A whole generation of travelers, it seems, are so conditioned to use the Internet for travel booking that they're not even sure how a travel agent operates. These travelers use the hunt-and-pick method to find the best rates and fares online. And if that method does not reveal an affordable price, they might start wondering if a travel agent — a real, live person — could whip up a price reduction. Many an agent has received an anonymous phone call from a would-be traveler who wants to negotiate fares and rates.
While agents do have access to unpublished discounts and pre-negotiated travel fares, most do not have the ability to negotiate pricing. Agents do not set travel fares; they quote them. When they find a better price, it usually is not because they lowered the fare to get your business; it's because they literally found a lower price.
There are exceptions, of course. Every agency has different policies, and some agencies allow their agents to make a case for offering discounted fares in certain situations. To get the lower fares approved, the agent would probably have to present a competing bid that's lower and make a strong argument for why the fare should be discounted. To be clear, this type of discount comes out of the agent's and the agency's commission. So the agent and agency would need a very good reason for even considering it. At a minimum, the standard commission on the vacation in question needs to be sizeable and the customer must be strategically important in some way.
In other words, a $ 29 hotel rate is not negotiable.
When you ask an agent to negotiate, you are essentially asking the agent to subsidize your vacation — the same way a newly engaged couple might ask the groom's dad to fund part of the honeymoon. Many agents will respond to these requests by saying, "I'll see what I can do." And then the agent will search, often successfully, for a lower fare.
Real stories from the trenches
Every agent has her own set of stories involving customers who misunderstand how travel agents operate. Here are a few of ours:
- Customer finds a below-market rate for a hotel room during an event weekend through our online travel agency. The customer books the room online, but does not select the right room type. The customer calls the week before the event and asks to switch the reservation to a larger room at the same room rate. Unfortunately, the hotel did not have any larger rooms left. We could not remedy the lack of rooms at the first hotel, but we did locate another room at a different hotel.
- Customer calls and asks for a discounted rate on a hotel in Cabo. The dates and hotel choice were not flexible. We find the discounted rate, at a prepay rate. The customer says great, he'll take the rate, but not a prepay basis. Hotels, like airlines, do offer discounted rates for prepaying customers. Generally, an agent can not book a prepay rate for payment-on-arrival.
- Customer calls and says she's found a travel agent rate at a resort and would like us to book her vacation at that rate. Travel agent rates are for agents traveling; anyone booking under such a rate would have to show agent identification to the hotel or resort upon check-in. An agent can not book a travel agent rate under someone else's name, nor can an agent buy the room at that rate and then resell it to a customer.
The gist of it is this: agents can save you money on your vacations and business travel, but sometimes there are limitations to what they can accomplish.