In the last year, I've used a travel agent twice for my vacation plans. In both cases, using a travel agent created significantly more problems than if I had arranged everything myself. Here's how things went terribly wrong.
1. The Chilean Room Mistake
My husband and I have an IKON ski pass, a collective season ski pass that gives you access to multiple ski areas inside and outside the U.S. Having an IKON pass also gives you discounts on ski accommodations. So, since IKON gave us a discount on room accommodations at a Chilean ski resort, we decided to go to Chile to ski. The catch - in order to get the discount, we had to go through IKON reservations.
Since we planned to be there for five days, we decided to splurge on an upgraded room. We contacted IKON’s travel desk and requested availability for our preferred travel dates, hotel and level of accommodation. No problem. Except when we received our confirmation, it was for a standard room not an upgraded room. While we weren’t charged for an upgraded room, our reservation wasn’t for the room we requested. Upgraded rooms were available. The travel agent just reserved the wrong room. After a lot of negotiations, we split the difference of the cost between the standard room and the upgraded room.
Hey, you got the room you wanted at a further discounted price - What’s the big deal? The big deal is I had to spend my time correcting a mistake that someone else made. Ultimately, it was hardly worth the additional discount. Yes, everyone makes mistakes, but my time is valuable and if it’s your job to do X, you should probably be able to do X.
2. The Alaska Debacle
I usually don’t name names. But my experience with Alaska Tour and Travel has been so bad that it merits them being called out. I can’t recommend using them under any circumstances.
Before I start, this story involves a group of close, longtime friends, who are not only great friends, but great people. We’ve traveled together over the multiple decades we’ve known each other.
Back to the story.
Friends and I are going to Alaska in 2024! None of us are cruise people, so we decided to take the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Fairbanks, including side trips to Seward, Talkeetna and Denali. We created a basic itinerary and determined who would be responsible for hotel reservations, train arrangements, activities, etc. We're pretty organized. After the itinerary was set, one friend mentioned that it appears that travel agents have priority when making reservations in Alaska, so maybe we should consider using one simply to make sure we get reservations for everything. I was adamant that I didn’t want to go through a travel agent, since my most recent experience (see above) was not good, and I didn’t want to relinquish control to someone I didn’t know or trust (read: control freak). Moreover, our group is experienced travelers. We usually do our own bookings, but maybe using a travel agent made sense here. So, I partly acquiesced except for a flightseeing tour at Denali, a plane tour to the Arctic Circled, and hotels in Anchorage, Talkeetna, and Fairbanks.
A friend in the group contacted Alaska Tour and Travel and told them what we wanted. Alaska Tour and Travel didn’t have to do anything - nothing at all - except make specific reservations for specific dates for hotels and day tours. When we got our itinerary, Alaska Tour and Travel screwed it up. Big time. Let’s enumerate:
1. We requested a particular hotel outside Denali National Park for three nights, but Alaska Tour and Travel only booked us for two nights! How does this happen? Isn’t making travel arrangements, like, your job?
2. Moreover, Alaska Tour and Travel booked us at another hotel without consulting us. They said our preferred hotel was full and took it upon themselves to select the hotel and book.
3. …And Alaska Tour and Travel booked my husband and me for the wrong day tour. Seriously?
4. To make matters worse, Alaska Tour and Travel said that if we booked by a certain date, we would receive a 5% discount. BUT, when they presented us with the itinerary and and final costs, they didn’t include the discount or provide us with any cost breakdown.
All of this was unacceptable.
My friend reached back out to Alaska Tour and Travel to resolve the issue since she had been communicating with them and because she’s faaaarrrrr more diplomatic than I. In my outrage, I gave my friend a list of “requests” to compensate us for our time, including correcting and comping the day tour for which my husband and I had been incorrectly booked, additional discounts for my travelling companions, the 5% discount that we had originally been promised and a cost breakdown. My friend got most of what we “requested” from Alaska Tour and Travel...
…Except for the cost breakdown.
5. As of this writing, we’re still waiting for the cost breakdown.
What’s going on? Here are my thoughts…..
1: Are they paying attention? Not booking the correct number of hotel nights? You have exact dates! Booking the wrong day tour? We told you explicitly what we wanted to do!
2: Are travel agents are making decisions based on their commissions? The agent at Alaska Tour and Travel said our preferred Denali hotel was booked for our date in 2024, but when I called that hotel, they weren’t taking 2024 reservations yet. Was Alaska Tour and Travel prioritizing what we wanted or was the agent prioritizing the size of her commission at one hotel over another?
3: Are travel agents only booking with certain hotels? Alaska Tour and Travel said it doesn’t deal with chain hotels. Huh? Why not? Could it be the other way around – some chain hotels don’t deal with Alask Tour and Travel?
4: Are travel agents padding their commissions? A breakdown of costs seems reasonable. Did my friend forget to ask for a breakdown, or is Alaska Tour and Travel not providing one because they’re adding other costs on top of commission?
5: Are travel agents trained? Maybe Alaska Tour and Travel agents haven’t received any training or maybe they haven’t received adequate training.
What lessons did I learn?
1. Reviews may be different than your experience. Alaska Tour and Travel received great reviews on TripAdvisor, but in practice, they were the opposite of great, and their mistakes were unacceptable.
2. Should you make your own travel plans? Is there a compelling reason why you should, like maybe a complicated itinerary? If not, and you're comfortable making your own travel plans, then doing so may be your best option. Alaska Tour and Travel’s job and IKON travel’s job is to make travel arrangements, but they struggled to pull it off in my case.
3. Based on the above examples, using a travel agent is not the best option for me. I'm more comfortable making my own travel arrangements.
4. The good, the bad, and the ugly. I am certain that great travel agents exist, and there may be some great travel agents at IKON travel and Alaska Tour and Travel, but that wasn't my experience.