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Travel Agents: The Basics of Travel Technology
 
 
Travel Agents: The Basics of Travel Technology
Have you wondered how hotels, rail, bus, and airline services are rated? These are also questions you may be required to answer as a travel agent. Understanding the basics of rating systems and what they can mean to your traveling clients is the difference between offering adequate and superlative customer service. You may also generate useful and timely information for your clients by utilizing a variety of resources, including customer feedback, making telephone calls, and speaking with press agents and liaisons.
Word of Mouth
This article discusses the basics of some of this "travel technology," which may often be had at the click of a mouse, but which may also provide confusing or conflicting information to consumers. So what is travel technology all about? Ratings services are helpful in judging the quality of accommodations, dining and entertainment options, and modes of transportation. Hotel and restaurant services that are rated by both professional organizations and your neighbor Joe down the street, provide today's consumers the most useful bit of travel technology that most of us can tap on our own – and it's available on the Internet.

But despite the popularity of the Internet, old-fashioned word-of-mouth is the basic foundation of many popular rating systems that offer consumers guidelines on the quality of their travel accommodations, whether those accommodations are airline travel, hotel accommodations, restaurants, or entertainment.

Ratings are extremely important in the travel industry and are designed to generate business, customers, and positive feedback. Ratings may be used to define everything from the smell of your hotel room, to the amenities provided in the bathroom. Ratings are available for world-class resorts, local motels, restaurants, campgrounds, and various entertainments and attractions.

Because many ratings are based on feedback produced by customers, travelers, "mystery shoppers," and professional quality assurance inspectors -- like those provided by the AAA or Michelin -- we can definitely say that personal feedback and word-of-mouth continues to be one of the most reliable methods of rating still utilized in the 21st century.
Internet Rating Systems
The AAA, Mobile travel guides and Michelin travel guides have developed the most traditional forms of rating guidelines. These days, Fodor's and other internationally known publishers also offer various rating designations for domestic and international destination hotels, restaurants, ground transportation systems, and so forth. As a matter of fact, ratings systems can be found for just about every mode of travel, from horseback rides and scenic drives, to Amtrak routes, bus routes, and all the restaurants, hotels, motels, landmarks, and points of interest found along the way.

For example, the star ratings defined by the AAA range from one diamond to five diamonds. Briefly, a one-diamond rating was basically meant to define the accommodations that provided essential but "no-frills accommodations" - meaning a basically clean, comfortable, and hospitable accommodation.

A 5-diamond rating defines luxury and sophistication. Such ratings judge first-class service, expectations, and impeccable standards of excellence. Also included in such considerations are the number and quality of amenities, as well as personalized services offered by a hotel or facility.

Most properties found domestically and abroad generally ranged between the 3- and 4-diamond ratings. These ratings take into consideration the appearance and appeal of hotel rooms, restaurant menus, and amenities.

Campground ratings range between a 1 and a 3. Campgrounds rated with a 1 designate rustic and limited facilities -- such as bathrooms and showers -- while those rated with a 3 offer recreational options, a variety of general service facilities, such as laundry rooms, showers, bathrooms, and even a grocery store or nightly movies.

However, most travel providers found on the Internet, as well as hotels themselves, have created a mishmash of ratings that often cause confusion among consumers. The most popular travel-rated websites used today -- Travelocity, Hotwire, Expedia, Sidestep, Orbitz, Priceline.com, and Hotels.com -- offer their own renditions of different rating systems.

Check out these statistics of ratings offered to the Hilton Hotel at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. Expedia rated the hotel as a 3, as did Travelocity, Orbitz, and AAA. However, Priceline, Hotwire and Travelweb all gave the Hilton Chicago O'Hare Airport hotel a 4-star rating. What gives?

Obviously, criteria for a 4-star hotel ranking differ between service providers. For example, AAA will offer a 4-star hotel ranking only if the establishment offers increasingly stylish and refined accommodations. The level of quality, amenities, and exquisite attention to detail, service, and hospitality are also measured.

However, Priceline.com will offer a 4-star rating to a hotel that offers remote control TV with premium channels, radio alarm clock, telephone with voice mail, fitness center access, a hair dryer, an iron and ironing board, room service, a concierge, and 24-hour service at the front desk.

In addition, many online travel services use different ratings to base how their hotel ranks in the hierarchy. For example, Travelocity.com uses AAA guidelines to designate its hotel ranks, while Travelweb.com uses rankings and ratings from its owner, Priceline.com.
Airline Ratings
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Official World Airline star ratings are available through a system called Skytrax, developed in the year 2000. Skytrax is a quality analysis system that ranks airlines according to various service standards, professional evaluations by airline audit specialists, and products offered by various airlines.

