OK, so I’m trying to book my first flight to Asia and it’s – pick your metaphor: giving me a fit, making me crazy, pushing me over the edge, getting my knickers in a twist.  As I’m about to explain, this is no ordinary flight.  We are not just flying round trip to some major city like Bangkok or Seoul or Beijing.  We are flying into Luang Prabang, Laos, and out of Siem Reap, Cambodia.  Many of you, being as well-traveled as you are, have heard of, or even visited, these places.  That name recognition, however, does not make them easy or inexpensive to get to.  It will in all likelihood involve three different airlines and between three and four legs each way, not to mention more money than I’ve ever spent on airfare in my life.  Potentially a lot more.  As my colleague’s travel agent remarked, “It’s complicated.”

globe.jpg
It’ll take us 14 inches to reach our destination

After several weeks of obsessively checking Skyscanner, Google Flights, and other aggregators, as well as combing through the websites of all the major carriers I can think of, I’m still no closer to booking a flight than I was at the outset.  What’s worse, even though the trip is over half a year away, seats are starting to disappear!

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“Coach to India.  Only way to go.”           Source: Youtube

Eventually, you just gotta call in the pros.  Enter Karen, my new travel agent.  My last one, whom I rarely used anyway, retired.  More importantly, she was the one who messed up my name on my travel documents, which nearly prevented me from boarding my flight to Jamaica, the stress of which took three years off my life, so it was kind of unlikely I was going to utilize her services again.  What’s critical, though, is that Karen specializes in flights to Asia.

Karen has cleared up some myths, uncertainties, and long-held beliefs about air travel, and what kind of travel blogger would I be if I didn’t pass my new knowledge along to you?

What the husband always says: Travel Architect, you always book our international flights way too early and then get mad when the airline either a) changes the flight times, or b) changes it from a direct flight to one with a layover.  (He’s right.  I do get mad.  Especially with letter “b.”  It’s like I’ve purchased a Ferrari but they delivered a Ford Focus.  How is this not illegal?!?)

What Karen says: With international flights, earlier is always better.  They are not going to reduce their fares, except for maybe a month out.  Yes, there is always the chance of schedule changes, but there’s nothing you can do about that and it shouldn’t prevent you from booking early.  (Ahhh, sweet, sweet vindication.  Thank you Karen.)

My follow-up question:  Will they add more flights?

Karen’s response: No.  When they release their flight schedule, that’s pretty much it.  They are bound by terminal availability and such.  They don’t just create another flight because one booked up.

What my colleague told me: Wait until much closer to the date of departure for lower prices.

What Karen says: They might reduce fares a short time before the flight, but the seats may be bought up before you can book them.  And even if they aren’t, you will have fewer options as to your itinerary and seating (like, say, layovers that are way too short or way too long, sitting halfway across the plane from your travel partner, getting a window seat when you desperately want an aisle seat, and so on).

My original bright idea: OK, we’ll get into Bangkok or Hanoi at midnight, go to the closest possible hotel, spend the night, go back to the airport in the morning and take a local carrier to Laos.  Ditto on the return flight.

The reality: The second you leave the airport you will have to go through customs. (This may be no big deal, or it may be a huge hassle… who’s to say?  I’ve been an unwilling participant in an hour-long customs/immigration line before.  Never a fun time, this sounds particularly objectionable after 23 hours of travel and very little sleep.)  You will also have to go through the whole security mumbo-jumbo again the next day.  (Again, may or may not be a massive headache.  Oh, who am I kidding?  Of course it will be a massive headache!)  In addition, in some places (like Hanoi), the minute I leave that airport I have to have a visa.  Even if I’m just going to sleep toss and turn at a hotel.  For one night.

Karen’s bright idea: Many airports have lounges to which you can purchase access that will make overnighting it, if not exactly comfortable, at least not as bad as trying to sleep in a hard plastic chair at what you think is tomorrow’s departure gate, snaking your limbs awkwardly through straps and handles in an attempt to thwart opportunistic luggage-thieves.

