Richard TurenDear client:

I hope and trust that you will book your next vacation with our firm. But we know there are alternatives out there, and we know you are receiving mailings and seeing ads that often urge you to book directly with a travel supplier online.

We enjoy an open and honest relationship with our clients. So I would like to share some straight talk with you about using toll-free numbers or websites to book your vacation directly with the provider.

The best-kept secret in the travel industry is that those who book direct are paying for something they are not receiving: the services of a professional travel consultant.

I realize you are being told that it is easy to book your cruise, tour or airline tickets online. You can do it yourself. Just trust the supplier to take care of everything and have your credit card within easy reach.

Be thrilled that you live in a time when you can just click and travel. It's all so easy, isn't it? Turn over your credit card number and personal information to someone in a cubicle in a reservations factory or, better still, to outsourced labor working out of a call center overseas. Now your credit card information is in Bangladesh, and your vacation will be expertly planned and delivered.

So why use my services?

Well, the first thing you need to know (the industry's best-kept secret) is that you are going to pay my fee or commission when you book directly because it is always -- not sometimes, always -- built into the price of any brochure program. It's the way the industry prices.

Tour operators and cruise lines, even top-grade hotels, love direct bookings because a portion of the travel agent's commission that is built in to every program simply goes into their pockets. They believe that it costs them far less to maintain order-takers in a reservations center.

One hotel chain, years ago, was actually using prisoners on work release to handle phone reservations. Most telephone res agents who work for cruise lines are commissioned salespeople with little knowledge of the industry. Their goal is simple: Try to get a direct booking, earn their smaller commission, and let the company pocket the rest of the total commission built into the fare.

So when you book something directly, you are making a sucker bet that the person on the other end of the line has your best interests at heart, will look out for further discounts and apply them to your record and will be there for you in an emergency.

Imagine what happens when you make a direct booking. Your credit card information is stored, and you receive a computer-generated invoice. That's it. You are now a travel statistic. The computer software that is now your "agent" will notify you when final payment is due, and you will receive final documents.

Of course, you will not receive any of the amenities available through our office, so you might actually be missing out on pricing incentives and advantages.

Let me state it as clearly as I can: With the exception of certain airline and hotel websites that run occasional online "sales," you will never receive preferred pricing on any online site.

If a tour operator or cruise line did not give us pricing that was equal to or better than what they offer on their site, no reputable travel consultant would ever again sell their product. It just never happens. You can always count on the fact that our pricing will be as good or better than any tour or cruise prices you see on direct booking sites.

But frankly, I don't want you to book with us because it is always a better value than booking directly. There are other, more important reasons that have little to do with price.

There is not enough space to list all of the things we provide to our valued clients that are never provided when you book directly with a cruise line or tour operator. But here are just a few to keep in mind:

We are going to compare what competitive companies offer. We are going to advise you on the very best product to meet your needs. We can point out the advantages and disadvantages of several options. Booking directly puts you in touch with a single-product sales person. That is all you get.

We provide special documentation and advice about ports, sightseeing options and even restaurants. We know the best times to do your itinerary, and we might have affiliated offices abroad that can make your vacation truly memorable.

One of the most important things we can do is analyze your travel insurance needs. If you book direct, you get no options, no discussion. You are offered only whatever the site happens to be selling. We offer a universe of options, and that often saves you money.

Suppose something goes wrong? Suppose someone gets sick, and you need help getting home in a hurry? Suppose your vacation experience was unsatisfactory? Who is your advocate if you are dealing directly with the company operating the program? You have none.

Perhaps the most important single thing that we do is give you an honest, unbiased view of both the upside and downside of the vacation option you are considering. Book direct and you get none of that. Everything about the product will be painted in glowing terms. Everything will smell like a strawberry.

Finally, a personal note.

When I go to sleep at night, I am generally aware of where my clients are traveling and what current conditions they are likely to encounter. I worry about my clients. I think about their welfare, and I think about ways that I can enhance their experiences abroad.

I am fairly certain that the direct booking tied up somewhere in a supplier's software booking program is incapable of showing a "booking statistic" much empathy.

Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at [email protected].


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