Travel Agents vs. Online Bookings

My manager gave me the green light on Thursday to take a couple of weeks off work in May and head back to the USA. My initial reaction was one of pure excitement. I picked up my iPhone and crazily punched away at it, updating my Facebook status to make sure all my friends over in Florida knew of my upcoming return – 30 comments and 18 likes later, although still extremely ecstatic, the hassle of finding the best deal on an airfare started to engulf my thoughts…

“How much am I willing to spend? I refuse to fly with that airline. What if I don’t get the best deal? What happens if I wait a bit longer and the prices jump? What if I go ahead and buy now only to find that in a few weeks, the prices have dropped?”

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Here are the details:

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Departure
City: Melbourne, Australia (MEL)

Destination City: Orlando, FL, USA (MCO)

Departure Date: Thursday May 12, 2011

Return Date: Thursday May 26, 2011

Round-trip Budget: $1,500 AUD

This will be my fifth time flying to the USA. 2006 was my first; I flew with United Airlines. I was a virgin to overseas travel, but had I known what I do now, there is no way in hell I would have flown with them; worst flight of my life. Not to mention their shit house onboard economy entertainment system that replayed the same two movies over and over again on a handful of TV screens spread out every 10 or so rows for 14 hours straight – major disappointment.

I have never paid under $2,100 AUD for a roundtrip flight to the USA, but this time, with so many new airlines running the same route, competition has picked up and prices have drastically dropped. I was determined to find myself a deal for under $1,500 AUD.

The plan was to use a mixture of online quotes as well as travel agent quotes to generate the single best deal.

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Online Findings:

1. For a general idea of prices I can expect to pay, I use Best Flights as a flight search engine to gauge the fluctuation of prices amongst various airlines. For my select search criteria, it brings back the following results:

a) United Airlines $1,294 AUD (inc. tax)

b) V Australia $1, 345 AUD (inc. tax)

c) Air New Zealand $1,798 AUD (inc. tax)

d) Qantas $8,000,000 AUD (inc. tax) Yes, I’m funny

United Airlines is the cheapest. This makes sense because it is the crappiest of carriers. V Australia is the next best deal. I have never flown V Australia before but have only heard good things about them and with a new fleet of aircrafts, the widest and roomiest economy seats on the market and individual entertainment units in each seat, this fare is extremely hard to look by. Apart from that disaster of a flight with United Airlines, my other three trips to the U.S. were all on board Air New Zealand. These guys are great; nice aircraft, the most incredible individual onboard entertainment with so many movies and TV shows to chose from and kick ass plane food! I have always been able to get a great student deal with them, only this year I am no longer a student. Qantas, well, did you expect anything more from them? They have always been a massive rip off in my eyes.

It is important to note that Best Flights charges a 2-4% credit card fee depending on what credit card issuer is utilised. This brings the V Australia flight total from anywhere between:

a) $1,345 AUD + 2% = $1,371.90 AUD (inc. tax)

b) $1,345 AUD + 4% = $1,398.80 AUD (inc. tax)


2. Once I find a fare I like through a search engine, I go to the airlines website to see if it generates the same fare price:

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The V Australia website tells me that they have the same flight available for $1,332.03 AUD. This is roughly a $13 difference from the Best Flights price which usually indicates a small booking fee on behalf of Best Flights.

An important thing to note is that when booking online, V Australia charges a $15 AUD credit card fee, so in reality, through the V Australia site, the total fare comes to:

a) $1,332.03 AUD + $15 AUD = $1,347.03 AUD (inc. tax)

This means it is cheaper booking through the V Australia website directly rather than Best Flights.

Now this is where I bring the Travel Agencies into it…

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Travel Agencies

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STA Travel

In the past I have always headed to STA Travel to cut me an awesome student deal. This time I am no longer a student, but still under 26 so I went in with the same mindset of scoring me a kick-butt price. I was actually quite shocked with the outcome.

1. That same cheap United Airlines flight that Best Flights was offering was what STA Travel first offered me, only it was $154 AUD more than the Best Flight and United Airlines website!

a) STA Travel United Airlines Quote: $1,448 AUD (inc. tax)

One can only assume that the inflated price was mark-up so the travel agent could take her home some sweet ass commission.

2. That V Australia flight that I found online for $1,332 AUD for, she wanted $1,300 AUD for… great right? No. She said it would be $1,300 AUD just for Melbourne to Los Angeles return and that I would have to book a separate flight on top of that to get from Los Angeles to Orlando and back which would probably set me back a further $350 AUD!

b) STA Travel V Australia Quote: $1,300 + $350 = $1,600 AUD (inc. tax)

WTF!?! Where on earth was she getting these insane prices from? Again, I can only assume all these extra figures were going towards her commission fund.

I was quite disappointed with these results so I mentioned the V Australia flight I had found online which was Melbourne – Orlando round trip for only $1,332 AUD. Her response was, “Wow, if you found it for that price, then go book it, you won’t get it for that price from here!” Nice. No trying to win customers over this time.

I had always depended on STA Travel in the past to get me to where I was going at the cheapest possible price and they had never let me down so you can imagine how shocked and upset I was with this result.

Onto the next option…
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Flight Centre

I booked a trip to Thailand through Flight Centre once, but that’s about it. I always found STA Travel to offer the better deals so I had always stuck with them, only this time, I was hoping to be proven wrong.

I told the travel consultant that I know United Airlines will return the cheapest result, but I am not interested in flying with them due to a horrible experience a few years prior and asked if she could look up the V Australia fair for me.

1. For that same V Australia flight I had been looking at both online and at STA Travel, Flight Centre quoted me:

a) Flight Centre V Australia Quote: $1,360 (inc. tax)

Slightly more expensive than the V Australia online quote of $1,332.03.

My travel advisor printed out the quote for me and attached her business card.
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Results so far for V Australia flight:

  1. Best Flights Website: $1,371.90 AUD – $1,398.80 AUD (inc. tax)
  2. V Australia Website: $1,347.03 AUD (inc. tax)
  3. STA Travel: $1,600 AUD (inc. tax)
  4. Flight Centre: $1,360 (inc. tax)

It wasn’t until after I returned home that I noticed that Flight Centre has the ‘unbeatable’ guarantee: “We will beat any airline or web airfare quote or you fly free.”

For this guarantee to be valid, the quote must be printed and presented upon booking and the web fare quote must be available and able to be booked by the general public when you go to book the Flight Centre fare. So long as the booking is for the same dates and flight class, Flight Centre will beat the price by $1.00 and offer a $20 voucher.

Sounds easy enough, right?

I printed out the V Australia quote of $1,332.03 which, at the current time, is still available for purchase on line. Hopefully it will remain this way until tomorrow when I head back into Flight Centre to present the printed V Australia online quote.

This should drop the final cost of the fare down to:

a) Flight Centre: $1,331.03 AUD (inc. tax)

I bet you’re probably thinking, what’s one measly dollar? But in all honesty, I much prefer booking long haul international flights through Travel Agents. Through my experience, I’ve found that if there is ever a problem with the flight (cancellation, delay etc) you can simply call them from where ever you are in the world and they take care of it for you. This is much easier than trying to amend a flight you booked online by yourself. Why put yourself through such stress while travelling?

On the plus side, the guarantee also entitles me to a $20 Flight Centre voucher which I would use towards travel insurance for this trip (which I will probably find cheaper online anyways).

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Sometimes shopping around a little bit is worth the hassle.
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How do you find the best international flight deals?
Do you book online or prefer booking through a travel agent?
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