August 26, 2017 by Sam Wright
I am sharing this blog by Sam Wright – as it is a current and “live” example of the perils on opting to book your travel online, for the sake of reducing your costs. It is a misconception that the retail agent is so much more expensive – we can offer you the same deals most of the time, we just charge a fee to take care of you – quite simple!
UPDATE: I have three flights home. The first has been delayed. It takes off 20 minutes before I’m meant to start boarding the other. Shall we keep a score and see if I actually get home? Travelstart continues to ignore me and be unhelpful. I just want to go home!
Last year I headed to Bali. I booked through an online “travel” agent. You know the ones – you primarily deal in email and they tend to have a comparison tool linked to their website to try grab bookings. They’d sent an email with a too good to be true deal and I fell for it hook line and sinker. The experience was less than ideal but we made the most of it. I still mentioned it in my blog post about top tech travel tips for Bali.
I didn’t learn my lesson
I needed to book flights and accommodation for Gamescom 2017. I had a budget I needed to stick to. I’m also a British Airways Executive Club member with a considerable amount of air miles so I wanted to ensure I received the benefit of this by booking with a One World Alliance partner. For most of my stay I’d need to arrange my own transport to the expo – as I only had a shuttle on days I was working – as such I wanted to be as close as possible to ensure it wasn’t too expensive but also to make sure I didn’t have to worry to much about travel time as I knew I’d have early long days ahead.
I decided to contact Travelstart as I’d been in touch with a gent there who seemed to be really easy to deal with and helpful regarding some other stuff. We’d also worked with them on a Game of Thrones post for the blog and they’d been great to work with. He put me in touch with an agent and we had a considerable backward and forward for a few weeks as I ironed out the details of the trip. I finally got confirmations, mailed off to the agent and within 24 hours I’d paid in full for flights to and from Cologne, a hotel stay and transfers to and from the airport.
I’d contacted another travel agent as well. The old school type who you deal with over the phone. You know the type I’m taking about. They’re slowly falling away and being destroyed by corporates and online booking sites. This particular travel agent supplied me with a quote for great flights (one stop over only) and a hotel within walking distance of Gamescom which was amazing. BUT, it was R7000 over my budget. Travelstart’s quote was bang on what I could spend so I went with it.
I realise now that I should have researched harder. I should have read online reviews. I should have been smarter. Instead I trusted a company with my trip.
For starters I decided to bite the bullet and just handle the two stop overs on the way. I’d fly to Abu Dhabi then on to Berlin before a one hour flight to Cologne. I figured I could handle it. I landed in Abu Dhabi with my second ticket but couldn’t find my flight number on the boards at the airport. I went to one of the desks and was informed the flight had been cancelled and I should have been moved to a flight leaving two hours later but somehow I’d been kicked off the system.
Thank goodness for helpful Etihad Staff (who Air Berlin partners with), they began to make plans and got me on the flight. But it meant I’d land with 30 minutes to get through Berlin airport and on to my Cologne flight before it took off (it was scheduled to take off at that 30 min mark). The Air Berlin staff were horrific to deal with on landing in Berlin. Usually when this happens the airline assists in getting you through transit. Air Berlin was possibly the worst airline I’ve ever dealt with. No help and on requesting assistance from the ground staff to get off the flight and through security quicker their response was “no, just run.” So I did. Not that it mattered because on arrival at the gate, hot and sweaty, no one was boarding. 30 minutes later no one was boarding. The information signs didn’t reflect anything and I was confused. Finally I asked an air hostess what was going on?
“I don’t know.
Oh, do you know when we’re taking off? I need to change my hotel transfer.
I don’t know.
Do you not have any indication?
A few hours later we took off. I’d emailed Travelstart to request they change the transfer. As it was working hours the agent I had been dealing with jumped on it and got it done. To be honest, she has tried her hardest through all of this but I believe the tools at her disposal are fatally flawed and she has to deal with the brunt of unhappy customers. It actually isn’t fair. I digress. I arrived in Cologne much later than planned and my bag never came off the conveyor belt. Back to information. They don’t know where it is. I pointed out that, for starters, because of my one world alliance frequent flyer miles my bag gets a priority tag to ensure it comes off the plane first. All my flights were delayed, so it couldn’t have been a timing issue. Still no one could help or apparently even track my bag.
