Martin Lane writes: I’m the sort of person mainstream travel agents should love. Once a backpacker, I now have two kids aged 10 and 14 and, while the old spirit of adventure remains undimmed, my first priority is to make sure they’re going to be safe and that flights, accommodation and probably transfers are all booked in advance. The days of throwing on a backpack or jumping in the campervan and making the rest up as I went along disappeared around the time I first heard the words “are we there yet?” emanating from the back seat.
So my plan to book a two-week, twin-centre holiday in Thailand in January should have been a godsend for my much-put upon high street travel retailer. Especially as I’m willing to pay for good advice if it means my son won’t spend the entire time shouting “this is the worst holiday ever, I hate you” because his iPhone can’t get a signal in the golden triangle.
I haven’t actually been inside a travel agent since I stopped editing Travel Weekly UK in 2005. Back then, I used to write editorials confidently predicting there will always be a place for experienced consultants who can add value, especially for customers booking complicated — read expensive — itineraries. I’m not sure I believed it even then, but you’ve got to give the readers what they want haven’t you?
Anyway, fast forward five years and, as lunchtime approached today, I was faced with a choice; sit and listen to Thumbrella editor Alice Terlikowski drone on about her recent trip to Europe (“Oh my God, British traffic lights are rubbish”) or escape to the high street and book my own trip of a lifetime instead.
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So I wandered into my travel agent — part of a major national chain — and was ushered forward by a disinterested looking consultant whose body language screamed “another bloody tyre kicker” and who, when told I could be flexible with dates as long as it was in the school holidays, threw me a calendar and said “well, give me SOME idea”.
Furnished with my preferred dates, he started punching my request into his keyboard before triumphantly spinning the monitor round to demonstrate just how ridiculous I was being.
“I can get you into Phuket on Thai International but you’ll have to transit via Bangkok.”
At this point I should point out that I hadn’t actually asked to go to Phuket, just that I wanted a week on the beach before heading north to Chiang Mai so the kids could experience some local culture. I wasn’t given any information about the destination, or alternative options, just the depressing news that I would have to transit via Bangkok again on the way north and on the way home — three visits to the Thai capital and still no offer of a potentially lucrative overnight stay.
I pressed on, asking for prices on accommodation, and was pleasantly surprised by the range of options presented to me, but disappointed to learn he had no brochures because “everyone wants to go to Phuket at that time, every other person you meet will be Australian”.
I wanted to scream “I don’t, but you haven’t actually given me any other choice”, but I kept my composure and asked if he could print out a list of hotels so I could research them on the internet instead.
“That’s what I’m trying to do, but it’s not working,” said my travel expert, before dialling the company’s IT helpdesk — on speakerphone — and forcing us both to listen to a recorded message informing us we were held in a queue and would be dealt with shortly.
To fill in the time, I asked if the hotel prices included transfers (they didn’t) and if it was still possible to rent houseboats in Chiang Mai as I’d done when I was backpacking there 16 years ago (he didn’t know, but Google furnished me with 13,300 answers in 0.24 seconds).
Eventually, we both got bored of waiting and I was told to come back in 10 minutes “after I’ve shouted at my IT department”. Needless to say, I didn’t bother.
So, here I am, back at my desk scouring the internet for options. I would happily have booked with an agent who could listen to my request, present me with a range of options that met my needs and demonstrate they knew more about my proposed trip than I did.
Sadly, this one — the shop manager no less — couldn’t. I’m sure there are plenty out there who could. I just haven’t got the energy left to find out.
This post originally appeared on Thumbrella, the site for everything under the travel and hospitality umbrella.