I'll never forget my last trip to China when my dad booked a tour package and we got scammed into buying $100 tea leaves. At one of the stops, a Chinese guy donning a Sikh costume came out, did one of those armituofuo bows, and introduced himself as the boss of the tea merchant. After sharing his touching story of how he lost his loved ones and found peace in yoga and tea, my parents had caved into buying those overpriced cans of leaves.
But just after we'd turned to leave, I caught an evil smirk on his face. It's precisely for this reason (and because of the proliferation of online sites) that many of us stay away from travel agents these days. But are travel agents always bad news for our wallet? Here's some things you should consider the next time you're planning to approach Chan Brothers/ any online travel sites:
These days, activity apps such as Klook can get you discounted early bird rates for attraction passes, day tours, and even miscellaneous rentals on costumes and sim cards. Airbnb also offers various interesting activities under their "experiences" tab. From kooky activities like learning about spying for $25, to the downright exciting ones like learning acrobatic stunts from a body double for $125…You'll get to pick and choose activities you'd want to experience. Of course, since you're going alacarte, these activities might add up to more than what you would pay if you took a tour with set activities.
If you're travelling with a big group and/or you're not particularly fussy with what you do on your holiday, going with a simple tour can actually help you get more mileage. Since travel agents might get special package rates for priority passes to tourist attractions, and packages are usually all-inclusive. If you're going on a guided tour, you'll even get to save on miscellaneous things like travel (if you're stingier with the tips) and food… Just don't expect your meals to be tip-top quality lah…
So really, it's just a matter of how much you value doing the things you enjoy doing (or at least, how much the people you're travelling with, do). And how much flexibility you want in your itinerary.
Flights aren't always cheaper if you book them yourselves. If you consider the many miscellaneous charges budget airlines charge, some fares could total up to being few hundreds more than their original listed price. So if you're someone who really needs the additional comfort and perks, travel agencies could offer you better priced tickets from other airlines. This is especially so if you had a special situation such as last minute travel plans. You might just score more-than-reasonably priced tickets by checking if a travel agency has tickets to clear.
That being said, online sites like Skyscanner allow you to monitor prices and get alerts when they change, and also choose flight timings that might suit your schedule better. So if you want to be a bit more rigid as to when you fly, doing it on your own might be a better idea.
While purchases via online agent sites like Expedia and Agoda allow you savings through specific discounts (some sites offer last minute deals), you're actually really saving on accountability. Because there're more parties involved (you know, the travel site, airline), many people have experienced a lot of finger pointing whenever their hotel reservations were not properly processed… Which happens more often than you would think.
Blame gets thrown here and there, and the hotel directs you to your travel agent instead of offering any remedy/ reparation for the situation.
Why? Because online travel agents can earn up to 20 per cent on commissions for such bookings. And of course, when it comes to customers that book directly with the hotel and those that book through a third party, hotels would prioritise and focus more on satisfying their direct customers.
This also means your room preferences and all other benefits of staying at the hotel takes a backseat for those who book directly. For example, better rooms will always be prioritised for direct bookers and your room preferences/ special requests will only be considered based on the front desk's discretion and availability.
Hence, you'll want to consider if you're willing to take the risk in favour of saving on your hotel reservation. If your hotel has a "best rate guarantee", they'll be able to match a lower price you've found elsewhere or refund you the difference. Some hotels might even throw in added perks like vouchers and discount codes. So you might save even more booking your hotel direct.
Ultimately, it all boils down to what makes you happy as a traveller. I personally am a stickler for making full use of my holidays. And to me, having a guided tour of set activities is not my idea of maximum enjoyment. It's not a cost effective option to me. I'd rather pay a little more booking my flights myself, and arranging my activities. But that might be different for you.