Karen’s even brighter idea: Some airports have “transit hotels,” which means you don’t exit the international area of the airport to go to the hotel.

What used to be my experience: “Oh my God!  The flight I just looked up this morning has disappeared!!”  (Or an equally ugly experience: “Oh my God, the flight I just looked at this morning is $1000 more expensive!!!!”)  Then you check from a different computer and everything is back the way it was.  Order is restored, but you’re certain you must be going crazy.

What I now know to be true: Cookies.  Evil, evil cookies.  Not the delicious, caloric, good-for-dunking kind, but the insidious kind airlines (and everyone else) put on your computer so that when you return to their website, they know it and they have nice, jacked up fares waiting just for you.  (Although I don’t see how it benefits them to make the flight simply not show up on the screen, other than to make you panic and buy something impetuously, perhaps.)  Once again, how is this not illegal?!?

My recent experience: Am I seeing cross-eyed, or do some flights have business class seats that are hundreds of dollars cheaper than “premium select economy” seats?

Karen’s response: There’s nothing wrong with your vision.  Business class is kind of its own thing.  It isn’t tied to anything else.  “Economy Comfort,” “Premium Select,” and other variations on the coach class, however, are tied to something.  They are tied to the coach seat prices.  In general, the higher the coach seats, the higher the “EC” or “PS” seats are going to be.

My reaction: Find us some nice, cheap business class seats, please!!

Other things I learned:

  • Karen pointed out that part of the value of travel agents, in addition to taking away the hassle of researching your own flights (me: What hassle?  I love this stuff… when it isn’t driving me crazy!) and sometimes having access to unpublished fares, is that they can help a traveler out of a jam.  But what I know to be true from my own experience the the Jamaica snafu I linked above, is that a travel agent is only as good as her business hours.  If the agency isn’t open (evenings, weekends, early morning) when you are experiencing your jam, you are on your own.  Timing matters.
  • Travel agents can move at a glacial pace.  Every time Karen researched a possible flight, she had to submit it to the “fares desk” to get pricing, which took ages.  At one point, after we had been working on these flights for well over a week, she emailed me to report her discovery that our entire itinerary could not be on one ticket – that we’d have to have two separate bookings to arrive at our destination.  Pulling my hair out, I yelled at the computer, “Karen, I could have told you that weeks ago!!!”
  • The fares and flights they generate aren’t always better than what you can find yourself with thorough research.  Some of the itineraries she sent over were awful.  Too many legs.  Too many non-partner airline flights (meaning collecting luggage on layovers and rechecking with a different airline, requiring a pass through security again).  Also, several “coach class” seats were as expensive as upgraded seats I found on my own on airline websites.
  • Waiting costs money.  In the short amount of time (that felt like ages) that I was working with Karen, the 2-3 flights I had been most interested in rose in price significantly.  Once again, timing matters.
  • Trust yourself, Travel Architect.  You can do this on your own.  No, it’s not as straightforward as booking flights to Europe, but you should trust your own instincts.  Lesson learned.  Expensive lesson learned.

 

26 thoughts

    1. Definitely considered it and would absolutely do it if we were going during our long summer break, but we are going over our Christmas break and are really hemmed in by the school schedule and the measly few personal days we get each year. Also, I would actually rather do this tour in summer, but it’s only offered Nov-Feb due to weather conditions in SE Asia. It’s a cycling, hiking, kayaking trip. In future, though, all trips to Asia will begin the summer!!! 😊 Thanks for the suggestion.

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    2. I just reread your comment and realized what you were offering. (It’s early and I had poor sleep due to travel planning stress.) Dang! I will definitely look you up when we someday do Thailand properly!

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  1. The lesson you’ve learned in this process will serve you well as you traverse the globe and your life. I’d go so far as to suggest that you keep it in mind when you become a homeowner staring down a big reno project. Different than travel arrangements, but exactly the same. [I think I’ve created a Buddhist koan there.]

