The Brancatelli File



June 1, 1995 -- Here's something business travelers would prefer not to do: pay a travel agent. Here's another rotten idea: make dozens of phone calls to arrange your own travel, then go to the airport to pick up tickets. And here's a really terrible concept: let the airlines mail your tickets, then hope the U.S. Postal Service doesn't lose them.

This travel-shopping crisis began in February when the major U.S. airlines abruptly informed travel agents that they would no longer earn a 10 percent commission for each domestic airline ticket they sold. Instead, the airlines said, commissions would be capped at $50 per roundtrip ticket. In other words, agents who once made $152.80 when they sold you an unrestricted coach ticket to New York (retail price: $1,528) now earn just fifty bucks.

To replace the lost income, travel agents turned to travelers. The nation's three largest agencies now charge for certain travel transactions, and some independent agents have also begun imposing fees.

All this begs two obvious questions: Should you pay a travel agent for his services? Or should you avoid paying fees by making travel purchases directly from airlines, hotels, and car-rental firms?

There's at least one reason for sticking with a good agent come hell or high fees: whatever their drawbacks, only travel agents have all the options at their fingertips. They are the nation's only central market places for buying airline tickets, reserving hotel rooms, and securing rental cars.

But if paying a fee to a travel agent sticks in your craw, you can deal directly with the airlines and other travel providers. However, this is not an effortless, risk-free approach. For starters, how do you find the lowest fares without a travel agent? You could look in the newspapers, of course, or attempt to master the complicated on-line computer-reservation services. Or you could call a major airline on one of their toll-free 800 numbers. Unfortunately, the airline clerk will only give you the fares offered by that airline; the clerk can't quote the prices charged by other carriers.

Once you make reservations, you'll probably be required to purchase your ticket in advance. That means a trip to the airport or one of the airlines' city ticket offices. Of course, if time permits you can have your ticket mailed to your home, but take this precaution: ask the airline agent to give you the "record locator number." Should the tickets get lost in the mail, this information will help you secure a replacement.

Now that you've got airline tickets, you can start on your hotel and car-rental reservations. That should be right about the time you realize paying a travel agent a modest fee if he asks for one might not be that bad an idea after all.

Alaska Airlines
has increased its service in California. Effective June 4, the airline will operate 12 daily San Francisco-Seattle flights, and 11 daily Oakland-Seattle flights. ... TWA has a dumped the first- and business-class cabins on its flights to New York, Europe and the Middle East. In their place is "Trans World One," which offers sleeper seats and first-class amenities at business-class fares. ... Hertz customers in California now receive a coupon booklet that offers everything from room discounts at Holiday Inn hotels to free popcorn at AMC movie theaters. Ask for the "California Savings Certificates" at most rental counters.

This column originally appeared in San Francisco Focus magazine.

Copyright 1993-2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.