In travel, you get what you pay for

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By Richard Turen

Dear client, you have contacted me because you think I can help you with your travel plans. You say you are looking for a bargain. You want something cheap for your next vacation. You want the cheapest hotels I can find.

In our initial discussion, you said you wanted to get a deal, and you literally asked me to get you the lowest price. You indicated that if I didn't, you might go to someone else.

I am going to say goodbye to you and wish you well as you seek the travel agent with the cheapest prices. I am even going to suggest where you might go to find that agent. But before you go, I would like to help you put "cheap" and "deal" in perspective. I sincerely want you to have the best vacation outcome you can afford, and I hope the following will be helpful.

I just Googled "cheap travel" and got 5.7 million hits. That gives you some options, and I suggest you start right away because sifting through them may take the better part of a year.

But let me save you some time. The word "cheap," which comes from the Latin caupo and means "petty tradesman" and "huckster," is not a term with legal meaning or standing. Anyone can say they are cheap. Any business transaction can be called a deal.

The first question you might want to ask is why you would ever want the cheapest anything, since price almost always connotes quality and the cheapest is usually the most poorly made, the poorest design, the worst service or the most poorly trained. Are you certain you want "cheap?"

Your next vacation will not be inexpensive. You will likely spend more on this vacation than you did on your last visit to the dentist or your financial planner or your doctor. Your doctor deals with some of the most difficult times of your life. Your travel professional deals with the best moments of your life.

Given that, I am curious: Did you seek out the doctor, the dentist, the surgeon, the real estate broker, the financial adviser or the home builder with the cheapest prices? My guess is that you didn't, because you told yourself that you pretty much get what you pay for.

I understand that our industry has misled you on pricing, so we need to take some of the blame. Let me try to point you in the right direction.

When you see those ads on TV screaming that they have the best hotel pricing, do you believe them? Do you really believe that hotel owners use a strategy that involves going around to different travel agents, dozens of online booking sites and other distributors of their product with different pricing for each one? Do you really think that would make any sense at all?

Wouldn't a hotel want to encourage bookings from all travel agents and online sites to encourage the most business? Or, put another way, do you think that I would sell any hotel knowing that my price would not be as good as that provided by the agency down the street or at some call center?

The fact is that we all have the same pricing, the same deals, the same cheap products. The difference is that most of the cheap products are so poor that we would never allow members of our own family to book them, so we certainly are not going to sell them to our valued clients.

Let's stick with hotels. You see the ads and you go online. There is a popping sound and the next thing you know a box with a photo of a travel agent appears on your screen. She wants to be helpful. She wants to get your booking.

You are talking to a call center. You are likely talking to one of dozens of "agents" in a large room in Mumbai or Manila, but, given rent and salary requirements, likely not Manhattan.

This "travel agent" looks professional. She is wearing a headset.

Do you think the photo is a real agent? Has she ever stayed at the hotel you are considering? Do you think she is well-traveled? Do you think she will provide you with objective industry hotel inspection reports?

This agent is a call center commission-based seller. That is what you generally get online. She (or her male counterpart) cares little about your travel background, your medical condition or even whether or not this really is the right hotel for you. If you ask her for the cheapest room, she will get it for you.

What you won't see is the giant board posted in the call center that keeps score of which agent is selling the most rooms. Yours wants to have your booking posted. She wants the credit. She works on commission.

So you got your "deal," and you show up at the hotel. Did you know that most hotels overbook? Whose reservation do you think they will fail to honor first?

But let's assume you have a room. Which room will you have? Hotel executives readily acknowledge that bookings originating with OTAs are often assigned the worst rooms in the category booked.

There is a reason for this. Online bookings are treated differently because hotels assume that the guest has no loyalty to their properties. They realize that the booking was likely made online because you thought you were getting a deal. You will likely stay somewhere else the next time you book as you continue searching for the best deal among the millions offered.

Contrast that with the arriving guest who is a member of the brand's loyalty program. Contrast that with the arriving guest who has been booked by a travel consultant who knows who you are and who has taken the time to let the hotel's management know you are arriving.

Contrast that with an arrival at your hotel having been booked by a professional who is a member of a consortium that gives the hotel a portion of the billions of dollars it books each year.

Hotels are one example why cheap is not the way to go. Ever. If you honestly can't afford to travel well, if you are unwilling to follow the pricing guidelines that I would recommend, please seriously think about postponing your vacation. You see, I am likely the last person in this entire process who will tell you that. Sometimes it is better to save a bit more money while delaying your vacation until you can do it right.

I had promised that I would tell you how to get the best pricing on your travels. Find a part-time travel agent who lives in your neighborhood and ask this person to give you back some portion of the commission earned on your booking.

This is highly unethical, as commission is paid to travel agents as a form of compensation and is not meant to be used to rebate back to the customer. But you may be successful finding someone on the periphery of the industry to work with you.

Let me close by asking you a few questions:

    Does the cheapest hotel come with the best night-time security? Or any security?
    Rude fellow guests can ruin any hotel stay. Who will your fellow guests be in the cheapest accommodation you could book?
    Did you know that in most cheap or moderately priced hotels bedspreads might only be changed every six months?
    Did you know that in most cheap or moderately priced hotels, including most of the major brands, maids are asked to "eyeball" the sheets and are encouraged not to change them unless absolutely necessary?

I could go much further with this, but I trust you understand. Would you really like to make your airline arrangements booking the airline with the most poorly paid pilots or the tour operator with the best pricing because they hire the cheapest guides while using the cheapest available hotels?

Thanks for contacting me. I really do wish you safe and successful travels.

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