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I'm not referring to travel agencies in general -- here I narrow it down to travel agencies that sell airplane tickets.

For hotels, it's pretty much understandable to me, as I always prefer e.g. booking.com over filling out some lousy booking form of a certain hotel. The middle man here has a nice tool to visualize the hotel position, to compare the prices. They has better interface; reputable payment system, etc etc.

But when it comes to air ticket booking, I wonder why booking through agencies is still a (common?) choice (e.g. for each search in Skyscanner, dozens of agencies come up with their listed price).

Pretty often, the "cheap" tickets as advertised by the agencies turn out to be anything but. Many people complain about the hassles they had to go through with the agency (suddenly cancel the booking, no actual booking found in the airline's system, no support lines, or changing the trip seems impossible, etc.). Perhaps this is biased because people who went through without any problem would not bother to say "oh hey, I did it with them, perfect, no problem".

But even when considering the price, it's not the selling point of the agencies as well. Personal experience today: I was searching for the Paris - Osaka ticket. Some agencies' advertised price may sound 60-80€ cheaper, but going step by step to the payment page, an agency normally adds lots of fees, and adding the unavoidable "administration/document fee" makes the total maybe equal (or even more) than the price if one was to buy at the airline selling site.

Unlike hotels, seems that almost all airline companies have a decent selling web, and I don't understand how booking through agency is "easier". Either way, you'll have to go through steps where you fill the name, DoB, passport number, phone number, address, and pay - how hard can it be?

Skyscanner is living well because the agencies are living well. So what is/are the agencies' selling point(s)?

Note:

  • For me I only use SS as a search engine for reference, then go directly to the airline website.

  • Sometimes (not many times) buying via agencies can actually be quite cheaper, perhaps they have quota to sell in lots/batches, but it happened very rarely to me.

closed as primarily opinion-based by Flimzy, Willeke, Maître Peseur, Gayot Fow, Dirty-flow Jun 30 '15 at 8:09

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 5
    You say that "almost all airline companies have a decent selling web" but I'm not sure I agree. I ended up buying tickets for an Emirates flight via Expedia, because A: searching through the possible options on Emirates was very confusing and clunky and B: when I tried to buy the tickets, unhelpful error messages appeared and forced me around the loop of finding said options again. – CMaster Jun 29 '15 at 10:37
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    We aren't clairvoyant; we can't know definitively why consumers behave a certain way. But the short answer is that the agencies or consolidators are providing something— convenience, selection, integration, etc.— that make it not worth booking independently. This is particularly the case with business travel and with emigré/expat-oriented ticket consolidators. – choster Jun 29 '15 at 14:00
  • It is quite common amongst Asian carriers that, if you buy a ticket on their website, the passenger has to present your credit card when checking in. This produces a lot of hassle if you buy a ticket for someone. Buying from an agent, all this hassle may be avoided. – ach Jun 29 '15 at 14:24
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it sounds like a rant, rather than a genuine question. – Flimzy Jun 29 '15 at 18:13
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    Sounds more like a genuine curiosity than a rant to me. At worst, it's a perfectly salvagable question. – Marcks Thomas Jun 29 '15 at 20:00
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The Internet was a game changer in many businesses and the travel agency world is no exception. Nowadays people can easily (this is arguable) find the cheapest price in a quick search; therefore, agencies need to present the best price to be able to sell since that's a key factor.

How can they do this? (These are assumptions based on general commercial practices)

  • An agency can get better prices than what the airline company announce for final customers. They than transfer part of this difference gain to the client. How do they get better prices? They buy in batch and they can also reserve in advance. For the airline company it's also an advantage because they transfer part of the responsibility of selling something to the agency.
  • Sometimes they just advertise the prices without taxes. They give a price, to win the customer, and then add their profit margins when you're about to pay.
  • Online travel agents may not have always the cheapest flight price, but may sometimes offer better value for money. How? By adding or advertising extra services not present in the airline company (eg. transfers from the airport, health insurances, etc.). Or better overall deals by including competitive prices for hotels, car hire, etc.
  • In a way, the relation you build with online agencies are like traditional ones (except for the personal relation). If you used them once and overall things worked you tend to repeat the experience. Even you find a slightly cheaper price somewhere else you will deposit your trust in the agent you used before.

I don't want to be the devils lawyer. I am also a bit skeptic about some of these agencies and their practices. I am sure there are good and bad examples. I believe these agencies must sell a lot, and many times without any issue. Otherwise they wouldn't be in business. Of course the reviews that end in the Internet are the bad reviews. Not many people will bother to say "everything went as expected, great service, 5 stars". But you will want to complain when something didn't went as expected.

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    I'm not so sure the first point really applies all that much anymore, though it was true in times past. Nowadays, at least here in the U.S., most of the airlines would rather eliminate the middle man and, thus, do not give better prices to travel agents. Southwest doesn't even offer their tickets through the online travel agencies and Delta guarantees that the price on their website will be the best one, as examples. Also, listing prices without the taxes is now illegal in the U.S. – reirab Jun 29 '15 at 15:07
  • @reirab I can't tell either. I find cheaper tickets often in on line travel agents. I assume they must earn something. Not that long ago I knew a travel agent in Europe that simply bought tickets in advance since they could sell them later, when the overall prices raised, cheaper but still with good profit margins. I don't know the details though. I know this market changed a lot on the business model. – nsn Jun 29 '15 at 15:20
  • Lufthansa now charges agencies a fee! – Calchas Jun 29 '15 at 15:43
  • @Calchas I read that before, but... everything depends on the size of the business, not? – nsn Jun 29 '15 at 16:46
  • @nsn Yes. If you are selling public fares, you get slapped a fee. If you are selling hundreds of business class fares to corporate organisations then you are on safer ground. (I think we can assume that Carlson Wagonlit isn't affected!) – Calchas Jun 29 '15 at 18:16
9

I will give you some practical reasons:

  1. Book now, pay later - this option is universally available at agents; very rarely available at the website. I use this all the time when I need to show a reservation (for example, as part of visa requirements) but do not want to commit to buying a ticket.

  2. Corporate accounts - a majority of agent's business is catering to business travellers who expect personalized service.

  3. Packaged Deals/Holidays - this is another reason why people visit agents rather than websites; the process is a lot friendlier plus many times the agents have visited the locations and provide local insight/expertise.

  4. Emergency Bookings - if you maintain a good working relationship with an agency; they are extremely quick if you need to travel in a hurry. In one instance, I had to travel at 8 PM (I knew there was a flight), and I called the agent at 6:45 PM (from the car on my way to the airport) and before I had parked at the terminal he had sent me the PNR number via SMS. No way I could have done this online in such a short time.

Granted, I do not often use an agency but I remind myself to throw them some business every now and then; just so they will pick up the phone when I need them in a hurry.

As far as the issues you are mentioning (ghost reservations, etc.) I have yet to face this problem; but I do know such things happen.

At least with an agency you can go and speak to a person - good luck trying to get through some of the call center of some airlines.

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