Not long ago, Randy Royer, the treasurer of Mesirow Financial Holdings, got caught in an ice storm in Portland, Ore. Because he had booked his trip online, he spent hours on the phone with airlines, trying to get back home to Chicago. In the end, he drove to Seattle (a two-hour trip that took six hours in the storm), where he hopped a red-eye to Washington D.C., and then another flight to Chicago. "When you're in a situation like that, calling someone who can look at options and work around the problem is really helpful," he says.
More business travelers are finding that out. Despite the popularity of online booking sites like Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity, travel agents are making a comeback. Glen Stewart, president of Gray's Travel Management in Northbrook, Ill., says more business travelers are skipping the mouse and picking up the phone to book their next trip. "In the past year and a half, we have noticed that more people want to talk to real people about their trips," he says. Gray's handles about 4,000 calls a month from booking customers.
For simple trips, online travel arrangements may still be the faster and cheaper way to go, but for more-complex trips, speaking to a person may be more cost effective. Agents can make sure customers pay the cheapest fares available, which sometimes means calling up an airline to get the best deal. They can also help travelers receive first-class upgrades if they are eligible, change itineraries without the extra fees that most online sites charge (especially during times of heightened security), and pinpoint the closest hotels. In addition, says Suzanne Fletcher, president of the National Business Travel Association, agents also quickly handle international faring. "It's a science," she says, "and they're pros at it."
Usually, travel agents are part of a larger travel-management program that gives employees access to an online site for booking simple trips and live travel agents if needed. Accessing agents can sometimes require an added fee of around $10, which most in-house travel managers are happy to approve if they think the agent can help save the traveler money by finding the cheapest way to go.