Simon Calder: Middle men are best in moderation

The man who pays his way

Cutting in the middle man (or woman) always used to be the essential strategy for long-haul flying. It was as though airline executives thought, "Let's see who's wealthy enough or foolish enough to buy at our published prices, and then we'll discount the rest like mad – but only through agents."

To find a sensible fare you had to buy through specialist firms such as DialAFlight, Trailfinders or Travelbag, who routinely undercut prices charged direct by the airlines. Their edge has steadily eroded, and most carriers now sell direct to the public at the same fares as, or sometimes less than, the agents can charge.

Going through a middle man can still work a treat. Agents often have access to "IT fares" that the airlines supply in an under-the-counter fashion, for sale at low prices only if bundled with accommodation as an "inclusive tour". These are especially useful to evade the ridiculous fares that many airlines still charge for short trips to the US which don't include a Saturday night stay. Suppose you want to go to New York on Monday for three nights: even though Manhattan has some of the priciest hotels on the planet, booking a BA flight plus the Holiday Inn in a single transaction saves over £600 on the air fare alone.

This month, I thought £760 return to the west coast of the US, as offered by Icelandair, was an excellent fare. But it turned out to be £18 cheaper through the agent I ultimately bought the ticket through. And for anything more complicated than a simple there-and-back journey it is worth going through an agent, even if the cost is a few pounds more. You get professional guidance through the travel minefield, with advice on everything from passport validity to money-saving dodges.

Stelios Haji-Ioannou cut out the middle man in spectacular fashion when he founded easyJet in 1995: "I had no allegiances, I had no friends in that industry. I just said, 'This doesn't make sense, we will not do it'," he told me. The no-frills airline even considered a cartoon depicting Stelios driving a stake through the heart of a travel agent, with the slogan "At easyJet, we know how to deal with bloodsuckers". Today, the airline works cheerfully with the traditional travel trade.

Last weekend, however, the perils of the middle man were revealed to thousands of prospective guests at hotels across the world. At around the time I was boarding my flight home from Seattle, thousands of customers of Clever-hotels.com were being told that booking through the website had turned out not to be such a brilliant idea. The firm that owned the accommodation site, called Navelar, had gone bust, and many supposedly confirmed reservations had been cancelled. Customers had paid in good faith, but the money had not been passed on, and the bookings were void.

Most of the British travellers affected by the failure will ultimately get their money back through the financial provider whose cards they used. But finding, and funding, alternative rooms at short notice is proving costly and stressful for many travellers.

The collapse revealed the labyrinth of complexity that can stand between the weary traveller and a good night's sleep. Often, there is not merely a single middle man, but a tangle of interested parties taking slices of the action .

Angle on the tangle

Many of the victims of the Clever-hotels.com collapse had found the firm through the price-comparison site, Trivago. "We don't take any money from consumers," insists the firm, but it gets paid for each lead. Suppose a search on Trivago led you to Clever-hotels.com; you might imagine that the latter had deals with individual hotels, enabling it to offer the "best possible price" that it promised prior to checking out of the commercial world. Nothing of the sort: it sourced the rooms through various wholesalers, such as Hotelbeds.com. These intermediaries take a cut, of course. By the time the Chancellor (in the case of UK bookings) has helped himself to 20 per cent VAT, precious little remains for the hotelier.

The principle of bulk-buying – where the more you order, the lower the price – works well for baked beans. But for hotels, particularly individual, family-run properties, the extent of margins that are extracted before the guest reaches the reception desk are alarming.

I use search engines to get an idea of price levels, but I always then contact the hotel direct to see what it is offering; with the exception of one property (in Norwich, oddly), the quote has never been more than the many sites promising "the lowest prices" and has often proved less.

Worldwide webs

Many of our top travel companies are foreign, and we benefit from the most competitive travel industry in the world partly because of the UK's openness to overseas enterprises. Kuoni, the long-haul specialist, is Swiss – as are the owners of Monarch. BA's holding company is based in Madrid. And UK travellers have access to a web of worldwide offerings. But before you buy online through a company found via a price-comparison site, find out where it is based. Then form a judgement about the value the firm adds.

Clever-hotels.com was located in Hamburg, which does convince me of its expertise in helping UK guests find British hotels. While there is no suggestion that any other provider is in financial trouble, I won't consult Prestigia.com until I next visit the fine city of Casablanca, where it is based. And I shall leave Olotels.com slumbering undisturbed in its home city, Hong Kong.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Product Advisor - Automotive

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to the consistent growth of...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive - Automotive

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ou...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot