no free rides
Travel agents' fees are on the rise
For decades, travel agents reminded consumers that their services cost nothing, since they are paid commissions by airlines and other suppliers. But the commissions doled out by major airlines have dropped in recent years-from an average of 9.17 percent of the ticket price in 1995 to 6.79 in 1998—even as the number of travelers has risen. The result for the travel agent?Less pay for more work. That's why 2,116 agencies voluntarily closed in 1998.
And it's not just the airlines. Last year, Renaissance Cruises imposed a ceiling on the amount agents could earn, and Amtrak cut commissions from 10 to 5 percent.
In a survey, the American Society of Travel Agents found that 64 percent of its members now tack on fees for a variety of services (see below).
Travel agents believe the new fees won't cost them too many customers, but they do worry that a continuing drop in commissions will force more agencies out of business, resulting ultimately in rising costs for travelers. Why?Because without agents, travelers would be forced to buy directly from airlines, which aren't going to help them find a lower fare on another carrier. "When you deprive consumers of comparative information," says ASTA president Joe Galloway, "they invariably end up paying more."
What are we paying for now?
A survey by the American Society of Travel Agents showed that fees imposed by its members vary from agency to agency. Here are the most common fees, and the average amounts.
Issuing airline tickets: $10
Special airline coupons/promotions: $15
Lost-ticket applications: $15
Hotel-only or car-only bookings: $10
Rail tickets: $10
Trip planning/research: $50
Non-travel arrangements (theater, etc.): $10
Visa/passport services: $15
windows on the world
Thanks to the hundreds of Web cams used to post live pictures on the Internet, you can get a view of just about anywhere. (If you check out http://www.otec.com, you may catch T&L editors having lunch in New York's Bryant Park.) Here are five of our favorites:
1. BourboCAM http://www.nolalive.com Not surprisingly, these shots of New Orleans's Bourbon Street are one of the more animated slices of Web-cam life.
2. KremlinKam http://www.kremlinkam.com Visitors also get the chance to send a digital postcard of the Moscow landmark.
3. Shamu Cam http://www.shamu.com One of two cameras always trained on the celebrity killer whale. And George Clooney complains he has no privacy.
4. Africam http://www.africam.com Lions and tigers and four cameras inside South Africa's Djuma Game Reserve.
5. Ocean Drive Cam http://www.sofla.com Miami Beach has a different form of wildlife-but look hard and you might catch a glimpse of a leopard-print bikini. —Matthew Yeomans
A new Web site from the National Park Service (http://reservations.nps.gov) is an easy way to reserve campsites at 23 parks and to book spots on three park tours. Click on the Smokies, for example, and you get information on check-in times, rates, directions, and amenities. E-mail reservations can be made only between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. EST (same as at the call center, which, by the way, can be reached at 800/365-2267) so as not to penalize the Netless. The rush is warranted: Yosemite (which has its own number, 800/436-7275) often fills up months in advance. Once booked, explore your park's geology, wildlife, climate, outfitters, restaurants, and trails on one of Maptech's National Park Digital Guide CD-ROM's (800/627-7236; maptech.com/topo; $29.50 each, $69.50 for a two-CD regional set, $179.50 for all 54 parks; PC only). You can view a topographical map of the park and print out customized hiking maps. —Hannah Wallace
going my way
Name: Dr. Patrick I. Borgen
Occupation: Chief, Breast Service, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
Home base: New York City
How much do you travel? At least twice a month, to operate or to deliver lectures. We've trained doctors in places like São Paulo, Hong Kong, and the Australian Outback, where we flew "flying operating rooms" with the Royal Flying Doctors of Australia. There's also a big conference in Milan, where I usually make some house calls. It coincides with Fashion Week, so it can be a lot of fun.
Staying healthy: I keep my sleeping pattern as normal as possible, and I take antibiotics for a cold. To prevent illness I get regular flu shots and load up on vitamin C.
Plane peeves: I love to get to know people around me, but I prefer not to be asked to look at someone's breast lump in-flight.
Time manager: My assistant makes up laminated index cards, one for each day of my trip, with contact names and numbers, hotels, and my schedule.
Tool you wouldn't trade: My Kodak DC260 digital camera. It's lightweight and stores up to 100 images at once. I can take it from the operating room, where we magnify the images on a monitor, to a lecture, where I can incorporate pictures into my talks, and then into the Outback, for shooting from my rented motorcycle.