Skytrax offers ratings from 1 to 5 stars, and also includes ratings for low-cost airlines, unclassified airlines, and quality certified airlines. Star rankings are offered by examining more than 800 different areas of criteria, service delivery, and product for each airline that subscribes to the World Airline Star Program.

A 5-star rating by Skytrax recognizes a specific airline for excellence in service delivery and product, and is often judged by its ability to set trends that are followed by other airline carriers. Ratings are also developed and offered for staff service delivery for in-flight and airport environments. Most star rating categories of airline carriers belong to the 3-, 4-, or 5-star rating categories.

An airline that is rated with a 2 is considered to offer poor quality performance and inconsistent standards of staff service delivery, both on board and in airport environments. Airlines ranked with 1 star are signified as providing very poor standards of product with poor or inconsistent standards of staff service delivery. Unclassified airline categories may include a "no ranking" or a "ranking suspended" classification.
Travel Agent Guidelines
A travel agent offering recommendations on any type of travel accommodations, transportation, or restaurants should be well-versed in the different ratings and rankings that are offered not only through online websites, but printed guidelines offered by traditional sources, including AAA, Michelin, Fodor's, and Mobile.

The travel agent should be able to explain to clients the various aspects involved in ranking or rating, if asked, and should always err on the side of caution when recommending accommodations or restaurants by getting on the phone and making contact with such establishments to ask specific and direct questions.

Whether your customers want to travel by rail, car, or air, the hotel agent is obligated to understand how each of these systems are ranked, utilizing online and well as print technology to determine the quality of each establishment that will suit the client's needs, expectations, and budget.

The travel agent should spend enough time researching such rankings and ratings to be able to offer clients the amenities, or lack thereof, that the customer wishes. It is the travel agent's responsibility to make sure the client is not paying exorbitant prices for lackluster accommodations. In some cases, it is often necessary for travel agents to do quite a bit of traveling themselves to determine the quality and services provided.
Conclusion
We're not suggesting that you, as a travel agent, are required to experiment with every mode of travel, or visit every hotel, restaurant, or campground that may attract your clients, but that he or she takes the time to perform adequate and thorough research in order to offer customers more than just a guess regarding their ultimate destinations.

Utilizing a combination of print and Internet research, an experienced travel agent will soon become familiar with how various services and amenities are rated. Once the travel agent is comfortable with the word-of-mouth, feedback, and ratings of popular destination services, he or she must then focus attention on acquiring reservations for every aspect of travel, from mode of transportation, to hotel accommodations, sightseeing tours, or activities and dining recommendations.
Using Computer Reservations Systems
Introduction
In the old days, all a travel agent could do to make reservations was spend a great deal of his or her time on the telephone -- calling airlines, hotels, restaurants, and tourist destinations for information regarding pricing and reservation confirmation. A travel agent had to spend possibly thousands of dollars to subscribe to travel agent reference directories. Today however, travel agents are able to utilize a number of computerized reservations systems. Understanding the development and capabilities of computerized reservation systems helps today's travel agents provide the best and most efficient reservation services for their clients.

Today's CRS

What is a computerized reservation system? These are defined as computer systems that allow real-time access to schedules, airline travel fares, booking reservations, ticketing options and seating availability, and more. The computerized reservation system is also called a global distribution system (GDS).

In the early years of the new century, the United States Department of Transportation suggested revising the regulations that govern the use of computer reservation systems in order to help meet the changes of online access, as well as airline ownership, distribution, and use.

The most popular computer reservation systems used in the United States include:

  • Amadeus
  • Sabre
  • Galileo
  • Worldspan

Delta Airlines, Northwest, and TWA founded Worldspan in 1990. It provided global travel information via electronic distribution on the Internet. Worldspan offers its database to home-based travel agents by remote access and provides a variety of reservation products. Agents are able to offer clients real-time reservations interface and booking engine options from their website.

Sabre used to be owned by American Airlines and is widely used by travel agents using conventional dial-up, as well as Internet access, for both agency and home-based travel agents.

Galileo International offers a variety of products for the travel industry much like Worldspan and Sabre, and also offers access to tour and cruise operator booking engines.