And then the cracker: Air Berlin filed for bankruptcy on 15 August 2017
The staff at Berlin airport informed me that I’d probably not see my bag again because the airline was notoriously terrible with this because of the bankruptcy issue. They also suggested moving my flights to another airline if “you want to get home with your stuff”. At no time did Travelstart notify me between the 15th and my flight that I was getting on an airline that was basically falling apart. Truth is, I do not believe they cared, the flights were probably super cheap for them. After having a small break down at the airport and filling in lost baggage forms I walked outside for my transfer. I was greeted by a lovely lady who could not speak a word of English. I figured it was fine, until an hour later, when we discovered she had no clue where my hotel was. She was just randomly driving around. I used Google Maps and 30 minutes later we arrived. Again, I tried to remain positive. This happens right? Airport transfers to hotels get lost all the time… right?
Some incredible folks at the hotel saw my distress and took over the bag hunt. They dealt with some other incredible humans I know on the other side of the world and my bag arrived the next day. Which is about the time that I found out my hotel was actually nowhere near Gamescom. In fact, it was 8km away from Gamescom and the traffic in the mornings meant I’d need to leave an hour earlier than planned every day. A one way trip in a taxi cost 23 Euros.
By now I’m a little frustrated with Travelstart. I’d trusted them with this booking and spent in excess of 30k. I was starting to feel like I was being scammed. More so when the hotel staff explained to me that they actually just use Experia to book everything and this organisation is notoriously “bad, cheap and unreliable”. Deep breaths. I mailed my Travelstart agent and conveyed my concerns. I was worried that I wasn’t going to get home on Sunday and miss important meetings on Monday. Because of this I asked her to try find me earlier flights to Berlin in the hope this would help.
I was then informed she couldn’t because the airline now dealt direct with my flight after the cancellation/removal debacle so I’d need to phone them to try change it or “get to the airport early and ask”. I still don’t understand that. Remind me why I’m using Travelstart again? Keep in mind I’m WORKING at Gamescom with little to no time to sit on a phone sorting this out. I asked her if we could move my airport transfer earlier to try accommodate this. She said yes and asked me to confirm. I never replied as I was working on a stage and couldn’t – I finished on stage at 8pm on Friday night.
So the morning arrives and it is time for me to say bye to Germany.
At 10am I ask my hotel to ring the transfer company and request they collect me an hour earlier as I’m still concerned. No answer on any of the local lines. By 12 noon, still no answer. I start emailing the urgent mail that Travelstart claims gets responses 24 hours. I can prove you it doesn’t. I’d been emailing it all week with no luck. I then resorted to harassing individual employees on Facebook trying to get someone to help me.
I finally received a response.
“No. You need to change it 24 hours before. We can’t change it.”
I’m trying to move a transfer earlier to get to an airport sooner to try make another plan to get home if Air Berlin messes me around. But I can’t. I’ll have to pay for another transfer rather. After chatting to many German staff at the hotel I’m at, the chances of me returning to South Africa on Sunday are slim to none.
I’m sitting in a hotel bar right now with tears streaming down my face. Travelstart have once again just stopped communicating. They never offer solutions. The helpful agent has said they’ll reimburse me when I’m back in South Africa as I’ll need to cover the transfer cost now but… I don’t even know when that will be. This has been the worst travel experience of my life and what should have been an incredible experience for me – being in Germany, experiencing Gamescom and doing my first international Esports job – has been nothing but horrific courtesy of Travelstart, their horrible customer service and their very cheap suppliers they’re using (I can say this confidently now because the hotel staff showed me as much).
The excess costs of this trip in data bills, phone bills, airport costs waiting for delays and now the transfer to the airport are now sitting close to the R7000 I didn’t want to pay the other travel agent (AND I HAVEN’T EVEN JOURNEYED HOME YET) – who would have had me on my way home happy and celebrating rather than stressed, tired and teary. I feel bad for the one agent I dealt with who tried desperately to help. She tried, but unfortunately just couldn’t do anything.
So that’s why I’m now going to avoid online travel agents from here on out. Self service or the traditional small businesses who actually care about clients. I’m posting this BLOG now because the truth is, I don’t know if I’ll be back by Monday morning to share it.
Avoid them at all costs.
As I write this, Sam is still stuck at the airport… 😦