Ditch that travel agent, try online buying

Saturday October 29 2016

Buying a ticket directly from an airline is sometimes the better deal. FOTOSEARCH

Buying a ticket directly from an airline is sometimes the better deal. FOTOSEARCH 

By Michael Otieno

A close associate who had travelled to South Africa on business recently left me in stitches when he called me at an ungodly hour to rant about the airline he had used.

His business engagements necessitated a ticket change on his return leg and this proved to be a problem. Seeing as he travelled from Kampala and having bought his ticket from a travel agent, in my view, his first mistake was to call the travel agent back in Uganda to change the ticket.

Given that it was after “normal” working hours, the travel agency was closed and he could not reach anyone to help with the ticket change. What’s more, he was in Durban which is 500 kilometres from Johannesburg where the airline had the nearest office that could attend to him.

His next mistake was taking the decision to wait it out until the next day when he was in Johannesburg to try and make the changes to his travel plan. By this time, the flight he should have been on had already departed.

The airline considered him a “no show” and he was required to pay a penalty and a change of reservation fees. Making an already bad situation worse, the airline informed him that his next preferred flight was fully booked and he had to wait another day.

My first question to him was if he had tried reaching the airline’s call centre earlier on. He said that he saw no need to since he had bought his ticket from a travel agent.

What actually tipped my associate over the edge was that when he opted to demand a refund for the untraveled sector of his ticket since he could not be accommodated on the next available flight, the airline representative told him the refund could only be made to the travel agency where he purchased his ticket.

Unfortunate as this experience may have been, his travel woes were certainly not unique.

Agencies-airlines relationship

Many travellers do not have the full knowledge of the working relationship between travel agencies and airlines.

First, for travellers from the region, the faith displayed in travel agents is admirable. And don’t get me wrong, travel agents in most of Africa still account for over 65 per cent of airline ticket sales.

The trend in Europe and North America is however the opposite, with most travellers opting to purchase their tickets directly from the airline.

But there are certain basic fundamental travel insights airline passengers in Africa need to have despite having reliable travel recommendations and support from their travel agents.

For instance, once you check in for your flight, regardless of where your ticket was purchased, the carrier or airline is responsible from that point on, not the travel agent.

In this case, my associate would have saved himself some trouble by calling the airline call centre and requesting flight changes, instead of trying to reach the travel agent.

Second, the perception that travel agents offer mysteriously cheaper tickets than the airline is misplaced.

On the contrary, airlines are increasingly encouraging passengers to buy tickets directly from their outlets.

In fact, unknown to many passengers, a ticket purchased on an airline’s website is usually at a level of discount you would not ordinarily get at the airline office or travel agency.

Earlier in the history of air travel and while recognising the vital role played by travel agents, airlines offered all sorts of incentives and commissions to travel agencies that would sell their seats.

Most reservations and ticket distribution system vendors charge the airline a fee for every transaction done by a travel agent selling their ticket price.

But this position has rapidly changed to zero per cent commission, leaving travel agents to make their income from charging a service fee which is lumped together with the ticket.

There are numerous ticket purchase options available to travellers online which do not require a traveller to visit an airline outlet.

Websites like Travelstart Kenya and the recent entrant from West Africa Wakanow are poised to be the key “fare finder” for the regional traveller.

The savvy business traveller would be best placed shopping directly on the airline’s website or on a number of the readily available online travel agencies.

On the other hand, holiday or leisure travellers looking for services beyond flights, such as accommodation, transfers and a destination experience, all lumped together, might still find their travel agency better placed to offer them the ultimate deal.

Michael Otieno is an aviation consultant based in Nairobi. Twitter: @pmykee143, Email: [email protected]