Amadeus has been operating since 1992 and is co-owned by both private airlines -- including Air France, Lufthansa, and Iberia -- as well as public stockholders. Amadeus is a popular international travel agency database that offers Internet-based reservation systems for home-based travel agents, as well as automation projects and features used by agents around the world.

Most travel agents rely on at least one of these services, and often utilize a combination to provide clients with access to detailed flight information and options. Indeed, major airlines have increased their online selling options, which generate and offer travel agents constant competition for services. As a matter of fact, Sabre and Galileo are no longer controlled by any one airline system, though a large number of Internet distribution systems for airline travel depend on the CRS for reliable, up-to-date information.

For example, five large airline carriers created Orbitz, one of the most popular travel websites used by consumers today. It is certainly not the first, and won't be the last, to utilize the broad range, ease of access, and efficiency of the Internet. Guidelines and rules regarding computer reservation systems are constantly changing and require travel agents to stay-up-to date on regulations, guidelines, and terms of service and use.
Computer Reservation System Training
As mentioned previously, for major providers are vendors that comprise the computer reservations system. Sabre, Galileo, (also known as Apollo), Worldspan and Amadeus are designed to provide database access on travel accommodations. Today, most travel agencies use these vendors for reservations, but because of the wide popularity and growth of the Internet, many suppliers, products, and services are also offered from inside Internet web-based booking engines.

There is a difference between using the CRS and a web-based booking engine. The CRS requires understanding and training in its keyboard-driven formats for efficient operation and results. Web-based booking engines are user-friendly and utilize a "point and click" function.

Many travel agent training centers offer training in various aspects of the computer reservation system, including the most popular Sabre and Galileo (Apollo). Learning and understanding one computer reservation system often enables a travel agent to fairly easily convert to using another system without much difficulty.

The major training factors that are necessary to properly use computer reservations systems include:

  • Defining the availability of airline reservations, classes of service and flight information
  • Obtaining fair and reasonable pricing and ticketing options
  • Obtaining car reservations
  • Obtaining hotel reservations
  • Creating complete Passenger Name Records (PNR)
  • How to change, delete, or add to optional PNR fields

Coursework in CRS generally requires up to 35 hours of access to a CRS system. Travel agents should also take the time to study and become familiar with the travel and booking systems made available through popular web-based reservation systems, like those that belong to Orbitz, Travelocity, and others.

Anyone interested in a career as a travel agent should obtain training in some aspect of computer reservations system use. Not only will such knowledge enhance a travel agent's ability to find a job in a traditional travel agency, but it will also enhance the quality and efficiency of services provided to clients. While many home-based travel agents may not need to understand or use the CRS, because they use web-based booking engines, it's important for a travel agent to understand and be familiar with both methods.

In some cases, a home-based travel agent may work for an existing travel agency and be required to access the databases found in the CRS used by that particular travel agency. Many travel agent training centers, schools, and seminars offer training in the CRS system. One of the most popular travel agent training opportunities is sponsored by AAA, and is called the AAA Travel Agent Training Center -- Online Travel Career Education. For information regarding AAA travel agent training opportunities, visit their website at the Travel Agent Training Center.
The Future of CRS/GDS Distribution Systems
Because of changes in Internet access, as well as direct online booking capabilities between the public and major travel providers, the CRS will more than likely go the way of the dinosaur in the future. Most airline carriers today utilize their own consumer booking engines on the Internet, as do hotels, car rental agencies, cruise lines, and tour operators. However, travel agents should be aware that major airlines still command a majority of booking and ticket options and sales.

As mentioned earlier, many airlines have joined and combined with consumer sites like Expedia, Travelocity, Hotwire, and Orbitz.com to offer lower airfares, as well as to take advantage of vacation packages that offer car rentals, hotels, and cruises.

Home-based travel agents, and agents working independently through traditional travel agencies, may use a combination of such services to offer low fares while still making a living, and offering services to clients who are not comfortable making their own reservations or planning detailed vacation packages.

Conclusion
While methods of travel will continually change in the coming years, successful travel agents, no matter where they are based, should use various options when it comes to providing services for clients. Be familiar with both old and new methods of reservations systems and the capabilities and opportunities, as well as the drawbacks, provided by each.

The 21st century has developed more travel agents who specialize in certain aspects of the travel industry and take advantage of personalized services, products, and packages. A travel agent who takes advantage of a variety of Internet booking services and exploits them to his or her advantage will stay ahead of the pack.

Learning how to develop a business, as well as how to market and promote your services, will help you create and sustain a successful travel business, no matter where you work.

 
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