Booking a holiday: online or travel agent?

Mark Juddery reports on the latest trends in flight and holiday bookings.

Worldwide, a quarter of all travel bookings last year were made online. And in the US, the number of main-street travel agencies has halved in the past decade as travellers go straight to the web. In Australia, traditional travel agents are still popular but the future may not be so bright. Business information analyst IBISWorld predicts a difficult year for these agents, following the further decline in international tourism and the growth in online booking sites.

But before you mourn the impending doom of the shopfront travel agent, note that the projected losses are not as bad as expected: a 1.9 per cent fall in revenue for this year (to $2.71 billion), and a 1.3 per cent decrease in employment.

Meanwhile, online travel is growing rapidly.

A recent Jigsaw Research-Google Travel Study suggests that, however they are reserved, 77 per cent of all trips booked in Australia are at least researched online.

The convenience of internet bookings still can't compare with talking to an expert travel agent.

But another study by the US-based Forrester Research sends another message: a small but growing number of travellers are losing interest in travel sites. The study surveyed 4634 adults, all of whom use travel sites. Only 46 per cent of respondents say they enjoy booking travel online - down from 53 per cent in 2007.

The change was significant enough for some media to investigate. Toronto's Globe and Mail spoke to Lea Pawloski, a Canadian woman who used a major online agency to book flights for her honeymoon - and found $C900 ($942) debited from her credit card but no reservation.

This was followed by 10 days of phone calls and hours left on hold. "After that," she said, "I decided to go with a travel agency in my neighbourhood."

Online travel doesn't have an exclusive on horror travel stories. Yet the convenience of internet bookings still can't compare with talking to an expert travel agent - as Sharon Ireland, of Turramurra, 25, recently discovered.

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Like many people her age, she has travelled extensively without ever setting foot in a travel agency. But recently, she was converted when friends used a shopfront travel agency to book a trip to Thailand.

"The personal knowledge, hints and assistance with adjusted travel plans ensured their travel was seamless," she says. "This has prompted me to do the same for the future."

Despite some industry concern when websites such as Travelocity and Zuji first entered the Australian market, our neighbourhood travel agents have not suffered as they have in the US. "Americans travel differently," Flight Centre spokesman Haydn Long says.

"They go to the Caribbean or the other side of the country. They aren't very adventurous travellers. Australians are going to the UK or Asia. It's much more complicated."

According to Long, Flight Centre still conducts 95 per cent of its business over the counter.

The global recession of last year, however, saw an increase in online travel, as Australians chose to stay closer to home, taking simpler, easy-to-book options such as New Zealand and Singapore.

"Customer inquiry [in shopfronts] was as good as it's ever been," Long says. "But people sat back and waited to see if they still had a job."

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