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Does Everyone Hate Travel Agents?

Part 3 of a series on travel agents

Is your friendly local travel agency a help or hindrance to your travel planning?

If you've chosen well, your travel agent and travel agency will almost certainly be an invaluable help.

Part 3 of a 5 part series - click for Parts  One  Two  Three  Four  Five



Sometimes it seems that everyone loves to hate travel agencies.

But is this fair and justified, or unfair and unjustified?

This article looks at five reasons why such negative perceptions exist, but in every case, travel agents are getting an unfairly bad reputation.


Problem 1 - Clients Blame Their Agent for Everything

Studies suggest that being a travel agent is an intensely stressful job.  Why is this?  Because travel agents are not able to control the outcomes which they are deemed responsible for.

For example, a customer calls up and says 'I saw an advertisement for $198 roundtrip fares to Orlando, I want to buy four of them for my family to travel next week'.  The travel agent's response will probably be 'the fare isn't available for those dates' or 'there are no seats available on the dates you request', or in some other way, to tell the person that he can't have the fares he expected.  What happens next?

Does the client say 'those horrible airlines are playing their tricks on me again'?  No - the client gets upset at the agent - 'What do you mean, there are no seats available?  Why not?  Look harder!'  And this of course gets translated into problem 3 (below) as well - 'My agent is incompetent'!

Most of the time, problems perceived as being the fault of the travel agent are actually the 'fault' of the suppliers that the travel agent is simply passing on to you.  Don't shoot the messenger who brings you the bad news!

Problem 2 - The 'I can find a cheaper fare' Issue

Who hasn't read one of the regular articles that appear in the press by a bored journalist seeking a cheap headline.  These stories, sometimes cloaked in pseudo-science, tell how a reporter called different travel agencies and got quoted wildly different prices for the same air itinerary.  Invariably, the stories end with the conclusion that this means that travel agencies are no good!

Time for a reality check.  Just about everyone, except the reporters who write these stories, know that air fares 'change' a dozen times every minute as the airline yield computers open up or close down the availability of different fares for the same flights.  And so, almost without exception, these journalists misunderstand the real meaning of their experiences.

The real meaning is that the airlines are making it impossible for anyone to comparison shop for airfares.  They are playing pricing games that in any other industry would be unacceptable (remember the outcry when Amazon started offering different levels of discount to different customers?), and the different prices that the reporter was quoted merely reflect the bewildering variety of different fares that appear and disappear.  Shame on the airlines, not shame on travel agents!

In addition, some travel agents will take a simple request for a fare and then 'add value' to that request - ie, by suggesting slight changes to the itinerary or travel times so as to save you money.  If you're looking for the absolutely lowest airfare quote (instead of the most convenient travel), encourage the travel agent to investigate slight variations (eg, maybe changing planes rather than flying nonstop, choosing less popular times of day or days of the week to travel, changing airlines, etc).

This is where you have to be a 'good client' in order to get a 'good fare'.  Remember - the travel agent (unlike an airline reservations agent!) is on your side!

Problem 3 - Some Travel Agents Truly are Bad!

I'm a great believer that people are, in general, basically decent.  Yes, I know that there are too many murderers, rapists, drug addicts and pushers, etc; but in general, I always expect and hope for the best when I meet a new person for the first time, and generally, people turn out to be as good as I hope them to be.

So why is it, then, that when a person has a bad experience with one particular travel agent, they decide that all travel agents, everywhere, are as bad as the person that they had an unfortunate experience with?

I'm the first to sadly concede that there are bad agents out there.  But - bad agents aren't subtle.  Their inabilities and incompetence is obvious to anyone after only a minute or two of interaction.  And, so too are the competencies, experience, and abilities of a good agent equally obvious.

If you encounter a bad agent, leave that agent immediately and seek out a better agent.  Don't blame all hundreds of thousands of travel agents just because inevitably a few bad agents briefly work in the industry.

If you applied a similar standard to the behavior of airline staff, you'd never ever fly again!

