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Fare Wars
Six reporters book the same trip – via phone, Web and agents – and end up in different places.

By Craig Stoltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 17, 1997; Page E01
   


Lay the blame wherever you like -- airline deregulation, the rise of the Internet, a secret cabal determined to keep travel consumers baffled -- but the fact is, planning a simple vacation can be awfully hard. So many choices: airlines, airports, travel agencies, travel clubs, tour operators, travel consultants, Internet services, published guidebooks, hotel discount consortia, rental car partnerships, land-only packages, frequent flier/renter/stay-over/buyer perks, coupon books . . . each of them available in a bewildering array of classes, styles, packages and, of course, prices. And all in a marketplace that's twitchier than a ferret with a belly full of espresso.

But how much does all this complexity really matter when it comes time to sit down and book a trip? We decided to find out. We developed a set of requirements for an imaginary family vacation to San Francisco, then turned six Travel section contributors loose to "book" the trips using three different methods.

Two reporters used travel agents, one a small agency (Esprit Travel in Bethesda) and one a big national firm (Carlson Wagonlit Travel in Rosslyn). Yes (he added, shrewdly anticipating letters to the editor), we know travel agents claim to do their best work with clients they're familiar with, but we decided to put agents interacting with first-time clients on the same playing field as the other methods. (After we completed our reporting, the contributors called the agents back and disclosed their identities and purpose.)

Two reporters were assigned to book the trips directly -- using guidebooks, printed materials and word-of-mouth to do their research, and then using the phone to canvass for prices and nail down bookings for air transport, accommodations and a rental car.

Two others were pitched headlong into the World Wide Web, and told to use whichever online services they found most useful to plan their trips and make their bookings.

The trip: An eight-day family vacation to San Francisco for a married couple and two children, ages 10 and 13. We told our reporters to seek "moderate"-priced accommodations, but stressed that comfort and privacy for the family members would be important, too. The family wanted to stay in town, near tourist attractions. They also wanted a rental car, as the plans called for day trips to the wine country and Muir Woods. Preferred dates: Depart Saturday, Aug. 23; return Sunday, Aug. 30. We started the process on Monday, July 28, with a deadline to complete bookings by Friday, Aug. 1, ensuring everyone would benefit from the key 21-day-advance-purchase window.

(By the way, we know this trip -- weighing in at $4,000 to $5,000 for the eight days, once meals and miscellaneous costs are included -- is preposterously expensive by most families' standards. But to put the marketplace to a proper test, we wanted a distant city served by many carriers and a diversity of accommodations, and the added complications of kids and a car.)

The results of our reporting appear in the box on Page E1. Other key findings:

Travel products and services are not yet commodities; shopping around still pays off. The sum of the three lowest quotes we found for air, hotel and car was $2,140; the three highest quotes totaled $3,738. That's a difference of $1,598 -- and more than 50 percent of the cost of our "average" trip price of $3,032. Using either the Web or the phone or both to do bookings and research can be punishing -- but can pay off.

James T. Yenckel, the Washington Post's Fearless Traveler, found the cheapest and perhaps the best "value" deal, by booking everything himself -- calling airline 800 numbers, hotel discount reservation numbers and car rental companies. This may or may not argue for self-booking over the other methods. But it certainly suggests bargain hunters spend the next 15 years of their lives writing, editing and reporting about travel full time. It sure has paid off for Yenckel.

The Internet is an inefficient time-sucker. Carol Sottili, a Web habituee who writes and researches the Post's Fly Buys column (which takes a rest this week, in case you were wondering), spent 4 1/2 hours booking this trip. John Deiner, our section's copy editor (who uses the Web sometimes for work, but is no Webomaniac), spent 5 1/2 hours. Both suffered the frustrating crashes and log-offs that plague the Web. Neither got the lowest prices. Our two reporters using travel agents, by contrast, spent a total of five and 25 minutes on the phone.

Travel agents can make a difficult process nearly painless -- but unless you're assertive and clear-headed, they can make it more expensive, too. Why? Agencies earn commissions based (to oversimplify) on the amount of money you spend -- and are motivated, to a smaller degree, by a complex, ever-changing web of supplier alliances and incentives, such as free trips for agents booking a certain volume of a particular brand of rental car, or hotel chains offering commission bonuses. Some agents, by habit or contract, may draw from a limited menu of suppliers.

Still, skilled agents working with leisure travelers understand that keeping clients happy means delivering what they want, and if price is very im portant to you, a talented and diligent agent will find you low prices and great value, maybe steering you to wonderful things you'd otherwise miss. Our advice: If you have a skilled and trustworthy agent, reward him or her with your business. (But if you're a budget-conscious traveler, you may need to drop repeat reminders of this.) If you don't have a relationship with a travel agent, using one -- practically any one -- will save you a lot of time and trouble with booking. But it may wind up costing you in other ways.

Price isn't everything. Half of our reporters chose more expensive suite accommodations, figuring the privacy and kitchen facilities would pay off for our imaginary traveling family. Some hotels offer such perks as heated pools, free parking or continental breakfasts. And unreported details like a cozy family restaurant right next door, or a location congenial to evening strolls for ice cream shops and used-book stores can matter a great deal. No matter how you book, you should find out as many details as you can about where you'll be staying before you make a decision. Again, an agent may be helpful -- or not.

