Lots of professions have fallen to the sword of technology. I, for one, would vote to restore travel agents to their former place in the food chain. Travel agents may stand alone in things the Internet didn't improve.
Back in the days of the dinosaur, if you wanted to take a trip you would pick up your rotary dial phone and call a travel agent. You might even go into the agent's office and look at brochures from hotels. The travel agent would book your flights for you -- including giving you a seat assignment and boarding pass -- recommend hotels that she had actually visited, and help you plan out your daily itinerary if you wanted. The agent would mail you your travel documents and check in with you after your trip to see how things went.
It was a service-based industry that few valued until it disappeared. It never even cost the customer a (direct) dime. Travel agents were paid commissions from the airlines and hotels. I suspect they didn't earn very much and many agents did it for the discounted travel perks they got and the ability to see the world for a fraction of the cost for the rest of us. Every agent I ever used had a passion for traveling and would get as excited as I was about my trips.
Yep, it was a swell system and the Internet swallowed it whole. When it spit out the bones, all that was left of travel agents were the ones who handle luxury travel and charge clients a fee and those who sell bulk packages to you when you call their toll-free number. I tried using one of those agents once -- they live half a world away and have never traveled to the places they "sell" trips to. I remember telling the agent that the Kauai hotel she wanted to put me in was undergoing major remodeling construction -- something I knew from the hotel website -- and having her tell me that there were no notes to that effect in her system for any hotel in Ka-WOO-yee. The island is pronounced Ka-WHY-ee.
Travel agents -- at least the good ones -- know the product they are selling. They know the area, the hotels, what there is to do there, who goes there, what the vibe is. They are more than just booking you a trip, they are providing knowledge about where you want to go. It has value.
While the Internet has made shopping online a breeze, it's just made vacation-planning harder. The reason is the volume of information out there about travel is daunting and unweighted: How do you assess a website when there are so many "helpful" sites with conflicting information. One site gives me fares without taxes and fees; another includes the taxes and fees. One site shows me a great price for a package deal but when I scrutinize the package I realize I'm taking three flights to get there and losing a day at each end of my vacation traveling. I find a hotel that seems perfect until I am disabused of that notion by Tripadvisor.com reviews.
It takes hours and hours and hours of my time. When I had a travel agent doing this legwork, I could sit back and pore over guidebooks and learn about the places I would be seeing. Now, I just get bleary-eyed in front of the computer and spin my wheels. And I never lose sight of the fact that travel is the one big ticket item that you can't return and get your money back if you don't like what you bought.
I want to simplify things. I want the Internet to simplify things for me. But what I really want is a human being. Now if the Internet could just get me one.