A road-trip travel agent

I’ll have many more observations about my recent trip to DLD, Davos and the Alps soon, but one thing I’ve decided I do want to find (or train) is a travel agent/helper who can assist well with unscheduled travel (ie. a road or railpass trip.)

With unscheduled travel, you don’t know in the morning where you will end up that night. You only figure it out later in the day. Sometimes you just drive until it starts getting late and then you pick where you will end the night. It’s hard (or expensive) to do this in high season but in low season you can always find a room, and I and many others like that sort of freedom.

So when you do pick where you want to end up you have a few options:

  1. You can have a guidebook or database (such as AAA in the USA) and phone around places until you get something you like
  2. You can hunt around for web access (better if you have a data plan on your phone) and use sites like TripAdvisor and the various booking search engines (like Kayak/Sidestep) to find a decent hotel at a good price.
  3. You can just drive into town and look for Vacancy/Zimmer Frei signs and go in and ask the price.
  4. You can find somebody to do this for you.

There are problems with all these approaches. Method 3 (especially using tripadivsor) helps you avoid turkey hotels and find the better values. However, the databases cover only a fraction of the hotels, and the online reservations systems also cover only a small fraction of hotels in an area. There will be better values out there. On the other hand, many hotels offer a better price through the internet than if you call them, or will charge even more if you just walk in.

(I recall once going into a hotel after having looked it up using wotif.com and asking the price. They quoted a higher price. I said, “It’s cheaper on the web.” They said, “you only get that booking on the web.” I said, “Do you have wifi?” They said yes, so I booked it online in front of them. Pretty silly.)

The databases and guidebooks are also quite limited. A full database is huge on paper, and the ones found in mapping software usually list very little data, often just addresses and phone numbers, and not not complete. Google maps has a fairly complete database — if you are online. Being online is a problem if you are out of your home zone, and have to pay huge data charges of $15/megabyte as you often do. Refusing to pay that, I have found myself driving in front of cafes and hotels with free wireless to get on and do my hotel search. But it’s a false economy, it seems to waste more time than it saves, and I have to stop doing it. In addition, voice call roaming charges are also quite high in many countries, so calling up 5 hotels at $1.50/minute can eat up time and savings. (Getting wifi provides the added bonus of VoIP for cheap phone calls to the hotel landlines.)

Having cheap access while in the passenger seat would help, but really this is a job best done by somebody at a desk, with a big screen, fast access and good databases. Ideally even somebody with some local knowledge of the destination. But it has to be somebody working for you, and not driven to send you to anything but the best property for you because of commissions to the booking agent.

So what makes the most sense is a travel agent who specializes in this, who can find the right place in about 15 to 20 minutes of their time, thus costing about $10-$15 or so if they bill $30 to $40 per hour. However, because some hotels do pay a commission to the booking agent, the proper thing to do if paying the agent hourly would be to have that become a discount to the client, either paying part of the agent’s fee or making the hotel appear cheaper.

Now any travel agent knows how to book hotels and probably has decent databases. However, there are a few special needs for a road trip travel agent:

  • They, or somebody else trained as they are, needs to be available 7 days a week, and in the morning, noon and early evening of the time zone where you are moving. So a U.S. agent may not do so well on a European trip (at least not the mornings) and in any event you need a backup for the weekends.
  • You ideally would like some local knowledge, or even a local agent. However, there is a risk a local agent could become more connected with the hotels than the clients and start working indirectly for them.
  • You need a way to train the agent about your parameters. The old “star” system of rating hotels is now long out of date.

It should be possible to create a profile of customer tastes that can be quickly understood by a new agent being brought up to speed if your main agent is not available. As noted, the star system doesn’t quite cut it any more. The star system is mostly based on amenities at a hotel. For example, to get certain numbers of stars you must have a restaurant that serves dinner and an elevator and a pool etc. The factors that many might consider most important — room size, quality of bed and fixtures, cleanliness, level of service — are factored into some of the star systems but not at the top. And you have different needs when you are just stopping for a night or two compared to a resort stay.

