Travelers have loads of online options when they’re buying plane tickets, booking cruises or just researching vacation destinations.
But, travel agents say websites can’t match the expertise, experience and personal touch they can provide, especially when things go awry.
As one Jackson travel agency says on its own website, “The Internet is for looking. McGehee Cruise & Vacation is for booking!”
All you have to do is ask people who were stranded during the recent snowstorms,” said Glenn McGehee, the agency’s owner. “How many hours did it take to get through to an airline or Internet site when they needed help?”
McGehee said during one winter storm his agency got a frantic call from a company whose boss got stranded on his return trip. The caller said, “I don’t care what it costs, just get him home.’” McGehee’s agency found a connecting flight for the stranded boss and saved the day.
“The Internet can’t think like a travel agent thinks,” McGehee said. The result? “We actually picked up an account,” he said.
McGehee said he is a fan of the Internet and shops online, but said it does have its limitations.
“The Internet is not that smart when it comes to solving problems,” he said.
Jeff Lambert, an agent at Global Travel Services in Tupelo, said the local connection is important to customers.
“Some people still like to come in and sit down at our desks. If there is a problem they feel more comfortable knowing they will be talking to the same person every time,” he said.
Calling an 800 number can be frustrating for travelers, especially when something goes wrong.
“You can’t get them on the phone or by email and you get someone different every time. It’s like going in a circle,” Lambert said.
And the prices are the same either way, Lambert said, “except you’re not having to sit and wait.” As a result, he said, “We have lots of repeat customers and word-of-mouth business.”
Lambert said some customers do their research online and then come to his agency and say, ‘This is what we found. What do you think?’ When it gets down to it, they still come in.”
Lambert and McGehee said business so far this year is good.
“It looks like this is going to be a great year,” McGehee said. “What it tells us is people who have some money want to get out of town and go do something fun for a change. There is a segment of people who are going to travel no matter what.”
Lambert said his customers tend to favor the same destinations every year.
“Lots of Disney, lots of Carnival Cruises (from New Orleans). We sell a lot of that. Then for flying, it’s Jamaica, Hawaii, Cancun and the Mayan Riviera.”
McGehee said his travelers are going all over the world, to Europe and Hawaii. Alaska cruises also are big, he said.
His business is roughly half cruises and half vacation packages. Travelers pay no fees for major cruises and vacation packages but for custom type trips with complex arrangements, there are fees, he said.
Corporate travel, which had fallen off with budget belt tightening, is picking up, but businesses are still looking to save money, McGehee said.
“We’re finding companies are using their membership rewards points for international travel and we can help them with big savings.”