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Self-styled "gutsy grannies" Claire and Peggy (ages 65 and 63) finished last in this week's leg of "The Amazing Race", as many viewers had probably expected. But it wasn't that they were too old to keep up. More and more retired people take trips around the world every year, and such a trip doesn't have to be any more physically demanding than travel within the USA. No, the grannies were simply outsmarted -- or unlucky, given that none of the competitors displayed much savvy about travel logistics.
All the teams arrived together at the airport in Sao Paulo, where they had to figure out how to get to Capetown on one of the four days a week when there is no direct flight to South Africa. The only other direct flight across the South Atlantic is from Rio to Luanda on TAAG Angola Airways, and it leaves Brazil too early for the racers to have made connections without a day's delay. (That route isn't as strange as it might seem, when you consider that Brazil has the largest population of African ancestry in the Americas, and that Angola and nearby Mozambique are the most populous Portuguese-speaking countries after Brazil.)
All other routes go through other continents. It's an overnight flight from Brazil to North America or Europe, and a second overnight flight to Africa. So if you leave Brazil on the night of day 1, you arrive in South Africa no earlier than the morning of day 3, local time. That's what 8 of the 9 teams did. The grannies, though, ended up taking flights that didn't get them to South Africa until day 4, when it was too late to have any chance to catch up on the ground.
Given that the order of finish in so many critical episodes of the first season of "The Amazing Race" was determined by choices of airlines and flights, and bad advice from airline ticketing staff, it's really quite remarkable that none of the contestants on the second season made any attempt to seek independent advice, from either an offline travel agency or a travel Web site, about which flights to take.
If you're tempted to say, "But that would be against the rules", you're wrong. According to Joe and Bill of "The Amazing Race 1", the racers were forbidden to contact anyone they had known before the start of the race. But they were allowed to use phones or, when it was available, the Internet. Members of several teams telephoned travel agencies listed in local phone books, during the overnight layovers, to get schedules to what they suspected might be the next destinations. And in at least one case where there were public Internet access terminals at the "pit stop", some teams did research on the Web as well.
The major travel Web sites that limit their offerings primarily to published fares -- such as Travelocity.com, Expedia.com, or Trip.com -- aren't usually the best source of information for price-conscious air travelers. But for the contestants on "The Amazing Race", price is no object. Once each pair of racers reserves four seats for themselves and their accompanying camera and sound technicians, the film crew pays for all four tickets with a CBS credit card. If you don't care how much you pay, almost any travel agent or travel Web site can do a better job of coming up with flight possibilities than an airline ticket counter clerk who will only suggest their airline's flights. Perhaps the most comprehensive information on possible connecting flight schedules and availability is on Amadeus.net, a Web site run by the largest international CRS (computerized reservation system) that doesn't give any information about prices at all.
Around the world -- except in the USA, where travelers who want to stay connected are expected to lug around their own laptop computers -- cybercafes are a standard feature of all new airports. (I was appalled when San Francisco International Airport opened a new, $2 billion international terminal last year -- the gateway to Silicon Valley and the capital of the Internet -- without a cybercafe or any public Internet access terminals.) There isn't yet a cybercafe as such at Guarulhos International Airport in Sao Paulo. There is, however, a business center in the departure area, with Internet-connected computers for rent. Given that it took some of the contestants more than six hours to figure out which flights were available, it would surely have been faster to make one stop at the business center, rather than waiting in line at the ticket counter for each possible-seeming airline.
Some of you may be wondering if independent advice and consulting will continue to be available at all -- online or offline -- after this week's actions by Delta, Continental, Northwest, and United Airlines to eliminate the commissions they pay travel agents (at least in the USA) to represent them and sell their tickets. Other airlines are expected to follow suit shortly.
Does this mean that you'll have to pay a fee for the services of a travel agent? Yes, you will. Most offline travel agents and agencies already charge for their services, as well they should.
Is it worth it? I can't say how much it would be worth to you, but it certainly would have been worth it to the "gutsy grannies" -- eliminated because even after hours of trying to do it themselves, and with an unlimited budget for airfare, they were unable to figure out correctly which sets of connecting flights existed, how soon they would get them to Capetown, or if they had seats available.