I (and many others) would train my agent to always get wifi, for example. If a $100 hotel charges $15 for wifi, then it should be considered a $115 hotel. (They should also know that between our phones and laptops we will be connecting 4 devices.) On the other hand I almost never have dinner in the hotel restaurant unless it is either special or I am short for time. My agent should be unafraid to use the web to book if it gets me a better price (again factoring in that the commission would come to me, not the agent.) The agent should know how to use special tricks on Priceline which sometimes allow the booking of really nice hotels for low prices.

The agent should have a workstation ready to help them do the job quickly, including searches of Google maps, and a plug-in for their PBX that lets them click on phone numbers on the web and be connected without having to dial. They should have a VoIP plan or similar long distance plan that gives them flat rate or very cheap calling to the countries in question, so they don’t have to bill for that. They can then either book an obviously good choice or call me to select from more than one choice — though I have probably already told them how important various factors like view, location etc. are for that night. Once confirmed, they can text me the particulars.

I do believe a good agent should be able to save me more money on the hotel (or provide more value in the hotel for the money) to more than make up for their fee. And of course, if one can find suitably trained agents in cheaper countries like India, the fee could actually be very, very low. (Mainly must avoid the classic mistake in outsourcing to India, which is to try to overdo the cost savings and hiring employees who are just not qualified or who must be programmed to work from scripts like robots. There are lots of smart people in India but they cost a little more.)

And finally, while the agent must speak your language, it’s a real win if they can speak the local language where you are going. I have often found some of the best values, and most rewarding travel experiences, staying at small B&Bs and guesthouses where they speak very little English. It’s worth it to learn the basic local terms needed for hotel negotiation to be able to stay at these places, but an agent can do even better. A corporate agency where one agent understands your needs and explains them to an agent who speaks the language or translates could also work out.

And of course, all of what I have said can also apply to finding great places to eat. In this case it may simply be a matter of knowing what the local equivalent of “yelp” is to find an interesting, well-liked but not $$$$$ restaurant to give me a true taste of the local flavour. However, in this case, since the cost of the meal is less than that of a room, the tolerable amount of extra cost is lower. Though again, if I am steered to a non-touristy restaurant of good quality, that may save me more than the agent’s fee in many cases.

So, has anybody encountered an agency which can do the things I ask here? It may not be the same one for a U.S. road trip as for a European or Asian one, though it would be nice to put it all together.


BTW: Here’s the process I would go through…

  • In the morning, use “scrabook” firefox add-in to record tripadvisor and sidestep results for likely destinations.
  • Just about every time, change my mind about where we’re going by the afternoon.
  • War-drive around to find free wifi. Hotels and cafes the best things to stop near. In some countries there are for-pay wifi nets you can buy a block of time on.
  • Quickly sample tripadvisor, note hotels in region I want in price range I want. Sadly tripadvisor’s price estimates are often wildly off, and in many cases are for a single room. In Europe a double room is often 30-80% more than a single and includes two breakfasts.
  • Pull up sidestep to see if any of those hotels show online availability at the price I actually want.
  • Either book online or call hotel (using VoIP) to see if they will do online price.
  • If that doesn’t work, start calling around from database of phone numbers.

All too time consuming.

All that technology and

All that technology and talent on call for just $30 to $40 per hour? Maybe from India, but even then the economics sound sketchy.

All that tech?

It’s just a standard web desktop, and perhaps a travel agent’s database of hotels and a bit of ground knowledge. No fancy tech. I have all that tech. I do all this stuff from my laptop next to an internet cafe, but a person with a fast connection and big screen can do it much faster. Add a few tools (to merge together the review sites and the price queries) and you could do it in a few minutes for me.

Now a network of agents, with each caller sent to the right agent (one who knows the area and speaks the language) would be some more advanced tech. The hard part though, would be figuring out how to express each customer’s “desire profile” in a way that is compact and can be understood by the agent in a minute of reading. I have a feeling that to make me happy, an agent would need to learn my tastes over time.

My tastes also vary. I tend to want good value in my purchases and may spend $200 for a $500 hotel rather than take a $80 hotel for $80. But that sort of taste is hard to judge. And you have to know what is truly a bargain and what is an ad.

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