plus a $200 resort/dive credit and a totally refundable deposit. Says Mitsoda, “We can offer many things beyond just the price.”

Get Exactly What You Want

If you don’t know what type of trip you want -- land-based or liveaboard, muck diving or beautiful reefs, bare-bones budget or a room with a view -- or where exactly to go (Indonesia diving is spread over thousands of miles), it’s the travel agent’s job to guide you in the right direction and tailor a trip precisely to your needs.

When Wendy Pacofsky, vice-president of Outdoor Travel Adventures (Axelrod’s agency), talks with a prospective client, she asks a series of questions. “First, I ask what the budget will be, because that affects everything and will narrow down destination, accommodations, airfare and ground arrangements.” If they don’t have a place in mind, she asks, what time of year are you traveling? How many days do you have, including travel time? Are you looking for easy reef diving, big animals, photogenic dive sites? What’s your skill level? Are you okay with red-eye flights and multiple connections, or do you want one-stop travel? Do you want land-based activities? Clearly, a trip can get complicated, too much so for some Internet surfers, especially inexperienced travelers.

Say you’re going to Cozumel for the first time. You don’t want to book your room a $20 taxi ride away from your dive operator. A good agent will see that you don’t. In fact, notes Knezick, “Cozumel has 130 different dive operators, and the one that’s the cheapest is not assuredly the best. It’s our job to understand which operator has the most knowledge of dive sites, the best gear, the best-trained staff and offers the best experience.” Mitsoda says all of Maduro Travel’s agents are certified divers and their average travel agent experience is 18 to 20 years.

Get Connected

A good agent has an extensive Rolodex (well, it’s probably an e-Rolodex these days). They have people on the ground to connect you with, such as local tour guides and people you can reach out to if you encounter problems.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean you will get a lot of freebies on dive trips -- maybe free Nitrox, sometimes. But Knezick recently received an email from a client he had booked at Thresher Cove Resort on the Philippine island of Cebu, stating, “Thanks to you, we’ve been labeled as VIPs, specifically because we booked through Island Dreams.”

Have Someone Hold Your Hand

Despite extensive travel planning, you’re bound to encounter some bumps and an agent that has your back, even when thousands of miles away, can make your trip less stressful. Travel agencies have the clout to get money back; they have the clout to make sure you are in the room you paid for, or that you are charged properly.

All the travel agents we talked to say troubleshooting is a regular part of the job. Mitsoda says that before Winter Storm Jonas hit the East Coast in mid-January, his agents were rebooking trips while it was just a blip on the map. “We have long-term relationships with the suppliers, so we could move flights and stay dates and not incur fees. Who has more leverage -- a person who spends thousands of dollars for one trip, or someone like us who spends tens of thousands on regular trips and have relationships going back years?”

LaRaia says she often drops everything to problem-solve for clients. She had a family recently on their way to Playa Del Carmen via Cancun, when their flights were canceled and changed at the last minute. “They sent me an e-mail, and I was immediately on the phone to the dive resort, to tell them to advise the van-transfer company to be prepared for the air problems and late arrival, so that everyone was aware and didn’t just leave the family stranded.” Try that on your own.

Can you find as good, or better, deals on dive trips than the pros? If you’re game for a ”travel face-off,” e-mail me.

And when you’re suffering from illness, a death in the family or anything else that requires you to cancel a dive trip, a good agent will handle that while you deal with other burdens. Rickie and Chrisanda Button (Elkins, AR) had returned from a dive trip last spring and thought Rickie was just exhausted from extensive diving, but it turned out he had metastatic cancer and renal failure. “Obviously, we would not be making a three-week liveaboard trip in Indonesia that October as planned,” says Chrisanda. “Reeling under the emotional impact and very busy with medical appointments, I contacted Kimberly Larson, our agent at Reef and Rainforest. Kim did all the cancellations herself, and made a new invoice for me of all nonrefundable charges. That invoice was very helpful in filing a claim for trip cancellation with our travel insurer, TravelGuard, who paid our claim in full and promptly. Without Kim’s help, I would not have been able to make the necessary cancellations, let alone file an insurance claim. How many travel agents would be as helpful in cancelling a trip as in booking a trip?” (Rickie’s cancer treatment is going well, so now they’re looking for a good destination to do “rehab” diving.)

Another thing to keep in mind: Your agency most likely is required to have a bond or license for financial protection, which guarantee their clients’ money in case they fail to deliver. Regulations and penalties vary state by state, but basically your money is totally protected should anything go wrong, like the airline goes broke or your dive resort closes unexpectedly. If you book direct, you do not get this protection.

Price or Value?

Michael Feld, who leads the New York City dive group Oceanblue Divers, has been scheduling dive trips for his group since 2006. He’s well experienced in leading his group, but he always books through Deep Blue Adventures. “An annual trip is to Buddy Dive in Bonaire – we’ve been there nine times, so I could handle the whole thing myself. But agents add logistical value, especially when it comes to booking multiple people. Cheryl Patterson is quality-oriented and knows what we like.”

For many, the decision may come down to whether price is all that matters or whether they want service, as well. As Mitsoda puts it, “Do you buy a camera from Amazon because it’s $15 less? Or do you buy it at Harvey’s camera shop downtown, even if it’s $15 more because they’ll show you how to use the features? For an agent, if you can bring both a good price and good value to the table, that’s the perfect equation.”

Readers, We Challenge You to a Travel Face-Off

Mitsoda says he knows some people will never use his dive agency or any other; they’ll always use the Internet. Like reader Bob Speir, who’s sure he can always get a better deal online. So readers, if you’re as confident as Speir in finding good deals, we want to know.

And for the second part of this story next month, we are challenging you to a “face-off”: Who gets the better dive trip package overall, the dive travel agent or the online-surfing Undercurrent subscriber? We’re asking a few dive travel agencies to put together sample dive trip itineraries for us to see what they come up with in price and offerings. And we’ll ask a few intrepid subscribers to volunteer to do the same.

Can you find as good, or better, deals on these sample dive trips than the pros? If you’re game, e-mail me at EditorBenD@undercurrent.org

--Ben Davison

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