I had dreamed of travelling around Vietnam for many years. Sailing Halong Bay, riding sleeper trains into the deep north, sipping coffee in Hanoi and crawling through war tunnels. The only small hurdle to this vision of lazy independent wandering was that I was no longer a solo backpacker. My travelling entourage now included my wife and two kids aged 13 and 11. Still, when the travel siren called I knew I had to act, so the plan quickly morphed. I would don my old backpack, pack up my family and hit the road, spending less time in dorm-bed hostels than I had once envisaged.
But from the first child’s scream, when immunisation needles were mentioned, my travel quest was under immense pressure. Needles could be navigated, but the unavoidable threat was that the cost for a family of four would be a trip-killer, the difference between Ho Chi Minh and Homestay. So I began the ‘R & C’ shuffle – research and compare; a scan for the cheapest flights, with an optimistic peak season budget of $1,000 return per person.
My two departure airport options were Queensland’s Brisbane and the Gold Coast. The Gold Coast is my local strip of tarmac and as Australia’s fastest growing airport, is serviced by budget airlines Scoot, Air Asia and Tiger, as well as Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin. To go from here would be a time boon, because when travelling with kids, I measure hours in ‘door-to door’ mode; that is the gross potential period for them to turn into scream-bubbles or act like flapping catfish on the floors of planes and transit lounges.
My mission clear, I waded through a plethora of airline, agency and flight comparison websites, soon establishing that some renowned ‘cheapie’ sites were far better at perception than reality. Booking fees, surcharges, full price fares as the only option, not to mention the minefield of auto-added products. On one quote, $456 in travel insurance was auto-added because I missed ticking one of those pesky little boxes.
I eventually discovered a solution within my budget, using five different airlines. Scoot, Jetstar, VietJet, Vietnam and Tiger. But after many hours in the google vortex I was still not confident I had all the options.
I decided to go comparison shopping at the local travel agent, hoping that a qualified person would do the work for me. A recent ABTA report in the UK stated there is a wave of enquiry returning to traditional bricks and mortar travel agents. The main reason: too many options on the net. I could see why; the on-line hunt had become a bewildering maze for anything but the most basic of point-to-point routes. And if I were to place even miniscule value on my time, getting someone to do it for me was well worth it.
The travel agent offered me options of full service airlines, all ex-Brisbane, at a best price of $400 per person higher than my findings. Nothing was offered on the convenient local-based budget airlines, (the sensitive ones don’t like the word ‘budget’ and prefer to be called Low Cost Carriers – LCCs).
So therein lies the rub. The agents weren’t offering the budget airlines, because those carriers don’t pay them commission. Yet the traveller goes to an agent for the comprehensive advice they purport to offer.
I have no problem with travel agents not selling ‘no commission’ fares. After all, what business in their right mind would sell products at zero mark-up? That is the essence of a wholesale/retail business model, and agents, like any business’ should have the right to refuse to sell airlines that won’t pay them. Certainly Apple stores don’t undercut their non-apple retailers. If they did, Myers, Harvey Norman and others would refuse to sell apple products.
Yet this raises the question of customer service for travellers. A travel agent’s key attraction is their access to all fares, and their expert knowledge that quickly provides travellers with the best possible options to meet their needs. By not offering certain fare types however, and I mean the commission-less ones, agents are knowingly not doing the best by their clients.
The budget airlines suggest a solution: agents are free and encouraged to sell their product. They just won’t pay for it. Which means an agent must add on a booking fee, which in turn erodes the agent’s mission in providing best price. The LCCs also fail to mention that their systems are not practical for travel agents. Most LCCs have a consumer booking engine which is slow, designed for consumer-direct, unique to each of them and time consuming with all those pesky add-ons; the antithesis of an agent providing time-efficient service.
Yet things are changing. Ryanair recently started making their fares available on Amadeus, a GDS (Global distribution system), a centralised reservation system used by agents. EasyJet and Air Asia have done the same through Travelport. So for their future growth, these budget airlines recognise they need agents, but still won’t pay them.
As an traveller and industry observer, it appears odd that for what would be less than $7 commission on a $100 fare, LCCs see no value in selling through a retail distribution network of thousands of shops, each set up at high cost with their own sales staff, and loyal customers who will listen to recommendations.
In reverse, it’s their book-direct business model and while none of the Australian budget carriers have yet scratched a profit, others make up a big chunk of most profitable airlines in other parts of the world. From all this, I look at my local Gold Coast City, population nearing 500,000. It has an airport growing on the back of these budget airlines and is regionally serviced by hundreds of local retail agents that, in the vast majority, do not offer to sell these flights.
While theses carriers continue to report losses, the agents are either losing clients by proactively sending them to the carrier-direct booking sites, or are letting them down by sending them to Brisbane airport, even when they know there are cheaper and more convenient flights available. The city is losing departure sales, taxi fares, and tourism dollars. And the traveller, who continues to indicate that bricks and mortar people-based travel agencies are still sought-after, remain unserved by them and the carriers. Stand-off.
Is there hope ahead? Metasearch engines, like and Adioso and Google flight search have arrived; sites that claim to scan almost all on-line offerings from agents, airlines and other flight search engines. Yet the adage that ‘no one site does it all’ remains. A process of research compare and book (RCB) across multiple sources is still required to know you are getting the right flight at the right price.
Maybe it is time for the Australian low cost carriers and agents to enter a hybrid of the traditional relationship. Would a few bucks added to fares enable agents and LCCs to collectively better service travellers? Would this price agreement mean price-fixing and be detrimental to the consumer? According to the ACCC, probably, even though this type of agreement exists in all industries. Could these Australian carriers get their product on a central reservation system to at least simplify the agent process? And more radically, could the Gold Coast City copy what some in Europe have done, recognise the income they lose and contribute towards a local agent being paid to sell a local carrier’s product. The current stand-off is not working: for the agent, the local budget airlines and most importantly, for the traveller.
For my own Vietnam travel quest, I ended up booking the five different airlines direct. It took me hours and days of my own time. Halong bay was wonderful. The screams of the children as I drove them to the travel doctor for immunisations were not. But they were only marginally higher than my own squeals at having to do all that booking work myself.