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How dependable are travel agents, sites and web ads?

A bit of caution helps avoid problems later

Travel agents have mushroomed all over the world, ranging from international to very local. In India, they have grown exponentially in number and range of services in the last few years.

We keep getting reports about travel agents and tour operators sometimes not behaving ethically. There are associations of hoteliers, booking agents, airlines and other groups to streamline the system but deviations do occur.

There are reports that fraudsters often indulge in brandjacking [= to hijack brands] and phishing [= to create fake replicas of genuine sites] to dupe travelers. Instances of skimming of credit cards [= stealthily taking down vital details] of travelers are also very common. During Beijing Olympics, a number of visitors from the US, Australia and other places were duped by a ticket booking agency that disappeared after taking as much as $ 57,000 per person. A recent survey reported that internet-based travel frauds are on the rise in India but they have not yet become as common as in many developed countries.

Speaking of web-based service providing sites, these are often virtual avatars of well-organised, real business entities. It is natural to expect that the big ones with good brand-image and international network will provide better service and more options to an international traveler. But they will, for the same reasons, be more expensive. At the same time, none of them can guarantee full satisfaction to you.

The smaller ones, which are more important because they tend to provide more customized products and tend to be less expensive, have more chances of dissatisfactory service too. Even if they are honest in trying to give you the best deal, they might not be able to provide really good services if only because they are less organized and do not have resources beyond a point. Yet, it is also true that more and more travelers are now taking the services of small operators.

One [perhaps] smart way to make the best use of web services is to (i) get information about the intended destination from dependable information sites, (ii) look for good deals [long air travel, local travel, sight-seeing, hotel, etc] on travel portals or ‘aggregators’, (iii) take independent advice from sites, blogs or forums not connected with those portals, and (iv) go for a combination of best available bargains for different activities. Before settling a deal, see the fine details of free and paid services being offered and take the terms and conditions in writing.

Be cautioned when booking online [or otherwise] against the following:

(i) hidden costs and lack of transparency about costs, local facilities, etc;

(ii) seemingly exaggerated promises about facilities and services;

(iii) operator’s local agent at the destination not fulfilling the promises of different services, generally by citing various reasons such as sudden rush of traffic, broken communication links, breaking down of vehicle;

(iv) money being charged for advance booking of local exhibition tickets or such other peripheral facilitation;

(v) money being charged later for rise in fuel costs, and such other excuses;

(vi) outright duping by disappearing agencies, disappearing discounts, heavy ‘limited time’ offers ;

(vii) free or heavily discounted offers for air travel, packages, etc which are not being matched by other operators; unsolicited ‘complimentary’ offers;

(viii) online frauds associated with financial transactions such as using credit cards on unknown sites.

Advertisements, as by Google ad sense, are a great way to find current best deals offered by various operators. However, the caveat given above applies to them also.

We have given a list of sites, blogs and forums giving information / advice / booking and other services on India travel and tour at this India travel links blog, and also tried to give a rough indication of their dependability. We visit sites, forums, lenses, blogs and other interactive places on the web and use others’ experience to grade sites on this blog. In case, you know about a bad practice, do let us know.

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