Agencies that sell airline tickets at published fares fixed by the airline, and that don't charge fees to travelers, are, presumptively, salespeople being paid by the airlines to advance the airlines' interests against those of consumers. As a traveler, you are best served by an agency you pay (either through explicitly stated fees or through the agency markup included in the selling price of consolidator tickets) to act as your agent, not as a "seller's agent". Buying travel, or getting your education about travel "products" and services, from a seller's agent, carries the same risks as buying your house from a real estate agent who is paid by, and works exclusively for, the seller. I'd never voluntarily do either, if I were paying my own way.
Expedia.com CEO Richard Barton once told me, with a straight face, that there was no conflict between the interests of travel buyers and sellers, and that Expedia.com could serve both equally well. That's about like saying, "What's good for Microsoft [Expedia.com's creator and former parent company] is good for the American public". I don't believe a word of it. Travelers want to pay less. Airlines want them to pay more. A travel agent can't simultaneously try to get you the lowest price, and try to get as much money out of you as possible for the airlines. Which side are they on? They have to choose.
The unfortunate thing is that online travel agencies, faced with this choice, are almost all choosing to align themselves more closely with the interests of airlines and other suppliers of travel services, rather than charging the fees that would enable them to side with travel consumers.
Earlier this month, I was the one consumer journalist or consumer advocate in attendance at the Eye for Travel conference of Internet travel executives. Addressing themselves to an audience of their peers -- knowing I was there, but seeming not to care -- speakers from one travel Web site after another explained how they would "deliver value" to the airlines and other travel service providers by helping them increase the average prices paid by travelers for air tickets and other travel services. Not one defined their relationship to travel suppliers as adversarial, or defined themselves as a buyers' agent rather than a sellers'. Even representatives of online travel agencies that are generally thought of as discounters joined the bandwagon. "Airlines must increase yields [i.e. revenues per seat]," declared Trey Urbahn, the president of the airline ticket division of Priceline.com. And he went on to explain how Priceline.com will help airlines raise their average prices by further restricting the availability of discounted tickets. Caveat emptor: most commercial travel Web sites are not your friends.
There's no question, though, that average airline ticket prices are currently the lowest in history. There's no doubt that they are less than airlines' costs. Airlines must raise prices, or go out of business. "Ed, tell your readers that my advice is to buy their tickets now, because these low fares we have now are going to go away," advised Kevin Krone, V.P of Southwest Airlines in charge of the Southwest.com Web site. I agree: there's never been a better or cheaper time to travel. Do it now, while the going is good. When even Southwest Airlines, with the lowest cost per available seat mile of any major airline in the USA, says that prices are below cost and that it will be raising prices, you can probably believe it.
The cast of "The Amazing Race 2" may appear to have less travel experience and logistical savvy than the show's first season, but more of them appear to be having fun, and many more of them appear to be paying attention to the places they see and the people they meet. "I wanted to spend time... It's unfortunate that it's a race," regretted Shola this week when he and his twin brother Doyin had to rush out of Nelson Mandela's former prison cell on Robben Island in pursuit of the next clue. Several others wanted to slow down as well. Fortunately, if you take a trip like this yourself, you can give yourself enough time so that you won't have that pressure. At the end of the day, it's rarely the sites you've seen that leave an enduring impression; it's the experiences and human encounters. "The best thing that I did was to make friends with one of the local people," said Oswald.
P.S. If you'd like to put a face and voice to my words on your computer screen, I'll be talking about strategies for buying airline tickets on the Internet, and comparing types of airline ticket Web sites, on this week's episode of "Computer Chronicles" on PBS-TV. Check your local listings or the ComputerChronicles.org Web site for broadcast times in your area. (New York: WNET channel 13, 2-2:30 p.m. Saturday. Chicago: WYCC channel 20, 6:30-7 p.m. Tuesday. Los Angeles: KLCS channel 58, 8-8:30 p.m. Sunday. San Francisco: KQED channel 9, midnight-12:30 a.m. Sunday night/Monday morning. San Jose: KTEH channel 54, 4-4:30 p.m. Sunday.)
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