Travel's wild web - Macleans.ca

Travel’s wild web

Where everyone claims to be packin’ a deal

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Once upon a time, travel was the secret realm of travel agents. They typed in code and kept stacks of real paper tickets. They offered up walls of travel brochures and the promise of dreams.
 
Now everyone’s an expert. From Uncle Joe to the Taxi Driver – they all have a line on the best deal, the best website. And who doesn’t love a deal?
 
All that flailing about the web belies the fact that travel is a far more complex organism today than it was 20 years ago. The buying and selling of travel product used to flow through a neat little pipeline where some volume sellers had the ability to offer a better price.
 
Now, instead of one distribution channel, there are hundreds of pipelines flowing in all directions. Many large vertically integrated travel businesses control both product and distribution. So although you’ve just spent hours comparison shopping on the web, you may well have been dealing with variations of the same company.
 
Knowing whom to trust with your valuable vacation time is increasingly confusing.
From newspapers to radio and the web, travel noise is at fever pitch. And, for many smaller providers who do offer good value, being heard above the din is almost impossible. 
 
The companies that own a large share of mind in this brave new world are the big box travel agencies such as Expedia and Travelocity (and yes, they are travel agencies). They sometimes feature better prices because they sell in volume. But the choice is limited to mass-market options. They cannot offer you that cute little farmhouse in Tuscany where the owner shares winemaking tips. Nor can they suggest which all-inclusive property in the Dominican will be best suited to your personal travel style.
 
What’s a traveller to do? It all depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re flying within Canada, the web is your best bet for domestic airline tickets. It’s easy, fast and reliable since there are only a few highly competitive scheduled carriers. Travel agents aren’t very interested in this kind of business anyway, as there’s no money to be made.
 
With the U.S. system of “hub-and-spoke” connections, trans-border fares can get tricky. A travel agent can save you a lot of time and bother but expect to pay a fee for sourcing the information.
 
If you are shopping for an international airline ticket with a complex itinerary, a travel agent has the knowledge to find you the best fare and the best schedule. And, they have one very important secret left in their arsenal called a “consolidator.” These are obscure companies that have operated in travel’s back alleys for the past two decades, brokering the kind of airline deals the public cannot access.
 
As far as dream trips like a safari, a Nile cruise or Nepali trek — the reality is none of us can resist the urge to Google into the wee morning hours. After you’ve exhausted yourself, you may want to collect your notes and see a travel agent who knows even more on the subject. There are counsellors who specialize in every subject, from jazz cruising to girls-only adventure getaways.
 
Finally, the only certainty in travel is that everything changes. Like in the stock market — supply and demand continually affects pricing. And right now, over-supply has depressed pricing to an all time low. There’s never been a better time to shoot for that deal.
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