'With my eight-week-old baby in a sling around my neck, and my four-year-old in tow, I set off to the local travel agency to book a holiday over Christmas,' writes Jean Robinson, of Sale, near Manchester. 'First of all, I asked the impossible: 'I, my husband and these two want to go away, probably for a week, over Christmas. Where should we go?'
'Apparently, that's not the sort of question a person should ask a travel agent, so I said (echoing my four-year-old), 'What about Euro Disney?'
' 'Oooh] You don't want to go there, oooh, it's ever so dear,' was the reaction of our local agent and Lunn Poly and Thomas Cook. At least T Cook said: 'Well, there's probably nothing available anyway,' and checked. They'd asked me when we wanted to go ('23rd?' I said, desperately). Well, they only had departures on the 21st . . . so much for flexibility.'
Mrs Robinson returned home and decided to let her fingers do the walking. 'One bright spark I phoned suggested we go to Florida. 'OK. Fine. Good idea,' I said, but then the 'oohs' started again about how dreadfully expensive it is at Christmas and why didn't we wait until the summer? Feeling seriously teed off - why didn't anyone ask why I wanted to go away at this time? - I called the Euro Disney 'hot-line'. Eventually I got the operator to connect me and they promised to send a brochure. I'm still waiting. We're staying home.'
Mrs Robinson exclaims: 'Surely travel agents have some sales training?'
Chris Bailey, of Bailey's Travel in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire ('UK Independent Travel Agent of the Year 1992', according to Travel Weekly) says I should have realised that 'there are holiday shops and there are travel agents.
'At a holiday shop the client will be expected to pick a brochure off the shelf, work out for himself exactly what he wants, then present the chosen package to the (usually) young, inexperienced member of staff. They will then book your holiday, give most of the profit away in discounts of one sort of another (quite appropriately, since you have done most of the work for them), then take your money.'
Buying a holiday from a real travel agent, Mr Bailey says, is like going to a wine merchant instead of a supermarket for a bottle of wine. 'It may cost a little more, but you should end up with the right thing at the right price, rather than something that may or may not be remotely suitable.'
Mr Bailey is happy to sit and chat about people's holidays over a cup of coffee or tea. 'We may not try to sell you anything first time around, but you'll get to know us a little, and we start to get a feel for what you want.'
Philip Davies, of the Real Holidays travel agency in Essex Road, north London, writes to me - at length - in the style of a travel agent helping a client to organise a walking holiday in the Himalayas. 'You say there would be four of you . . . in that case I would suggest a fairly simple itinerary centred on a five-night stay at the Lakshmi Lodge in the Annapurna Sanctuary from which you can take day treks and short walks, and enjoy being in a community in the mountains, etc . . .'
Mr Davies, who admits he took the name of his company from The Independent Guide to Real Holidays, emphasises that selling specialist holidays and independent arrangements involves extra work, 'and doesn't secure anything like the revenue you referred to'.
Jack Potter of Uckfield, East Sussex, suggests that the way to find out about specialist holidays is to look in specialist magazines. 'For walking holidays in the Himalayas, any outdoor pursuits magazine will provide no shortage of firms only too willing to set you on the trail.
'These are specialised walking operators. Many of them are small and, in my 10 years' or so experience of Himalayan walking, I have found most of them have a genuine concern for the client, and the environment in which the client will trek. Small can be beautiful.'
Agents do not keep these specialist brochures for two reasons, he says. First, because such holidays require direct contact between client and operator, especially for first-timers, to discuss which trek to take, how strenuous it is, and what gear and medicines are required. Many operators hold weekends in the British hills that enable the clients, usually parties of less than 10, to meet each other and the trek leader.
Second, he says, most of these holidays cost considerably less than the pounds 2,000 quoted by Asia Voyages. Many offer reductions for previous clients or for a party of four or more booking together. 'There would seem to be no place for a travel agent's margin of up to 15 per cent,' Mr Potter says.
David Turvey writes from Bath (where our mini-survey of agents was conducted) to say that 'all the bad apples in the barrel should not be allowed to tarnish the reputation of the few faultless pippins that do exist'. One of these 'pippins' turns out to be Apple Travel of Kingsmead Square, Bath.
'They have spent time helping me out of sticky situations,' Mr Turvey says, 'and saved me money, even though I have never spent more than a few hundred pounds. They even sent me a card to congratulate me on the birth of my son. Such service these days does not deserve to go unnoticed.'
As an afterthought, he says: 'What about doing a brief article on rude and arrogant customers at the travel agent? I have witnessed some real prats while waiting to be served.'
All tales of rude and arrogant customers gratefully accepted . . .
The relaunched Real Holidays guide, now retitled The Independent Guide to Good Holidays (available from 11 January) has information on operators who offer walking holidays in the Himalayas as well as hundreds of other travel ideas.Reuse content