I would be remiss as a travel professional not to reply to Christopher Reynolds' misguided Travel Insider column about the Consumer Reports study evaluating whether travel agents quote the best air fares to callers ("Do Travel Agents Work for the Airlines or Us?" May 27).
The value of the travel agent does not primarily exist in hunting down the lowest air fares. A well-planned vacation requires much more: determining the type of experience that best suits the traveler's needs. Is a trip to Fiji or Tahiti best? A cruise or an all-inclusive resort? Travel agents have better things to do than research the cheapest air fare for a caller who isn't their customer.
The proposition of the article is not unlike calling various car dealerships and asking for the cheapest model car, with no options, at the best possible price. In fact, most won't even give you that quote over the phone.
Consumer Reports found no smoking gun, so it created one. The basis for its biased report was that agents failed to identify all airlines offering the lowest fare, as if the difference between an America West flight at 2 p.m., Southwest's at 2:10 p.m. and American's at 2:27 p.m. was a major scandal.
The implication, of course, is that preferred supplier agreements between airlines and agents are corrupting the system.
If my agent's getting overrides on an airline, that's the one I want him to book for me. When the need arises for a little rule-bending or bailing me out of a tight spot, I want to be on the airline where my agent has the best relationship. (Believe me, it's happened.)
I think it fair to advise the public that starting in 1994 the airlines began capping agents' commissions. At the present it is a 5% commission with a $50 cap for domestic and $100 cap for international tickets. So on a round-trip LAX-Las Vegas ticket costing about $100, agents typically earn about $5. How hard would you work for that?
CARLA B. OLSON
I enjoyed your article. So much travel journalism turns into plugs for travel agents that little light has been shone in the agencies' direction. The best agents specialize and can offer useful advice about a specific region or a particular type of travel. Unfortunately, more typical is the agent who falls down on the job doing something basic.
When I first became able to travel internationally, I had a simple question: Was it cheaper to book a charter to Ireland or price shop among the semi-deregulated airlines? I couldn't get the answer from travel agents. All they could do was shove in my face brochures for fly-drive vacations that exceeded my budget.
When I've had to use agents, there were problems: odd itineraries, hotel rooms more expensive than I could find on my own, dreadful day trips. I evolved into a militant independent traveler.
If the market worked as well as it should, travel agents would have become extinct.
RICHARD A. JENKINS