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No More Free Lunch With Your Travel Agent

Service fees: Though consumers are being charged more often, avoiding such outlays doesn't always pay.

March 22, 1998|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

After about three years of fear, loathing, debate and hand-wringing, most travel agencies in the U.S. are now or soon will be charging consumers fees for services that used to be free.

Pushed to the action by airline commission cutbacks in 1995 and 1997--that's where the agents' loathing comes in--many agencies are bolstering revenue by charging customers $10 to $20 to book a flight or hotel. Others, however, are holding back and even adding the phrase "no service fees" to their advertisements.

So, the frugal traveler asks, isn't this my signal to dump the agent who charges and either sign on with one who doesn't, or just make my own lodging and transportation arrangements?

Maybe not. First, just about the worst way to buy a plane ticket is to call an airline directly and assume the reservations clerk will tell you the best deals in the marketplace. It won't happen. Someone--either an agent or you--needs to study the competition and the options.

The Internet makes it easier to do that yourself. But most travelers still want someone else spending the time that it takes. And at first glance, it seems logical to use an agent who will do that for nothing.

But on the whole, choosing an agent that way is like choosing one sports car over another because of the key chain. The key to finding the right travel agent is not the $10 or $20 you may or may not spend up front; it's the $100 or $200 that a good agent will save you, and a bad agent will cost you, in the course of planning a $1,000 trip.

Finding the right one: Unfortunately, finding the best travel agent, like finding the right dentist or mechanic, is a gradual process that can take years of trial and error. Achieving success means asking your relatives, friends and colleagues for references. I have friends who have searched for years, given up and now make their own bookings because they only trust themselves. I have other friends who have clung to the same agent for 10 years, even though they now live in different cities.

Not surprisingly, the best agents usually have more experience. But it's important to ask what kind. Some agents specialize in business travel, which may not help them match you up with the right cruise company for your honeymoon. Also, keep in mind that feeling comfortable with the agency as a whole is the first requirement, but if you don't feel comfortable with your specific agent, you should make changes.

Pay attention to training. Look for a business card bearing the letters CTC (Certified Travel Counselor), which means the agent has completed a demanding program run by the Institute of Certified Travel Agents in Wellesley, Mass. (Within the trade, that program is widely acknowledged to be the best academic measure of professional training.)

Most, but not all, good agents belong to the American Society of Travel Agents. Agents who sell a lot of cruises usually have received training from the Cruise Lines International Assn. But simple, direct questioning is important too: Ask your agent if she (the vast majority of agents are women) has been to the destination you're considering. Also, refuse be intimidated by an agent whose speech is thick with indecipherable travel-industry jargon: It's her job to be understood.

You might want to drop by the agency's office to assess the degree of chaos and size of staff. And you could take your prospective travel agent to lunch. Almost nobody does this, but why not? If schedule permits, the agent will appreciate it, and by the end of the meal, you'll have a far better idea what to expect from her. And she'll have a better idea of what kind of traveler you are.

About fees: In a November-December polling of 306 agencies, the American Society of Travel Agents found that 70.9% either plan to start charging service fees, or already are. Around the same time, Travel Industry Marketing Enterprises of Babylon, N.Y., surveyed 714 agencies. In results reported in the Feb. 5 issue of Travel Weekly magazine, the survey found that 40% were already assessing fees, 28% planned to implement them soon, 20% didn't want to but might have to impose them, and 12% had no intention of assessing them.

At Ships and Trips Travel in Manhattan Beach, corporate accounts manager Alice Wikel reports that the airlines' 1997 commissions cuts forced the agency to impose service fees. Since last October, the agency has charged $10 to book an airline ticket, $20 to redeem a coupon for air travel, $10 to make hotel reservations when no air fare is involved, $35 to book a hotel that doesn't pay commissions and a $50 nonrefundable deposit to arrange an independent tour.

Meanwhile, at Mitchell Travel in Burbank, owner Larry Chandler has resisted fees so far but guesses that airlines will eventually drop their commissions further, "and then I'll probably have to initiate some kind of service fees."

At Montrose Travel in Montrose, owner Joe McClure also is resisting. But he adds that "if another [airline commission cut] comes down the pike, then, yes, we have a service fee plan ready to come out of the box."

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. He welcomes comments and suggestions, but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053 or e-mail chris.reynolds@latimes.com.

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