It’s a question as old as the travel industry; should I book through a travel agent or go it alone?

One can be forgiven for thinking the rise of the internet saw the fall of the travel agent, but just as video didn’t kill the radio star, book-your-own-cheap-travel.com hasn’t stamped out ye olde travel agent either. A significant reason for that is because book-your-own-cheap-travel.com is actually run by travel agents.

By replacing the human face with an interface, the travel industry has made it seem like it’s you alone, taking on the world. But whether it’s an airline or a booking engine, a lot goes on in the background by ticketing agents once you hit that ‘confirm’ button; they make sure your booking is correctly ticketed, monitor for schedule changes, process reissues, etc. The ease of the point-and-click booking engine belies the complex rules, trends and systems that govern the travel industry, and it’s in failing to understand this that can lead to confusion and frustration.

It turns out travel agents know a thing or two, and while this doesn’t warrant a trip to your local travel expert for every booking you make, insider knowledge of the trade can help you know when to book your travel online, and when to use an expert travel agent.

Why do the costs of flights go up and down?

Commercial airlines use a tiered structure for their ticket pricing. Let’s say there are 100 seats on a plane and the airline needs to make $100,000, an average of $1000 per seat. Not everyone can afford $1000, so if the airline releases all seats at $1000, they eliminate a portion of the market. To open up the market they release say 20 seats at $500 each, 20 seats at $800, 30 seats at $1000, 20 seats at $1400, and 10 seats at $1600. This overall still equates to $100,000 but it caters to a larger pool of people who can afford the flight.

There are other factors that determine airline pricing trends, like market supply and demand (they might open or close off the number of cheaper seats depending on how the flight is selling). But this model is the rule-of-thumb.

What about sales?

Sure. Airlines have sales, but it’s not like the bakery who discounts their leftover bread just before closing time. The flight you want probably runs multiple times every day, the airline is likely running many other flights worldwide, which means they won’t sell off seats last-minute because their profit losses on your flight are being covered elsewhere in their business model.

Typically, it’s the low-cost carriers (EasyJet, Jetstar, etc.) that push sales, because their business model is based on high numbers at low rates (and expensive added extras!). If major carriers (British Airways, Emirates, Qantas, etc.) have sales, it’s usually to promote new or under-selling routes, released in advance and typically for low travel seasons.

If I pay a higher price for my ticket in economy, do I get a better seat or more services?

No. On a fully serviced carrier everyone in economy, regardless of the price paid for their ticket, receive the same services and access to all available seats in the economy section (the only exception is if you specifically paid for an extra-legroom inclusion on your ticket). Generally, the only differences between tickets is that cheaper tickets are likely to be more restrictive (non-refundable with high change fees), whereas the highest-priced ticket might be changed or cancelled without penalty.

Again, low-cost carriers have slightly different rules. While all people on economy tickets have full access to the economy section, a higher costing ticket might also include extras, like meals, baggage or seat selection.

Are there any clever hacks to book my flights cheaper?

Many an article floating around will tell you of a magic hack to cheat airline prices. While these hacks might save you money, they usually rob you of your time, and incur other costs in the process. When all you wanted to do was fly from London to Sydney, the ‘super cheap’ route might find you taking a train from London to Paris, a flight onto Hong Kong, a twelve-hour layover at the airport, a connection with a low-cost carrier (with extra baggage costs) from Hong Kong to Melbourne via Kuala Lumpur, then three buses, a train and a donkey before you finally arrive in Sydney.

The only way to “hack” flight prices is to play the game. Understand the pricing model outlined in the first point here, then apply methods of deduction:

Generally speaking, the more available a flight is, the likelier cheaper seats will be available, therefore book sooner rather than later.

Popular times to travel, like holiday seasons and football finals, will book out fast. Get in early.

Most people who travel try to leave home and arrive back on weekends, so weekends tend to book out faster. You might find leaving Thursday instead of Friday to be cheaper.

People prefer prime-time and most-direct flights, so you’ll find 6am flights and routes with an extra transit will stay cheaper for longer.

Why does it cost so much to change my flight?

