FLIGHT OR FIGHT? : Tried & Tested

In our monthly test of services, we find out if travel agents know thei r stuff or simply add to the holiday stress
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BOOKING a holiday is one of the biggest spending decisions many people will make this year. Travel agents should guide you through the quagmire of glossy brochures and the thicket of air fares to help you make the right choice. Can you be confide nt, though, that you are getting accurate advice - or is their knowledge sketchy and their choice of brochures limited, and are their recommendations biased by the commission from tour operators?

We visited seven agencies - five big chains and two independents - to see who gave the most useful advice and found the best deals. We asked them, first, to recommend a two-week package holiday on Crete in August for a couple travelling with an elderly relative who finds it difficult to get about. We asked for a quiet place, without too many stairs or a long walk to the beach. Second, we asked for the cheapest available flight to Sydney in the first week of February, regardless of the route or any stopovers.

In the week we visited, the three biggest chains, Lunn Poly, Going Places and Thomas Cook (which are linked to the giant tour operators Thomson, Airtours and First Choice Holidays respectively), and a fourth chain, Co-op Travelcare, were offering price cuts on package holidays which independent agencies would find almost impossible to match. Even though the chains claw back some money by insisting you buy their travel insurance, which can cost more than twice as much as other policies, you would

still make big savings. In theory at least, however, independent agencies and smaller chains can compete by providing more expertise or better service.

As for the package holiday, there was no sign from our admittedly small-scale experiment that independent agents do necessarily offer a better service. They scored far better on the flight, though, slicing £300-£400 off the prices quoted by the chains. Overall, while many agents were anxious to help, there was still too much doling out of standard "summer sun" brochures and brochures featuring mostly self-catering (ie, unsuitable) accommodation. Judging by our test, it seems that there's little substitute for doing the donkey work yourself to find the holiday you really want.

**Thomas Cook The package: "It's a question of looking through the brochures" was the assistant's unpromising response to my request. More helpfully, she told me about a Thomson's database which says whether hotels used by its group of tour operators aresuited to the "less than mobile". However, despite many attempts it proved an insuperable task to get the right page to appear on the computer screen. Thomson, which she rang for help, seemed to have no better idea how to get into its own database. Howev er, she phoned me at home later that day to tell me that according to the elusive database, the only suitable accommodation was in the form of apartments in the brochure for Skytours, another Thomson company.

The flight: the cheapest flight was Qantas, priced at £1,032.

Going Places The package: Scarcely glancing at a rack of specialist brochures on Greece, the agent picked out one for Inspirations, a company running a special promotion that week. Although he spent a long time looking for a suitable hotel in the brochure, I thought

I could be missing out on other options - in fact, Inspirations has only a very limited selection of holidays on Crete. The agent's recommendation, the New Alianthos Hotel at Plakias, would cost £1,953 for three people to stay for two weeks at half-board. This price would drop to £1,660 if I took advantage of the 15 per cent discount on offer. An alert bargain-hunter would find, however, that the identical holiday could be bought from Olympic Holidays, less discount, for only £1,409, saving £251. The ag ent didn't mention this.

The flight: After a lengthy process of trying several airlines (enlivened by the circulation among the staff of an embarrassing document found on the office photocopier) the agent could not find a flight costing less than about £950.

***Uniglobe Union Travel The package: The friendly assistant at this independent agency, one of a franchised chain, was refreshingly candid about the quality of Greek hotels and the accuracy (or otherwise) of brochures. She didn't seem very knowledgeableabout Crete, but scored

Brownie points for advising me to look up possible resorts in her (outdated) copy of the Agent's Gazetteer, a useful reference book which has unbiased reports on resorts and hotels. She also advised me that I could make a special request for a room on a low floor. I came away staggering under the weight of glossy brochures rather than with any clear holiday recommendation, but I would return to this agency because of its helpful and honest approach.

The flight: By this stage I was sceptical about getting a flight for much under £1,000. To my surprise, I was immediately offered a seat on Japan Air for £635 - a saving of £300 on the nearest price I'd been offered.

**Crouch End Travel Centre The package: I decided to try my local independent travel agency to see how it compared with the big players. Apart from showing me what to look out for in the brochures and giving me the by now familiar warning to avoid AghiosNikolaos, widely regarded as the Benidorm of Crete, the agent mostly left it up to me to find a suitable package. She did not offer, as other agents did, to ring the tour operator for more details, or look up other sources of information. But she did send me away with a brochure for Olympic Holidays, which had by far the widest choice of hotels on Crete of all the brochures I was given.

The flight: the agency came up trumps, finding a seat on Japan Airlines for £615, lowest price of all.

****Lunn Poly The package: Lunn Poly may be the biggest travel agency in the UK, but this agency had more of a personal touch than almost all I visited. The agent, after consulting a colleague who knew the island well, recommended the western side of Crete or a resort called Stalis, which she said was less hilly than most. She went through a good selection of brochures looking out likely places, and even rang Olympic Holidays to check whether her recommendation, the Amalthia Hotel in Chania, would be suitable for the elderly relative.

The flight: the agent found me a seat on Cathay Pacific for £935, the cheapest fare offered by offfered by any of the travel agency chains.

**Co-op Travelcare The package: At first, an agent simply gave me brochures to look through. After some prompting on my part, a more senior member of staff stepped in, reading out bits from the Agent's Gazetteer and recommending the Rethymnon Bay Hotel from Olympic Holidays at a cost of £1,767 for three, half-board, less 14 per cent discount. This price cut, as usual, was conditional on taking out the agency's insurance, but they did not have any information handy about how much the premiums were.

The flight: The lowest price was £1,021, with Singapore Airlines. The agent muttered that I might get a "consolidated fare" (spare tickets sold at a discount) at another agent but left me little the wiser about what this was or how to find one.

***American Express Travel Service The package: An immaculate performance: the agent knew about the Thomson's "less than mobile" database and, miraculously, was able to call it up, so that I could read the reports myself on the screen. She looked up resorts in the Agent's Gazetteer, she a sked what class of hotel I was looking for - the only agent to even hint at asking how much I wanted to spend. So I was hopeful that with her recommendation - a Thomson's holiday at the Hotel Orion in Rethymnon - my quest for the perfect package would be over. But when I later checked in the Agent's Gazetteer myself at another agency it described the Hotel Orion as "an unimpressive hotel in a noisy location".

The flight: The cheapest flight that this agency could come up with was on United Airlines, for £1,017.