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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
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: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee