I got a somewhat disturbing phone call from a reader last week. I’ll just call her Jane. Now Jane has written and called me before (many times sharing resources with me) and she is a pretty sharp and travel savvy gal. Fortunately she had her wits about her when she was dealing with a European booking agent who was trying to arrange some accessible shore excursions for her European cruise. In the end, she booked directly and saved a boatload of money, so I’m passing her story along in hopes that other travelers can perhaps do the same.
I also have to preface this by saying that I’m not anti-travel agent. Some of my best friends are travel agents. And although they can save you time and trouble in most cases, when it comes to accessible travel, you will probably pay more booking certain services through them. Services like wheelchair-accessible shore excursions. The reason is simple. Most providers of accessible shore excursions do not offer commissions, so the travel and booking agents can either do it for free or mark it up. Some booking agents charge a flat percentage to pay for their time. And then you have travel agents who deal with booking agents to arrange tours with tour operators, so everybody has to get their cut. And in Jane’s case, the cut was a whopping 19% commission on an inflated tour price.
Her first clue that things were not going well was when the booking agent wouldn’t listen to her access needs. Jane can walk some, but uses a folding scooter, and didn’t need (or want) a ramped mini-van. The booking agent said he couldn’t find a standard van for her (very odd), so he kept coming back with (more expensive) prices for tours in accessible vans.
When you don’t think the booking agent has your best interests in mind, and when he clearly isn’t listening to your needs, drop him.
After that things got worse in the money department. Originally the quotes included all taxes, but when it came time for a deposit the booking agent changed his tune and said they weren’t included. And then he quoted her a higher (incorrect) VAT rate. Fortunately she had the original communications, and she was savvy enough to look up the current VAT rate.
Keep all your correspondence, and if the booking agent later says that you misunderstood the price, then you have the evidence in your hot little hands. I would also probably bail at that point, because it shows a lack of attention to detail, if not downright dishonesty.
And then Jane started doing intensive research on her own and found a tour operator who could accommodate her in one city. She later found out it was the same operator that her booking agent was dealing with, only he substantially marked up the price before he added his commission.
Check around on your own. Do internet searches, visit message boards (like Cruise Critic) and see what is available out there. You may be able to book it directly and save a little cash. Granted you will probably have to deal with wire transfers and communicating directly with the tour operator, but if you have the time and the wherewithal to do it, then it might just be what the doctor ordered.
Personally I’m thinking 19% on an inflated tour price is outrageous.
Trust your instincts. If you get an outrageous quote, check around. Now I’m not saying you need to nickel and dime agents to death — they need to make a living too — but there is a difference between fair compensation and gouging. Learn to recognize it.
In the end, Jane made her own arrangements — ones that suited her needs — at a fair price.
Bottom line — if you’re reading this, you already know how to search for accessible travel information. And that’s the lions share of the work in booking accessible shore excursions.
Again, I’m not anti-travel agent. There are times I’ve used them because I just didn’t want to mess with planning my vacation. Case and point was a few years back when Ann Lit planned a marvelous independent driving trip of Ireland for us. I was burned out and wanted nothing to do with the planning process, so I just gave her my parameters and turned over everything to her. And like I said, it turned out great.
Suffice it to say that I’m just presenting a option here, along with a warning. Which brings me to Rule 5.
If something doesn’t feel right, there’s probably a good reason for it.