Get a deal from your agent

John Frenaye

On many islands of the Caribbean and in Mexico, shopkeepers believe that it is good luck to do whatever it takes to make that first sale of the day — including giving their merchandise away. But unless your travel agent is running a branch in Jamaica, there is a good chance that he’s not a believer.

Today’s traveler wants the best deal and the cheapest price — two mutually exclusive terms. You may even know the “cheapest price” from your online sleuthing, but just how do you browbeat your travel agent into meeting or beating it?

Chances are you won’t. But you might. Here are seven ways to go about getting the best deal from your travel counselor.

Be subtle. Don’t ask for a rebate or discount immediately. This pegs you as a fly-by-night customer — the one-night stand of the travel industry. We are looking for a relationship and loyalty and to be honest, the one-night stand is not something we advocate. When you come in and ask for a discount up front, we know that your loyalty lies with the lowest bidder. There is a saying in the construction business: the low bidder is low for a reason.

Be honest with us. If you have already purchased online or elsewhere, let us know. We realize that you may be second-guessing your decision, but if you are up front, an agent will be glad to offer some tips on making your trip more enjoyable — we may even earn a shot for your travel the next time around. If you are not honest, and we figure it out, you will receive the dreaded database label of “time waster.” (Yes, we have a list.)

Be picky. Ask who they work with. Your travel agent will always be a bigger customer to the travel supplier than you can ever hope to be. In today’s environment, everyone is looking for the elusive competitive edge. There are suppliers out there that can pool this buying power to make your agent an even bigger fish in the travel pond.

Be flexible. Great rewards will come to those who can bend a little here and there. There is a world of difference in pricing between shoulder season and high season in Europe. Hotels work like the airlines (only a little better in my opinion) in managing their sales. It is called yield management and their pricing is based on a prediction of how many guests will be in a hotel at any given time. But like all predictions, sometimes they fall short. Enter the travel agent, with reduced rates and special amenities for customers — hotels, cruise lines, airlines, and tour operators know that agencies still sell almost 70 percent of all travel and we can get the job done.

Be gregarious. Travel with a group. You don’t need to know these folks, you don’t need to hang out with them, you just want to piggyback on their pricing. When an agency handles a group, there is usually some extra space available. The travel suppliers will heavily discount a trip, based on the promise of selling a predetermined number of spots. To give you an idea of the savings you could expect, we had group space on a Royal Caribbean ship for five nights to Bermuda that sold for $950 per person. Six weeks before sailing, the cruise line was selling an equivalent cabin for $1,750 per person.

Be a freeloader. So you have decided you want something for nothing. Believe it or not, there may be a free lunch. You already know about groups and the savings they offer. You are probably a member of a group yourself. Why not organize a trip? Are you a member of a church, a school PTA, a gardening club? These types of groups love to travel together and if you are the one to organize it, you probably score a free trip. Typically, a travel supplier will allow one complimentary space for as little as ten people. So with a little effort and some help from your travel agent, you could be winging your way to some exotic locale in no time flat. Oh, did your Web site forget to mention that?

OK, if you must — ask for it. My mother always told me that it never hurts to ask. But, I would recommend that you have proven yourself to be a loyal client first. Our loyal clients are routinely rewarded with gifts such as limousine transfers, a pre-departure hotel night at the airport, wine, or a shipboard or resort credit. If asked, would we do a rebate or discount? Sure, but that would be on your next trip.

Since we are discussing my mom’s “motherisms,” she also told me that there is more than one way to skin a cat. Certainly when it comes to travel, you want the best deal at the lowest cost and these seven strategies should help you on your way to achieving both.

John Frenaye is the president of JVE Group, Inc., a diversified company based in Annapolis, Md. With a background in business management, he writes about the travel industry as an insider with an outsider's perspective.

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