Why the travel agent will survive — because airline websites are so painful

Recently I had the displeasure of doing something that should have been very pleasant — booking my flights back to New Zealand for my wedding. A friend of mine gave me the heads up that there was an especially cheap flight with Emirates around the time I wanted to go, so I duly went ahead and attempted to book the flight.

The process of booking this flight — a simple flight, only a single leg — took over an hour and a half. Partly this was because the Emirates website was painfully slow, but partly it was user interface issues. When I made an error entering the dates I wanted to travel (and I discovered this near the end of the process) I had to go back and completely start the process over — there was no way to change the travel date. When I made an error with the seats I selected I was kicked back to the personal information screen, where some of the information had reverted to the default. And when I made an error entering my credit card details, the booking failed irrevocably (while saving the incorrect details to a customer profile that could not be accessed because the server was down). When I tried to start the booking afresh, I was trapped with the bad credit card details, and was offered the choice of collecting the tickets from an Emirates office, or having them mailed to me — no e-ticket for me. In the end, we logged in with my partner’s account and booked the tickets that way, but as I said, at this point it was 90 minutes later.

I tell you this story not to deride Emirates, who are, after all, flying me to NZ for an absolute pittance, but because whenever I book with an airline, the user experience is near-universally bad. I haven’t yet found an Australian website that searches as many airlines as House of Travel in New Zealand, but when I do, I won’t be booking directly with the airlines again — travel agents know their websites have to actually offer a service if they want people to come back, and so the user experience is much, much better.

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4 Responses to “Why the travel agent will survive — because airline websites are so painful”


  1. 1 tony Friday, October 26, 2007 at 10:25 am

    Congrats for your wedding!

    In booking my current trip I’ve found travel agents equally infuriating. I did go in armed with a printout of an online airfare quote from the Qantas web site, after comparing Japan Airlines and Cathay Pacific. As the agent’s advertising says they’ll match any advertised price, they agreed to match the price I’d got – but if I’d walked in off the street they would have charged me more.

    I’ve found it also helps to choose the actual flights and connections you want through the airline website and give that to the agent so they don’t try to put you on the flight leaving – or worse, arriving – at 1.00am.

    Last trip I sent a request for the advertised price on a travel agent web site, but I don’t think that price actually existed. They quoted me a completely different price. I had to get a price from the airline web site and then had to take it in to get the agent to match it.

    That said, airline web sites vary markedly in ease of use. Japan Airlines was tricky, Cathay Pacific was a bit clunky and took a while to work through all the screens but it was ok.

    This trip, I found the Qantas international site actually very good. You could easily scan the different prices for different days and different flights, and juggle the dates around to get the best flights at the cheapest price. That’s what I did to get the printout I took in to the agent.

    In the end it would have been easier to book this flight on the Qantas web site than getting the travel agent involved. Qantas charge a credit card premium for online bookings, but then I found the agent did too and at a higher rate. Also, after giving the agent all our details, I logged into the airline web site to find that contact phone numbers and frequent flyer numbers hadn’t been registered and our meal requests were wrong.

  2. 2 danamckay Friday, October 26, 2007 at 11:03 am

    Tony, until she retired this year, my primary travel agent was my Mum, so I’ve never had problems getting messed around :). Having said that, in my experience (when I had to do university travel) it pays to shop around for a good travel agent, one who will work with you, and when you find that person hang on for dear life. Since moving to Australia I have done all my own travel, usually comparing prices on House of Travel’s NZ website (which to be fair, requires a bit of jiggery pokery for outbount Australian travel, but which compares all the combinations) or webjet.com.au and then going direct to the airline from there.


  1. 1 One good thing in travel: Online check in « Dana’s user experience blog Trackback on Wednesday, May 21, 2008 at 4:05 pm
  2. 2 Travel website usability by a travel writer « Dana’s user experience blog Trackback on Tuesday, April 19, 2011 at 1:51 pm

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