Problem 4 - Suppliers Blame Travel Agents for Everything

As a former travel agent myself, I of course would do my own travel bookings.  Occasionally I would encounter a problem with a reservation, and invariably the airline or hotel or whoever would tell me (not realizing that I was both their customer and also the travel agent who did the booking) 'Oh, your travel agent didn't ---' or 'Your travel agent should have ---' (in each case, fill in the blanks as appropriate).

I took a sad delight in asking the person 'Are you sure about that - there is no possibility that it could have been a mistake at your end?'  The person invariably would look me sincerely in the eyes and promise me that it was absolutely impossible that it could be their mistake, but instead was of course the fault of my travel agent.  I would then dramatically reveal to them that I was the travel agent, and that I had personal direct knowledge of exactly what happened, and ask for their apology for the outright lie they had just offered me.

But I wasn't so lucky with my clients.  I particularly remember one time that a regular client of mine was flying from Seattle to Los Angeles on Alaska Airlines to then connect with a flight to Sydney.  Alaska Airlines cancelled his flight at literally the last minute, and when he got to the airport, told him that his travel agent should have got in touch with him to tell him of this flight cancellation.

At the time that they were telling him this, they still had not even updated their own computer system to show that the flight had been cancelled - but somehow, the customer service agent at the airport told him that it was all our fault.  He missed his connection to Sydney, and had to choose between believing either us or the Alaska Airlines airport representative (who had outright lied to him).

Guess who he believed?  He never bought any more travel from us again, and probably, to this day, still believes that not only did we mess up his booking but then tried to lie about it, never once suspecting that the uniformed honest looking airline rep with twenty years of experience was actually the person that had done the lying.

So, please, don't be too quick to automatically believe what suppliers tell you - travel agents are assuredly not perfect, but so too, suppliers are also not perfect and make probably as many or more mistakes than travel agents.

Problem 5 - Industry Commentators claim Travel Agents are Biased

I laugh when I read checklists of 'things to look for when you choose a travel agent' - full of unrealistic or irrelevant suggestions that make no sense at all.  Invariably they include a warning that travel agents might choose to deliberately force you, the customer, to buy a product that you don't want, just because the travel agency makes more commission from selling you this product; sometimes these checklists suggest you ask for details of the agency's commission contracts with all their suppliers (try doing that next time you go to any other shop - ask an electronics store for details on their markups on all their tv sets before choosing your tv set, and see how far that strategy gets you!).

I wish that travel agents really were biased.  As a former travel wholesaler, I tried just about every imaginable strategy to try and get more travel agents to sell more of my products, including all types of commission override incentives.  But only one thing ever consistently worked - providing good quality good value products with good service to the travel agencies and their clients!

And don't just accept my experience.  Look at other situations, too.  For example, when the airlines first announced their first round of commission cuts and caps, TWA (remember them) said that they would not reduce the commissions they paid travel agencies, in the hope that this would encourage agencies to steer more business to them.  Guess what happened?  TWA noticed almost no change in market share from travel agents at all - because travel agents were prepared to ignore and sacrifice the extra commission that TWA was offering, preferring instead to concentrate single mindedly on giving their clients what was best for their clients, not what was best for their agency!

90%+ of all travel agents show no signs of any bias at all, and indeed most travel agents don't even know the details of what overrides and bonuses their agency owners may have negotiated with suppliers!  It is unfair for these so-called self-appointed 'industry experts' to suggest that travel agencies are biased when the facts consistently show they are not.

How can Travel Agencies Solve these Problems?

Please read part four for some suggestions on this vital question! :)

Read more in the rest of this series

In Part 1 we discuss how travel agents can help you better than supplier representatives can or will.

In Part 2 we explain that the airlines' zeroing travel agent commissions isn't just an attempt to kill off travel agents, but also an attempt to kill off smaller airlines.  Both ways, you're the real loser.

In Part 4 we offer some solutions to the problems the travel agency industry is currently facing.

Part 5 represents a bringing together of both this article series and also the series on how to choose a travel agent and agency, and talks about ways in which you can now best use travel agency services.

Related Articles, etc

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Originally published 12 April 2002, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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