Does your book shelf house a collection of well used and slightly battered travel guide books or do you rely on the help of an 'expert' when planning your travel ? I have certainly done both over the years, and whilst I can see the attraction of walking into a shop and walking out an hour or so later with tickets in your hand and a glossy brochure, for me those days are well and truly over.
I'm not saying that everyone should abandon travel agents and book their holidays themselves, for many that would be a disaster waiting to happen. Imagine that you happily board the plane to Grenada marveling at how cheap you got the ticket, only to arrive a few hours later in Spain. Grenada and Granada are VERY different but only one letter away from each other, easy to mix that one up on a flight booking site...
We have had some not so great experiences with travel agents. Most recently it wasn't even us using the agent. We were waiting for our private taxi to Havana airport from Varadero in Cuba. As we were about to get in our taxi we were told we had to take another couple with us because Virgin Holidays failed to collect them from the resort for their flight. This inconvenienced us slightly, but imagine being the young couple left behind.....We paid 100 USD for our taxi and after the other couple complained to Virgin Holidays were told we could claim half of it back. Virgin Holidays made this very difficut, I had to raise a complaint myself and because I wasn't one of their customers they could only give a refund in GB pounds by cheque. The fact that I live in Switzerland, have a Swiss account and paid for the cab in US dollars was lost on them. They expected me to get someone else in the UK (because doesn't everyone in the world know someone in the UK) to pay the cheque into their account and then send me the money.
So even though I didn't (and would never) book a holiday with them they still managed to inflict their inefficiencies on me. Leading me to beleive that travel agents are as old fashioned as the cheque Virgin holidays wanted to send to me.
The second occasion was when we booked a 4 week trip in South America. We did this thorough a travel agent as I thought it would be easier as there would be several flights as we were travelling through 4 countries. Also we were quite busy at the time and couldn't really commit to all the research. We arranged a private version of their standard tour. We upgraded the hotels they offered so that we could stay at Starwood hotels however it took ages to get the points because the travel agent didn't inform them of it, and some hotels we were told had sent the points to agents accounts. We also didn't get our platinum upgrade in most places.
There was also a problem when one of our flights was cancelled. Despite being British Airways Gold card holder I didn't have the original booking and the travel agent was closed, so we ended up spending 8 hours in the airport with no lounge access. In hindsight I should of stuck to my 'no travel agent' policy that has worked so well for us in the past.
On the other side of the coin we have arranged private guides in India, China and Myanmar. Its easy to find local contacts on the ground in your destination and arrange privately with them what you want to see and what time you want to start. Its also a great way to enjoy street food stalls and small local restaurants.
Myanmar was especially good as the local contact knew dates for the markets on Inlay lake and we were able to plan around this. He organized internal flights for us and the trip was amazing. We got to see an amazing festival because of the flexibility. Even if you don't want to go completely solo getting a local agent gives a bit of security and the insider knowledge is invaluable.
If you like to book with the 'safety' of an ABTA agency doing the work for you then stick with it but I think more people could benefit from the flexibility that comes from being able to choose which flights they take and from which airports they fly. It is worth seeing if your agent offers this option.
After a quick search on weekends in Barcelona I found that Thompson Holidays offer several flights from Gatwick however I couldn't find an option to fly out of Heathrow despite British Airways offering 7 flights daily from Heathrow - that doesn't even take into account other airlines.
I appreciate that the flights from Gatwick are cheaper and this brings the overall cost down, but if you live near Heathrow, or anywhere on the tube line, its cheaper to get to Heathrow than to Gatwick. People don't see this cost at the time of booking, but it is there and could easily be the difference in the cost of the flights.
We used to have family who would book EasyJet flights to visit us when we lived in London. They would fly to Luton. Yes the flights were cheap, but by the time you've dragged your luggage on the Thameslink and then the tube across London, believe me the security at Heathrow will look like a walk in the park.
I would suggest to everyone who hasn't tried to give it a go. After all, would you use a travel agent to book a trip to a city in your own country ?
Why not book a flight and then find your own hotel, get a bus from the airport to the hotel or hire a car and drive yourself, you might meet some locals on the journey, you will see some of the city and you will be there much faster than in a coach where you have to wait for all the others to clear customs, collect their bags, go to the toilet, change money, grab a coffee etc etc
Your holiday will become more of an experience.
I'd love to hear about how you like to travel. Do you like the security of ABTA agencies, or are you happy to 'wing it'?
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