We're not sure who coined the term "card mill," but we're pretty sure it wasn't someone who ran one. It is a strictly pejorative term, a term you can't use "in a good way."

We've never heard a purveyor of travel agent credentials admit to being a card mill, but we have heard them say that they have thousands of satisfied customers and that the travel sellers in their networks deliver a sizeable amount of business to industry suppliers.

And that, for the enemies of card mills, is the problem. Card mills exist because people derive economic benefits from them.

As they exist in the travel industry today, card mills benefit their operators, the travel sellers who join their networks and the suppliers whose products and services are sold. One might argue that their passengers also benefit, or at least think they do.

Royal Caribbean's decision to distance its brands from certain card mills may prove to be a sensible one, fully deserving the applause it has received from traditional agents.

But the company's move has given renewed life to a questionable idea -- that suppliers can fix this problem by simply refusing to deal with certain travel sellers.

Even assuming that enough suppliers can be shamed into disavowing agency credentials that were issued with a rubber stamp, suppliers need to do more to establish a consensus about what kind of training or credentials a professional travel agent is supposed to have. 

If a few suppliers deprive card mills of a product to sell, it would make traditional agents feel better, but it wouldn't stop consumers from looking for shortcuts and insider deals, and it wouldn't stop entrepreneurs from finding ways to meet the demand.

If the travel industry is going to rid itself of card mills, it has to convince consumers and suppliers -- or, heaven forbid, lawmakers -- that they provide no value, that their benefits are illusory and not worth the risk.

That would seem to be a tall order in a world where all of us regularly make use of shortcuts.

Do all of us drive around in cars that are maintained by the manufacturer's factory-certified mechanics?

Do we have our lawns cared for by certified lawn-care professionals, or the kid down the block?

Do we have our basements finished by certified home-improvement contractors, or a brother-in-law who's handy with tools?

In a perfect world, or even a better world, a professional travel counselor's credentials would consist of something more than a love of travel and a $499 ID badge.

In the real world, however, that's all it will take as long as consumers believe that some guy with a pickup and a chain saw is just as good as an arborist.

What's at issue here is not merely travel credentials but the very idea of credentials. In the real world, there's always going to be "some guy."  

The third queen

If we had to place a bet a week ago, we would have wagered that Cunard's next ship order would be for a cruise ship to add a new dimension to the Cunard experience, not another regal liner. Certainly not a third big queen.

But we would have lost that bet, for obvious reasons.

As poker hands go, three ladies beats a pair of queens any day.  

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