Fight for Flights: Queens Travel Agencies vs. Internet

Mala Maraj, owner of Ibis Travel, expanded her office space last month to cater to more customers.

by Stephen Jiwanmall, Trinidadian Beat Reporter —

Sharda Hosein’s phone at Someday Travel Agency in South Richmond Hill never seems to stop ringing– not that she’s complaining. She smiles as she picks up the phone and immediately engages in a conversation with a potential customer.

“The sooner you grab on, it will be better for you,” she says over the phone. “If the specials run out, then the price is going to go up. It’s the cheapest already. It’s not going to go lower than that.”

Hosein says these conversations with customers are crucial in keeping the agency alive. Like most travel agencies nationwide, Someday Travel faces growing competition from the Internet. Thanks to the Web, travelers can book flights online without leaving home or talking to travel agents over the phone.

In essence, the role of travel agencies as middlemen is being challenged daily, but they’re fighting back with better bargains, personalized attention to customers and first-hand knowledge of travel destinations that no website can match.

Though summer is over and Christmas is still a few months away, now is the best time to travel to Trinidad and Guyana, says Hosein. Fares for flights to the two Caribbean countries are at seasonal lows, and the flock of travel agencies that line Liberty Avenue in South Richmond Hill is vying to catch travelers’ attention.

Most agencies are offering trip prices that are lower than ones offered online. For example, a round trip to Trinidad the day before Thanksgiving will cost $457 at Ibis Travel on 121st Avenue and Liberty Avenue. Owner Mala Maraj found the online equivalent of this offer at $517. A round trip to Guyana at the same time of year costs $400 – an all-time low, Maraj says. Compare this to the current online deals, starting at $463.

Maraj, Hosein and other agents in the area say that their prices might not always be cheaper than those found online, but they provide constant availability and service to their customers. Often, travelers who experience problems with ordering online have trouble getting their issues resolved, especially when it comes to getting refunds, Maraj says.

“Websites have glitches. The customers, they can’t get the help they need online. They need to talk to people. That’s what we’re here for,” she says.

Maraj explains that agents like her can customize and negotiate deals unlike ones available on the Internet. For example, her agency Ibis can reserve ticket seats for up to 24 hours if a customer needs time to come up with the money. Most websites, Maraj says, won’t hold on to those seats for travelers. Maraj makes an effort to lock down the seat (and the price, in most cases) to ensure that her customers get better service than what the Internet provides.

“They put their faith in us,” she says. “We try to win.”

The Internet has become the more popular option for younger travelers, but Maraj says older travelers who aren’t quite as comfortable using the Web form a loyal customer base for agencies like hers. She notes that some younger travelers wind up at her agency, because they don’t have the time to hunt for deals online.

In addition to the personal attention that agents offer, Maraj says that her customers can contact the agency at any time – even after they have flown to their destination. If travelers have questions about where to go, what to do, and how to travel, Maraj encourages them to call the agency. Even when the office is closed, Ibis offers a 24/7 customer service hotline – a service that other agencies don’t provide.

“We never leave you on the trip,” she says. “As a travel agency, if you don’t have the slight edge, you won’t make it.”

The fight for customers among travel agencies in South Richmond Hill is split among several businesses in the area. At least nine crowd up Liberty Avenue from 120th Street to 129th Street. Travel Span and Ibis Travel are on the same side of the avenue by 121st Street, only three buildings apart. On the next block, Sandra’s Travel Agency is on one side of Liberty by 122nd Street, while Yulini Travel Agency is almost directly across from it and PanAmerican Travel is on the corner.

“There seems to be a travel agency on every block,” Hosein says. “So much competition. To save one dollar, customers will leave you to find another agency.”

The goal of these businesses at the moment is to get travelers ready for “peak season,” which starts on December 15 and ends in mid-January. Maraj says tickets are selling fast, and the longer people wait to buy them, the more expensive the fares become.

“During the lull time, it’s always advised to buy,” she says. “Now is the best time to fly.”

Despite the major dip in prices now, Maraj says that most travelers opt to fly just before Christmas. Some started looking for Christmas deals as early as June, she says, and even if some still haven’t gotten around to booking trips, they’ll settle for the high prices that come with peak season.

“People don’t mind the cost then,” she says, “As long as they get home.”

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