There is no right time to lock in a booking. We had our reporters book at least 21 days in advance of travel to benefit from most airlines' discounts. But on the Thursday of our testing week a fare war erupted, driving prices down by almost $100 per ticket on virtually all flights to the West Coast. Those who'd been "good consumers" and booked on Tuesday lost big (except for John Deiner, who got his low fare on Tuesday by flying into San Jose, 45 minutes away by car). Of course, the fares could just as easily have gone up mid-week, as one agent ominously advised our reporter early in the week. If you're looking for a market that's easy to predict, buy precious metals or soybean futures. Airline tickets are too unstable to bet on.

Incentives can make a difference. Today's travel marketplace is larded with minor "value-added" deals designed to motivate a purchaser; some are genuinely worthwhile. Carol Sottili chose a higher air fare because Microsoft's Expedia booking service was offering customers who bought Northwest Airlines tickets "free" companion tickets, which would help the family afford two additional trips later in the year. Jim Yenckel felt a Dinner on Us program offering two-for-one dining discounts (and $20 in "free" gasoline for a $1 membership fee) would lead him to choose Avis over a similarly priced rental at Hertz. One reporter's hotel booking, and another's car rental, was nudged by AAA member incentives. Incentives can be good. The trick is to keep your eye on your primary values (whether they are location, amenities or price) and not let an incentive force a choice contrary to your best interest.

The good news: Like most complex things, travel planning appears to get easier each time you do it. All of our reporters, well acquainted with the travel industry to begin with, came away from this exercise with some new lesson or trick they plan to put to use themselves next time they book a personal trip. Yes, they'd worked hard. But they'd learned a lot.

In fact, they all felt they could use a good vacation.

Details: Resources

Among the many sources available, our reporters used the following to plan their "trips" (all Web addresses are preceded by http://):

GENERAL (Hotels, Car and Air)

Internet Travel Network, www.itn.com

Expedia, www.expedia.com

Travelocity, www.travelocity.com

CAR RENTALS

BreezeNet's Guide to Airport Rental Cars, www.bnm.com

Thrifty, www.thrifty.com

HOTELS

Hotel Reservations Network, 1-800-964-6835,

www.180096hotel.com

Central Reservations Service, 1-800-950-0232,

www.reservation-services.com

San Francisco Reservations, 1-800-677-1550,

www.hotelres.com

Bed & Breakfast International, 415-696-1690

All the Hotels on the Web, www.all-hotels.com

TravelSphere, www.cdiguide.com

Places to Stay, www.placestostay.com

Ramada Hotels, www.ramada.com

Frommer's "California With Kids" Fodor's "Where Should We Take the Kids? California"

What We Learned On Our Summer Vacation

A few miscellaneous lessons we carried away from our trip not taken:

Of the three variables we tested, air fares and auto rental costs tend to fall within a narrow range. The most important variable, especially for trips of two days or longer, is hotel cost, where a wide range of prices and styles is available. So: Time spent digging for the perfect accommodation is likely to yield more benefit than time spent on the other two.

If you want the best price for air travel, consider multiple airports, from both your home and your destination city. Yes, this means Virginians need to consider BWI, and Baltimoreans Dulles. The Expedia Web site has an easy "all area airports" option.

Airlines may be willing to match a competitor's lower fares. TWA's reservation clerk quoted our reporter a fare of $378 to San Francisco, but when told American was charging $261, said he would match it.

Of the many membership incentives and travel clubs, AAA and AARP stand out, as so many vendors offer member discounts. Most other affinity programs make you choose from a narrower list to get discounts.

Among national hotel discounters, Hotel Reservations Network had more to offer in San Francisco than Central Reservations Service. Useful local discounter: San Francisco Reservations. Most big tourist cities have central hotel reservation discounters; you can find them on the Web or via the local tourism authority.

When getting rental car quotes, make sure you compare apples to apples. Not all of the quotes we received included California's 8.25 percent sales tax and $1.85 daily surcharge.

If you're traveling with a car, make sure you inquire at your hotel about parking costs. Daily parking rates in San Francisco went as high as $16.50, effectively adding 10 percent or more to the daily hotel bill.

Sometimes the big names are cheapest. We found, for instance, that in August, Avis and Hertz offered the best car rental deals in San Francisco. This may have been due to the August doldrums for two firms that specialize in business rentals, or another supply-demand condition. But don't fail to shop the market leaders.

Reliable accommodation information is hard to find and time-consuming on the Internet. Waiting for maps and pictures to download is a pain, and the information is usually provided by the hotel itself -- hardly a dispassionate source. So: A printed lodging guide will help a lot.

Some Web-based services -- predictably? oddly? -- don't respond immediately to bookings made from their Web sites. One reporter had to send e-mail, sometimes repeatedly, to provoke a response or get a question answered.

Despite claims to the contrary, no Web site offers a comprehensive list of options. For instance, value leader Southwest Airlines (www.iflysw.com) does not participate in any online booking services other than its own. Thrifty's Web site offered better deals than Expedia for an identical rental. And while Ramada's own site showed zero room availability during our stay, San Francisco Reservations' site gave us the bookings in a Ramada. Bottom line: Online bookers seeking top quality and low price are going to have to devote time to surfing multiple sites.

We found more, and more informed, options using city-specific directories of lodgings and rental cars than using either mega-sites (Travelocity, Expedia, ITN) or brand-specific sites.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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