OPINION: I bet the travel agents reading this will chuckle – and not be the least bit surprised: I have come to regret my enthusiastic backing of travel aggregators and online travel agencies from a few weeks ago.
Right on cue, one such chat-bot-and algorithm-powered airfare disaster has me ready to eat my words, with a nice slice of humble pie. I’ll leave the side of schadenfreude for main street travel shops.
This travel failure story begins as most of my others do, me in front of a half-dozen internet tabs comparing flight prices to a destination, this time to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia.
I booked with the site that offered the lowest price. I think I saved a paltry $5. The dramatic climax of my travel tale involves Georgia Airlines, ruthlessly cancelling the flight from London to Tbilisi for “operational reasons”, with no offer of replacement flights, effectively ending the holiday before it began. It ends – hopefully, since this is still a work in progress – with me on my fourth phone call (after a dozen attempts to get a result from a website chatbot) confirming a refund with an online travel agent call centre.
That online travel agent is called Opodo, since you asked. I refute all past and future recommendations of their service. And I do use the term “service” in the loosest way possible, since there was no real service to speak of. This multinational travel giant, which rakes in billions in revenue a year, in my experience didn’t even have a process to notify customers when an airline can canned the flights. We were only informed by chance, by friends who booked direct with the airline. Without their heads up, who knows? We may have rocked up to the airport in May expecting to board, only to be told the flight was canned months beforehand.
I cannot remember the last time I stepped into a travel agents physical store, perhaps it’s as far back as 2013 and, only last year I suggested they were a dying breed, when one I dealt with over the phone suggested that TripAdvisor was better suited to answer my visa questions than he. But even he, I’m sure, would offer seamless service when it came to processing a refund for a booking cancelled by an airline – surely a process that happens every day for a globally-active firm in an industry this volatile. For Opodo, nope too hard. No automated process for me, since the airline only canned one leg of my return booking. No chat bot to the rescue. After several calls, there was a lame excuse blaming the airline for being uncommunicative in confirming the flight had definitely been cancelled. But hang on, was this not confirmed by the web chats and phone calls previously?
If you’re scratching your head with the logic, just be glad you’re not paying several dollars per minute to access this call-centre intellect. And today, finally, I’m told that although the airline has confirmed the flight cancellation (again?) they are yet to confirm the refund (even though global aviation agreements compel them to) but – all things going well – I should eventually get a refund within 90 days. Ninety days. Didn’t take them 90 days to process the initial payment did it? Funny that.
My fatal error (and one I make frequently) is not realising that, although we have commoditised travel into package holidays, social media likes, and a race to rock-bottom prices, it remains a service industry. And you have to pay for good service. But most travellers in the digital age seemed to have forgotten that – or aren’t willing to pay for the peace of mind that a living, breathing human can come to your rescue when the proverbial hits the fan.
Research out this month from travel booking software giant Amadeus found “value for money” was the No.1 attribute that would-be travellers want from an online travel agent, with 66 per cent of us prioritising it. Those online bookers who pick service and after sales support? A paltry 16 per cent.
Well, with me, they can add another one aggrieved traveller to the tally. And although it would be great to experience both with the one online provider, those travellers who want peace of mind and personal service when things go wrong already know where to go when it comes to booking – and it ain’t online.