Fleet News

Guest opinion: Be realistice about web travel savings

BOOKING travel online is in the news again. In addition to the endless marketing hype, several independent surveys have pointed to big surges in web use for travel bookings.

There is absolutely no doubt that the web has been a boon – it has given us instant access to masses of information. More importantly, that information has enabled a transparency of price and meant that many suppliers in travel have not been able to shield their true prices. We know exactly what airlines are charging for fares so we can see how much is added on. The same is true for hotel rooms and car rental.

If we can buy direct without additional charges from agents the question might be: why use agents? Several reasons, actually. Firstly, prices on individual suppliers’ websites might be lower than some of the prices you’re offered by an agent, but again they might be different from that negotiated with a big buyer. Large agencies give the airlines of the world millions of pounds worth of business every year – and that gives them the buying clout which might result in lower fares upon which, admittedly, they would add their fee.

But that fee immediately means that your relationship moves from the principal to the agent – it is then the agent to whom you are writing a cheque and who owns the relationship so there is someone there to intervene if, anything goes wrong or if there are changes.

Tickets sold via the net are usually non-changeable and non-refundable. So if you miss your flight because of, say, a car accident on the motorway on the way to the airport, you may have no comeback with a web ticket, although you might have had with an agent.

On the other hand, web tickets are getting slicker. And online booking need not be direct with the supplier but can be through agent-like sites which offer flights and hotel rooms from more than one supplier.

The Expedias and Travelocities are not the same as the sites of suppliers – Virgin Atlantic is not going to offer its web visitor information on British Airways schedules and availability.

So sites like Expedia can be a good idea? Well, yes, so long as you remember that, as with everything, you get what you pay for. If you are planning to buy travel at work you probably want some of the back-up service that an agent can give. In an organisation, some people need to travel from London to Chicago but, when they get there, decide they need to stay an extra day before continuing to the Los Angeles office. That might need an agent.

But there could also be someone who travels between Bristol and Glasgow every Monday. That regular, point-to-point trip could easily be done by an online system – whether an online corporate one or through a site.

Why can the Expedias of this world often sell hotel rooms cheaper than the hotels themselves can? Because at some point the hotel decided that it would sell the site a wadge of hotel rooms – ‘discounted inventory’ by any other name.

So there are bargains to be had on the net but trawling it yourself can be a time-consuming business.

Many online agencies and booking products (software that can go on anyone’s desktop) report exponentially growing take-up and penetration levels. But many of these stats ignore whether or not an online booking has had any human intervention – a telephone call, say – at some point. How many bookings truly exclude human intervention?

Although an online booking should be quicker and more efficient, it is worth monitoring how many key strokes or how long each online booking takes in comparison with the traditional email or telephone call approach. Everyone should be looking at the total cost of a trip.

Online can deliver great savings. But, like everything else, it too must be carefully managed.

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