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A long time ago in a city far, far away (Hong Kong), I had a travel agent. Her name is Stella. At that time, most people in Hong Kong used travel agents, for the simple reason that they saved you money. They made the process of booking flights and accommodation easier. They got to know you a little bit, and if they saw something they thought you'd like, they called you – never email, sometimes fax, but usually by telephone. I miss Stella.

On Wednesday I went to a travel agent here in Beijing, just across the alley from our office. I've never used them before, and I went there specifically because booking the flight I wanted online (on Bangkok Air) proved to be slightly more complicated (long story) than I expected, and I had run out of time to buy it.

When I walked in, the two twentysomethings sitting at the counter tittered that a foreigner had arrived, something that always immediately endears me to service personnel. I told them what I wanted, a non-Beijing, non-China itinerary on a specific airline at a specific time. They first asked if I would consider Thai Airways because based on the posters around the travel agency, they do a lot of business for Thai. I said no because I needed to fly at a certain time and already knew the Thai flights were later in the day.

The young woman looked up the flight and the itinerary, and as I expected, said "oh, very expensive." I asked if the flight around noon was available, but she said sold out. I indicated that was fine, and that we should proceed with the two flights I had indicated.

She then had to ask her manager if she could issue a ticket for Bangkok Air, he said yes. I asked if I could use a debit card, she said cash would be better, so I left my passport information for her to enter while I went to the ATM. The price was, as I expected, even higher than what it would cost online, a charming feature of the travel agency process in China, that commissions come at least in part from what the customer pays.

The travel agent then had to call in the ticket to some other office, and ask them to authorize it. After 15 minutes, whomever she called called back and asked for the ticket number for my inbound flight to Thailand. I told them that was none of their business, that it has nothing to do with my purchasing another flight, and that I didn't have it handy anyway. Ultimately they accepted this answer.

An hour after this process began, it finally ended. I got my flight, it cost me more than I expected, and sadly it reminded me that any interaction I've had with a travel agency in China in the last five years has been just like this. I'm not entirely sure who travel agents are for; I guess there are quite a number of travelers who don't particularly know or care where they want to go, walk into the travel agency and ask what's cheap. The rest must be business travelers who aren't paying for their tickets anyway but need a fapiao for their trip. It just reminds me why I book all air travel directly with the airline I intend to fly: if the price is the same or better, there's no need to introduce a middleperson.

Photo: Wikimedia

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