TRAVEL / Travel Clinic: Buying a holiday

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The Independent Culture
THE TRAVEL industry is on tenterhooks right now, waiting for the results of an Office of Fair Trading (OFT) investigation into domination by the big tour operators. The large companies put together most of the 10 million or so package holidays sold each year and own the principal chains of travel agents. Is this, the OFT wants to know, working in the public interest? Are the high-street agents turning into holiday 'supermarkets' selling only a limited range of package holidays? Will smaller agents be forced out of business?

Perhaps the OFT is worrying unnecessarily. People who want a package to Spain or Greece are probably getting it more cheaply and more efficiently than ever before. And since there are still more than twice as many small independent travel agents on the high street as there are chains, the good ones are certain to survive. On top of all this there's another option. Travellers can always choose to cut out the middle-man and buy from the supplier. There's no great mystery to booking a holiday direct with a tour operator - in fact many of the best companies don't use travel agents anyway.

That's not to say that travel agents don't have their uses; they're just not always reliable. Long gone are the days when staff were trained for three months before they were allowed near a customer. The key thing for the customer is to know how to make the best of them. Here's what you need to know before crossing the travel agent's threshold:

No agent stocks more than a tiny proportion of all the brochures published. To get a full picture of what is available, the only option is to visit more than one shop.

Beware an agent who relies on showing you brochures. This is pure laziness. Brochures are little more than marketing puffs. There are much more reliable reference books giving independent accounts of hotels and resorts which all travel agents should have behind their desks.

Agents make their money from commissions based on a percentage of the price of the product - usually around 10 per cent. So bear in mind that a counter clerk making an enthusiastic recommendation of a particular operator may not have your best interests at heart.

Book with an Abta-bonded agent. When buying cheap flights, make sure the agent has an Atol licence number or can give written proof that it is an 'authorised agent' of an Atol licence holder. The Civil Aviation Authority publishes a free guidance leaflet on the Atol scheme. Tel: 071-832 6353.

If you have had a travel or holiday problem which would be of interest to other readers, please send brief details and a contact number to Independent on Sunday Travel Clinic, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB. We are unable to answer letters individually.