Travel agents have never been all that well understood by the traveling public. But now may be the most important time in years to make sure yours is a good one.
The vast majority of the country's roughly 30,000 travel agents still charge consumers nothing, and make their money by taking commissions from hotels, airlines and tour operators to whom they send business. But now--as computer-savvy consumers gain access to information that agents once had to themselves, and travel providers increase their efforts to sell tickets directly to travelers and airlines reduce their commission rates for agents--agencies are scrambling for new strategies.
Two recent examples suggest that some of those strategies will be clever, innovative and likely to save consumers money and win loyalty. Others will be old-fashioned or ill-advised, and might even steer customers away from the travel arrangements that best suit them.
One of most promising agency ideas is a new offer from Travel Network Ltd. of Englewood Cliffs, N.J.--a large travel agency with its own frequent-flyer program, completely separate from the airline programs.
Travel Network (800-222-2220), a franchise chain with $850 million in sales last year and 340 outlets in the U.S. and abroad (including offices in Lomita, Glendale, Costa Mesa and Laguna Hills) on Sept. 1 introduced its Matching Miles program, which allows agency customers to accrue credits by booking flights through Travel Network on any of eight major U.S.-based airlines.
Once travelers' mileage hits a certain target level on one airline, they can redeem their Matching Miles for flights on any of the eight participating carriers. For a domestic coach ticket to a major U.S. city: 25,000 miles on a single airline. For a coach ticket to Hawaii: 40,000. South Pacific coach tickets go for 120,000 miles.
Thus, if you book your flights on one of the credit cards that has its own frequent-flyer program tie-in, and you already belong to the mileage program of the airline you're flying, you're triple-accumulating with every ticket you buy through Travel Network. Enrollment is free.
There are drawbacks. Members are required to buy all tickets through the same location and keep their boarding passes as proof of flights. There are blackout dates during which reward tickets are unavailable. Mileage expires three years after it is earned.
But Michael Brent, president of Travel Network, reports that the company has been getting 3,000 inquiry calls per month
since unveiling the idea, and with an ad campaign rolling out in six different in-flight magazines, more are expected.
Travel Network acquires its award tickets by buying from airlines at high-volume discounts. Participating airlines are America West, American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, TWA, United and USAir. (
Sometime in 1995, Brent plans a second phase of the program that will allow travelers to accrue matching miles for non-air-fare bookings such as cruises and package trips. And beginning Jan. 6 on the Internet, Brent expects Travel Network to offer its Electronic Travel Agent (ETA) program on which travelers can book flights themselves but earn double credit through Travel Network as a reward for saving reservation agents time.
Meanwhile, American Express is testing a similar idea at some of its San Francisco and Florida outlets. Randy Petersen, publisher of InsideFlyer magazine, predicts a surge of travel agency interest in such programs. Consumer Reports Travel Letter calls Matching Miles "a considerable challenge" to American Express and other agencies.
Less encouraging, if you're looking for signs of forward thinking among travel agents, is the example set recently by two officers of the Assn. of Retail Travel Agents.
In fall, 1993, Susan Bruno of Los Altos, Calif., and Jack Stults of Joplin, Mo., issued news press releases to Travel Weekly and other trade publications, each announcing plans to boycott suppliers of travel services that they said didn't meet association "objectives." In particular, Travel Weekly reported, the agents cited Avis rental cars and Morris Air (since bought by Southwest) and urged other agents to take stands as well.
The agents apparently were not angry over service received by clients, but by an Avis promotion (which offered agency employees a chance to win their own agencies) and by Morris Air's inaccessibility on the computer reservation systems used by most travel agencies.
The agents' public statements didn't sit well with officials in the U.S. Department of Justice's Antitrust Division, who wondered if this was an unreasonable way of restraining trade. They took the issue to federal court, where last October ARTA was enjoined from "inviting or encouraging concerted action by travel agents . . . to refuse to do business with specified suppliers . . . or to do business with specified suppliers only on specified terms."
ARTA, a 1,500 member Arlington, Va.-based group, does not speak for most U.S. travel agents. But the case is a healthy reminder of the built-in flaw in the standard travel agent-client relationship: An agent's own economic interests can conflict with a client's best interests.
\o7 Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. \f7