Grounded by the High Cost of Flying? Two Pinchpenny Travel Agents Are Taking the Air Out of Airfares
Rowland's fellow Farefinder, Joan Zane, 50, isn't quite so willing to knock the competition. "There really are a lot of diligent agents out there," she says. But she is equally convinced that cheap can be beautiful and that no one does it better than she and her partner, who have 24 years of travel agency experience between them. Her customers seem to agree. According to Rowland, Farefinders is averaging up to 300 calls a day from all over the country, and 80 percent of the callers buy tickets. "We're just inundated," says Zane, who has had to hire three additional full-time employees to handle the telephones. "The phone company asked us last month if there was something wrong with our WATS line. We had 2,000 unanswered calls we couldn't get to."
In fact, admits Zane, Farefinders doesn't do anything for travelers that travelers couldn't do for themselves—if they had the patience and know-how. Recently, for example, Rowland's mother back in Connecticut wanted to join her husband in El Paso, where he was on business. A travel agency quoted her a price of $609 round-trip, with a change of planes in Chicago. "I told her, That's crazy,' " says Tom. "I had her change planes in St. Louis instead of Chicago, and she got her ticket for $335. The travel agency just didn't look far enough."
Farefinders also prides itself on finding space on flights when other agencies can't. "We're known for clearing wait lists," boasts Rowland. "We had one guy who was going to Rome. His agent said, 'I can't get you on this flight.' He called us, and I worked on it for a week. Now everything is confirmed. No one else wants to take that extra time. They're just looking at a computer and saying, 'Well, it's sold out.' Let me check the computer every day, and if a seat opens up I'll grab it for you." What's more, says Zane, even checking once a day may not be enough. "You can pull up availability on that computer and the seats are sold out; pull it up a little later and someone may have canceled," she says. "It's just timing, really. We check the computers all day long to see what's cleared."
One thing Farefinders can't do is get tickets cheaper than the airlines are selling them. So customers are advised to buy early. "January and February are good times to buy airfares for the whole year," counsels Zane. "That's when the airlines are starving for business, and that's when the low fares start. This year they were nonrestrictive. You could have bought tickets for this summer or next Christmas at those prices. But all I hear from customers is, 'We'll wait another month.' Well, then it's too late. They end up paying a higher fare."
Sometimes, of course, bargain fares are no bargain at all. Rowland and Zane are wary of airlines that are reportedly in financial difficulties (Frontier is one they are watching closely at the moment), and they avoid those with a reputation for mistreating their passengers. "Like People Express," says Zane. "They overbook more than most. You have to check in your own baggage. People actually fight on line for a seat. It's difficult for older people or passengers with children." Rowland agrees. "They put about 450 people on their 747s," he says. "Most airlines seat around 375. About seven months ago they had an aircraft going from Newark to Oakland. They had a mechanical problem, so they put down in Denver. Then the passengers found that other airlines wouldn't honor their tickets. I don't want that to happen to one of my customers."
Zane says that several travel agents have offered to refer clients to Farefinders in return for a piece of the action. "I say no," says Zane. "Why should we do the work and split the commission with them?" A few, however, refuse to take no for an answer. They even pose as customers on the phone to see if Farefinders can find them a fare. "But they forget themselves," says Zane. "They use travel agent jargon that most people wouldn't use. Like they'll say, 'Going out on the oh-eight May,' whereas you would say, 'Leaving on May 8th.' It's a compliment in a way," she adds. "They're telling us that what we're doing is needed."