In the past twenty years, the travel industry has seen a lot of change. The internet transformed how people plan and book travel seemingly forever, giving people instant access to both information and the ability to act as their own travel agent.
Lately though there have been stirrings of life from the travel agent sector and more and more people are once again singing their praises. It begs the question, has individual travel planning become too difficult?
In the heyday of the internet revolution in the 1990s, there was a web site for everything and with it a team of hopefuls trying to make it big. Anyone remember Sockmonkey? As with all new technology, we saw a boom and bust period. This is not new in the history of industry and innovation, when the automobile first entered the market there were hundreds of companies each vying for market share. Within a few years that number dwindled to just a few. The market dictated the number of companies that could be commercially viable.
E-commerce did not shrink to that magnitude of course, given its reach and potential for innovation. But in the aftermath of the internet bubble burst of the 1990s, we were left with a basic core group of travel booking sites. These sites are basically split into two camps: company specific sites and individual travel sites such as US Airways and Expedia and meta-search engines like Kayak and DoHop.
This model seemed to work for the first decade of the 21st century. People gradually became used to booking online and most times enjoyed the experience, believing they were getting the best deal possible, regardless of whether or not that was actually true. In the past few years there has been a proverbial perfect storm of events however that has made this online travel booking process laborious and confusing.
First, travel itself has become more difficult. Certainly enhanced security following 9/11 forever changed the travel landscape, but the traveling public, for the most part, responded well to those changes. The real impact has been felt from the economic slowdown.
Once the economy began to freefall, travel, especially business travel, plummeted. The travel industry, namely the airlines, responded in kind and began to institute new funding models such as fees while simultaneously reducing the total number of aircraft in operation. That process actually began following 9/11 when the airlines were in danger of total collapse. As the economy has begun a slow, but steady, improvement, the airlines have not had a proportional response. Rather, the flying public is met with a vast array of confusing fees and fewer flights and seats on which to pay these fees. The result is that the average flight is expensive and crowded.
The fees are a tremendous problem for all travelers, but especially those who may fly only a couple of times a year. There appear to be fees for every occasion, but the dollar amounts and the types differ from airline to airline and of course are rarely clearly delineated anywhere. I experimented with this last year when planning a trip to Florida. It took me, someone who is used to travel planning and rather enjoys it, an obscenely long time to compare flights because I had to research fees for every airline involved. In my case, the cheapest airfare would have become the most expensive travel option because of the fees.
The traveling public isn’t ignorant, they are aware of these fees and the fact that they can rapidly inflate the cost of an already pricey trip. However, they don’t have the means to quickly identify the real cost to them and are worried that whatever they book will end up becoming a travel money pit.
I love sites that allow you to compare multiple airlines at once but, for whatever reason, there has been a rapid increase in these sites lately. This leaves the traveler wondering which one to use and where will they save the most money. Why should I use Cheapoair over Kayak or DoHop.com over Orbitz? With some exceptions, it is also extremely difficult to quickly and accurately ascertain the true cost of the flight. Ignoring fees for the moment, most sites don’t include taxes and such until the final booking steps, which many times dramatically increases the overall trip cost.
Not all traveler woes are man made though, Mother Nature has added to traveler angst. This was seen in 2010 through endless weather woes, but the most notable example was the Icelandic volcano explosion. The gigantic ash cloud covered much of Europe, cancelling thousands of flights and leaving travelers stranded. The chaos was extreme and the level of disruption high. Travelers were left to their own devices, unsure of how to remedy their own situation.
This convergence of technological, economic and natural dilemmas have come together at the same time to make travel planning challenging and burdensome to the average person. Reenter onto the stage, the travel agent.
The past decade and a half has not been kind to the travel agent. With the rise of individual booking, the need for the average agent fell at a dramatic rate. The agents left standing were, in many cases, forced to become super specialists and firmly entrench themselves within a specific niche of travel expertise. But we are about to witness their rebirth.
With the uncertainties of both the costs involved with travel as well as potential pitfalls, people are flocking back to the neighborhood agent for their travel needs. And why not? While I love planning travel, that doesn’t mean I have to be the one who books it and frankly I can only benefit from the expertise of an agent. It doesn’t cost me anything to use one and instead I can be assured that I am getting the best deal available and, perhaps most importantly, I know that I have an advocate in my corner should something happen. I need not fear being alone should volcanic ash disrupt my travel plans again, I know that there is a travel professional actively working to help me solve my travel woes.
I’m not sure what the next few years for travel will entail. Online booking and individual travel planning certainly aren’t going away anytime soon, but I firmly believe that people are more timid now than ever before about the process. Online companies only aggravate this feeling, making a cursory review of sample airfares a far too difficult process. Rather, moving forward, travelers will once again rely on personal interactions and expertise to plan travel, both in the form of social media as well as knowledgeable travel professionals.