Finding Help Booking Travel and Managing Irregular Operations

My wife often wonders how the average traveler gets by.  She sees me on the phone with airlines for long periods of time during irregular operations or booking awards. She sees the difficulties that I face, and I do it a lot. She sees the mistakes that agents make. And the battles I wage, banging my head against a wall in between. (She’s a saint for putting up with it!)

And she wonders, if I have such a hard time, how do ‘regular folks’ get by on their own?

And of course it didn’t used to be that way…

I don’t tend to romanticize travel agents.  In my experience, both before the rise of online bookings and after, most of them were terrible.  That rather mirrors my experience in most other industries, actually.  But good ones were worth their weight in Gold (even at over $1000 an ounce).

Only outside of corporate travel, very few people book simple airline tickets through travel agents anymore.  Complex tours, sure.  And leveraging hotel bookings (where at the higher end if often makes sense to use an agent who may have special perks to offer at the same price as booking with a hotel direct) into doing the full gamut of travel for a trip through a single agency.

But the straightforward “I would to fly to X on these dates” trip?  That’s not the realm of travel agents anymore, it’s the real of Expedia and Orbitz plus the airline sites themselves.

And yet help is needed more often than most people realize.

I was reminded of this over the weekend, when a co-worker asked me for help on her airfare to Paris. She was flying with her two kids, they had some specific dates but a little bit of flexibility if it helped on price, but were making a simple roundtrip. That’s the bread and butter of the Expedias and Orbitzes, right?

But she saw the tickets pricing at $1000 apiece for non-stops, and not much a savings with connections. $3000 for three passengers coach to Paris seemed a lot, it was perosnal travel out of pocket, and was there anything I could do?

As it happens, yes there was, and it’s not the kind of thing the casual traveler would come up with. I added a throwaway segment at the end of the ticket (the day after her return to the US) that dropped price by about $300. [And please don’t debate throwaway ticketing in the comments, it was going to be issued on United ticket stock and that’s actually not against the rules of United’s Contract of Carriage though it is in many airlines’ similar documents.]

A little ‘trick’ and I saved her $300 x 3, or $900. Real money to a working mom. Not the kind of thing she’d have ever come up with on her own.

She’s in a position to come by and ask for that help (and ring me over the weekend when trying to get the itinerary to price on Expedia, so I walked her through the ticketing as well). But what does the rest of the world do?

As I said, a good travel agent is worth their weight in gold. I do know a few, and each is usually good in a particular specialization. I know one person I’d recommend to arrange a tour of Egypt or a Safari in Africa. I know another person for luxury hotel bookings, affiliated with Virtuoso. And there’s one expert I’d turn to for incredibly complex airfare ticketing and pricing issues.

But who should someone like my co-worker have gone to, if she couldn’t have asked me for a favor? I guess the advice I’d have there is to look up Bretty Snyder, the Cranky Concierge and author of the Cranky Flier blog.

For a quite modest fee he’ll work on lowest cost airfare and how to book it. He recently emailed with me about a last minute business class ticket from Portland to Amsterdam, which was pricing out at $10,000. So he found a Portland-Copenhagen fare for $4500, and a short Copenhagen-Amsterdam hop for $200.

He’ll also monitor your flights, help with delays and cancellations, and even deal with post-trip disputes for you.

Now, I do have one corporate client that I’ve long done this for on a retainer basis. And I’ve kept doing this really because I consider this client a friend and I enjoy it. But i wouldn’t dream of working as cheap as Cranky Concierge does! (His prices start at $25 for assistance on a domestic trip, and top out at $100 for same-day international travel.)

I should probably actually contract with Brett on some sort of a corporate plan, I can just send my co-workers from down the hall to him, and then I could get some work done…

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Can you share with us the specific ‘trick’ (cities, etc.) that you did to help your coworker save?

    I would love to learn how to think more like the experts on this.


  2. So I just got my US Airways miles in the promo so I’ll be hiring you to sort out a trip! I’m sending both links onto my friends. So many people just accumulate miles and can’t redeem them when they want so they “waste” them on domestic coach fares. Nice work, Gary!

  3. I have to disagree with much of what you say about Travel Agents. My SO is a pretty successful leisure TA, and it isn’t because she books alot of complicated travel. What I think some don’t realize is that many medium sized agencies have contract and wholesale fares (or access to them) that are often lower than orbitz or travelocity, etc. (and they still earn miles in most situations)

    The more people that subscribe to the idea that the internet is always the cheapest for simple travel, the faster these places may shut down. That’s a negative for everyone.

  4. You can fill a void here. No agent with any sense is going to risk getting put out business with debit memos by booking throwaway ticketing for clients. But since you’re not acting as an airline agent, you can suggest whatever you want.

  5. @Ben, as I mentioned in the post this was a United ticket and throwaway ticketing isn’t forbidden in their contract of carriage, so there wouldn’t be a debit memo. Other airlines are a different story.

  6. I’m on board with justanotherblogger — how can we slightly advanced travel bookers figure out how to find these fares?

  7. Could you please send me a referral to your contact for luxury hotel bookings? I have a trip planned to India and wanted to compare benefits through the Virtuoso agent.


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