Travel Site FAIL


by Samuel Greengard

For nearly a month I've been trying to plan a vacation to South America for this autumn. And for the greater part of a month, I've found myself idling somewhere between frustrated and angry. Despite hours perusing websites for tour companies, airlines and hotels, I've been unable to book a trip.

Airline sites and travel sites such as Orbitz and Expedia make it ridiculously simple to book a flight from L.A. to New York, or purchase a packaged vacation to Hawaii or Disney World. But try to piece together multiple destinations--in my case Bolivia and Peru within a specific time window--and you wind up feeling like you're banging an empty suitcase against the wall.

I've reached the conclusion that it's nearly impossible to book any significant trip online--at least without spending dozens, if not hundreds, of hours sorting through flight schedules and details. Getting things to work is a bit like the old Star Trek Episode "Spock's Brain," where Dr. McCoy suddenly realizes that getting all the connections right is beyond his mortal abilities.

Once upon a time we had travel agents to do this. The good ones--and some of them were truly brilliant--could assemble an itinerary that would whisk you seamlessly from one place to the next, often at a reasonable price. What's more, a good travel agent knew which hotels and flights to book. And you didn't pay anything (at least directly) for all this expertise.

We've taken a huge step backwards. If someone surveyed travelers then and now I'd bet that they'd find more problems and disappointments today. There's simply no way the average person knows how to handle complicated itineraries on par with a savvy travel agent--especially if we're talking about some exotic locale like India or Bolivia. Yes, Trip Advisor and other sites provide "market intelligence," but scouring these sites requires even more time and energy.

There's a lesson learned here. Technology is smart but people are wise. Don't ever mistake the ability to uncover a cheap flight and select your own hotel room as a better way to do things. It's the illusion of progress. And as we delve deeper into technology and a self-service culture one has to wonder how often we're trading real expertise for the feeling that we're an expert.


9 Comments for "Travel Site FAIL"

  • Greg July 20, 2011 4:23 pm

    My hat is off to the great travel agents. I encourage you to use the social media tools at your disposal to get the word out. I have my share of disappointing stories. My company uses a travel service. One of little extras is that they are available for employees personal travel. In 7 years, they have never been able to match the prices I can find as a lone consumer. I have not planned a complex trip like the author mentions since the '80s. At that time it was the same story. I could not say "These are the times and places people will fly out and fly back; make me an itenary." I had to do the work, call the airlines, et al. And working directly with the airlines was less expensive. I was not interested in routing my work through an agent so they would get the comission.

  • Morad July 20, 2011 1:37 pm

    If you want a real good "travel agent" sometimes it pays to look in areas that are directly involved with travel. For instance when I need something complicated booked for me I go to my local SCUBA shop. They have people there who, while not licensed travel agents, live and die by making sure their clientele have a great experience. I have used my girl at the dive shop for both SCUBA and non SCUBA related trips. They usually get me a great rate, don't charge me anything for it and have been spot on every time.

  • Charles July 20, 2011 7:58 am

    Great point. I planned a trip to Europe for six by myself last year. The number is significant because most sites capped the number of tickets in an order at 5 - planes and trains. Lot of double browser sessions and seating separations, but that wasn't the worst. The self-service idea almost cost me a whole lot more than I saved. On a whim, since we were almost at the border of France, instead of returning there, I almost skipped the Berlin to London leg of the return so the family could take the train to London so we could experience the chunnel and a day in the city. Just to make sure, I called the online vendor I bought the tickets from to check it out. I was told that if we didn't make the first leg, the second leg would be cancelled, and we wouldn't be allowed on our flight in London. Had I indulged the whim and bought the tickets for the train, I'm pretty sure no website would first ask me how I got to the continent to begin with.

  • Jim July 19, 2011 3:32 pm

    Travel agents still exist, and while some of them are competent others are not (ever had an agent present you with flight connections requiring a ground transfer between Washington-Reagan/National and Dulles as I have?). Those travel agencies with competent and knowledgeable agents may very well charge an added fee in your booking so their business can survive, but it may be worth the cost to reduce your own personal hassle and secure a realistic itinerary which fits your personal objectives. The other thing to keep in mind is that every consumer-accessible online travel service also needs to make enough money to survive, and their compensation will come from the ads and the promotional fees paid to them by the transport carriers, hotels and other service providers you eventually choose to book and pay for.

  • Keith July 19, 2011 2:42 pm

    Good article, however you make it sound like travel agents are extinct. There are two travel agents with in a mile of me even as I speak (type). I almost always call an agent, they can find flights and hotels a great deal cheaper than Orbitz or Expedia can offer.

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