Let’s say we bought that $500 ticket and now want to change the dates. The fare rules on this ticket might stipulate a $100 fee to change. Next, we need to recalculate the new ticket price based on today’s availability. Unfortunately, the new dates we want are quite booked out, all those cheaper tickets are gone and now the cheapest price is $1400. This ticket will be $1000 to change.

Yes, changes can hurt the bank, unfortunately this is the nature of the industry.

I put “Ben” instead of “Benjamin” on my ticket, does it matter?

Yes. Depending on the airline, if even one letter is wrong, they can deny you boarding or charge a fee to change it.

It might seem petty, but airlines adhere to strict rules regulated by the authorities and immigration laws of the cities and countries they fly between. What might be a simple miss-type for you can, to the eye of border security, look like forgery or identity theft. Airlines can be fined by immigration if they allow boarding to people whose tickets do not match their identification.

Does my title matter?

Only if it’s the wrong gender. One of the ways airlines determine how much fuel they’ll need for a flight is by using the average weight of males and females to calculate the anticipated weight of their passengers. There are other aspects of course, like plane type and checked-in baggage (which is why it usually costs more to add baggage at the airport. If everyone turned up with excess baggage the airline would have to readjust their fuel calculations, and this could affect scheduling operations).

Why is it so difficult to change my name on the ticket?

Changing an airline ticket is not as simple as opening up a written Word document, deleting then re-writing words. Tickets with commercial airlines are booked through an airline system, that ticket is then mirrored in an accounting system, the name on the ticket is then added to a manifest. If you’ve booked through a travel agent, this adds another dimension of systems your name appears in.

Changing a name on one ticket means amendments need to be made at several ports throughout the network of systems. Some of these systems don’t even allow for amendments, so as not to cause discrepancies throughout the chain of places your name appears, so in some cases the whole ticket needs to be re-booked. Changing or correcting a name on a flight ticket can be a logistical nightmare, some airlines don’t even allow it, or apply strict rules. And in most cases, they will charge a fee, for all the administration that had to go into changing that one name.

So, when is best to book flights with a travel agent?

When you have a complex itinerary that’s the best time to book with a travel agent. Book your simple flights (one-ways, returns, etc.) direct with the airline. You eliminate any booking fees of an agent and avoid additional change fees down the track if you need to change. If you have multiple cities or countries in mind, it is worth checking with a travel agent. A good travel agent will have the best knowledge on how to put that itinerary puzzle together, the right systems to search for it quickly, and access to special and complex ticket fares that are not available online.

When you need specific advice (and want to forego hours of Googling). If you want to travel around China but have no idea where to start, the cheapest way to do it or if certain airlines are reliable, find a travel agent who is an expert on China. While the internet didn’t break the travel agent it did change the game, it gave rise to agents who are experts in niche areas, such as cruise, destination weddings, adventure travel, etc. Their day job is to know all about that itinerary you’re pulling your hair out over, so pay them a visit.

When you want the cheapest package deal; some travel agents specialise in pre-packaged deals, this gives them access to wholesale rates and are cheaper than booking the components of the package individually. These kinds of packages are usually quite restrictive (must be two adults, must travel between X and Y dates, must be at least 5 nights, etc.), but they can be cheaper if you’re just after that quick getaway.

This only applies to packaged deals. If you want the cheapest flight only, book direct with the airline. Some travel agents might have a price-beat guarantee but it’s not usually much, and what you save here might cost more down the track in additional fees if you need to change it.

When you want ease or peace of mind; some people don’t trust themselves or booking online, or just want everything booked in the one place.

Added protection

As an added bonus, booking with a travel agent means that your flight is normally protected in the case of worst case scenarios, like airlines going bankrupt. Most travel agents in the UK need to be fully paid up members of ATOL or ABTA. So if you find yourself stranded overseas, they should be able to get you home. Bear in mind though that this is no substitute for your own travel insurance…

I have more questions, don’t end the article here…

You’re right, the travel industry is a big machine with many moving parts and different situations arise all the time that spawn different questions, so leave them in the comments.

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