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  2. Oh my gosh! Now you know, and now WE know. I’m like you, I actually enjoy the research and booking process. Same with accommodations. I feel like it’s one of those, “if you want it done right, do it yourself” sort of things. Well, if you’re half decent at the process (which you sound like a pro). That way if something goes wrong, you can be upset with yourself instead of someone else which always seems worse…right? To me anyhow…Also….”…not the delicious, caloric, good-for-dunking kind…” Haha!!

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    1. We are a lot alike. Totally agree with everything you said. I’m never going to be able to hand it over to a travel agent and then sit back and wait for the results. I will also be doing tons of research on my end, and I think this causes problems. (Too many cooks…)

      And I apologize to you, Jewel. I know you’ve been waiting for the Seattle sightseeing post. It was meant to be written and published this weekend, but all this stuff happened with the travel agent and the Asia flights and this post just came spewing out of my fingertips and onto the keyboard. My goal: Seattle sightseeing for next weekend. 🙂

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  3. THAT’S what cookies can do?? Horribly sneaky and, yes, it should be illegal. Flying is such a hassle, but faster than driving, or traveling in a covered wagon. Gratitude, folks!
    I always use a travel agent when going overseas which, admittedly, isn’t often. Remember when you recommended that certain hotel in Paris? Our travel agent found that that particular hotel was not tied/linked to our Delta flight package, and if I insisted on using your hotel it would’ve cost us an additional $1,000. I did not insist, and we had a great time anyway.
    Suggestions: 1.) Use your considerable intelligent & humorous writing talents to fold your travel blog posts into a bestselling book (a la J. K. Rowling), make millions, then you can travel any time of year cuz you can write anywhere, right? 2.) Become a travel agent; you’ve got experience and…you get to travel! 3.) Retire early. Well, maybe check with your financial planner first.
    Cheers, and thank you for another enjoyable post.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words! Yes, I certainly won’t be driving to SE Asia! Ha ha! As for making millions on a best-selling book, should I assume you’ll be asking for a cut? 😉 Part of me thinks it would be fun to be a travel agent, but I’ve become very accustomed to the long summer breaks that teaching affords me. Plus, who’s going to teach the young’uns to use the -ly adverbs that are being so carelessly neglected these days?!? Retire early? Yes, please! The young’uns’ll figure it out!

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  4. I’ve always wondered why people use travel agents when there’s so much information online nowadays, and doing the research and planning is part of the fun in traveling! You can totally do this yourself and will probably save quite a few dollars too 🙂

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  5. Ooo – I think we are so alike, it is scary!! 😉 My approach is to do all the research on Skyscanner, then check out what I can get direct from my prioritised airlines, and then go to the travel agent to see if they can better it! Most of the time the agent can better what I have found, but at least I know what times etc I want to travel. Just talking about it makes me want to go book a trip! Thanks for the post! Mel

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  6. Thank you for this post!!! I’ve never used a travel agent and I’ve always kind of wondered about them. When we went to Madagascar, Uganda, Tanzania and Zanzibar years ago, I did all of it myself but I think things were simpler then. Can I ask where you found Karen the travel agent? How did you choose her? Is she part of an agency or independent? Does that make any difference?

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    1. You’re welcome. I’m so glad you found it useful. To find Karen, who does work for an agency, I basically did a Google search using terms like my city + travel agent + asia. She’s mostly a business/corporate travel agent, as far as I can tell. I have no idea if being part of an agency is a pro or a con. In the end, we didn’t use her services because it was simply taking too long. Everything went from me to her to the fares desk, back to her, then back to me. Too many middle men.

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  7. Absolutely amazing post! I am going to pass this on to a family member who is traveling there this fall. She is going thru some of the same emotions you went thru.

    This should be required reading for everyone traveling to Luang Prabang and/or Siem Reap.

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