''How's business?" I asked the owner of a small travel agency recently. ''Excellent!" he said. ''All of our agents are busy almost all the time."
What didn't come out until later in the conversation was that his staff is at least 40 percent smaller than a few years ago.
The reason for the shrunken staff, of course, is the Internet. Use of the World Wide Web to book trips is so popular that Travelocity.com lays claim to being the sixth largest travel agency in the United States. People use the Internet to save money and then to brag about their savings.
But, as the agency owner noted, travel agents are still keeping busy. Not only do some people feel uncomfortable using the Net, but also a good agent -- one concerned with the customer as much as the commission -- is versed in the latest technology and the most up-to-date information and can sometimes find a better deal.
Cruising the Internet or visiting a brick-and-mortar agency, however, are not the only options. Many people get great deals using an instrument that has been around for more than a century: the telephone.
Yes, the phone. Picking it up and talking with representatives of a travel provider, even a Web-based one, can occasionally snag you the best deal of all because, among other things, an actual person may be empowered to be flexible. I have fond memories of overhearing a former colleague negotiate extras and customize a trip during her lunch hour.
Perhaps surprisingly, one advocate of phone use is an Internet site: Cheapflights.com, which notes that phone conversations are especially helpful in booking flights to less-traveled destinations and on less-used routes. Thus it employs people to manually search smaller companies and then give numbers to call as well as websites to visit. Here are some Cheapflights tips for having the best, and most profitable, telephone booking experience:
Ask if there is a surcharge for booking on the phone rather than online. Some sites charge $10-$25 extra.
If you are calling a consolidator, who has access to tickets bought in bulk at a discount, try to negotiate. The price is not always fixed.
Also with a consolidator, ask the name of the airline, flight times, and route. Consolidators are not always allowed to advertise the details of the cheapest deals online but you can ask on the phone.
If you want an old-fashioned paper ticket, there may be surcharges as well as delivery and insurance costs. Using an e-ticket will eliminate those charges.
Find out how long the flight will take, how many plane changes there will be, and in what cities those changes will occur. Sometimes a cheap flight can be so convoluted that it's better to pay extra for a more direct route.
Ask if a discounted ticket will earn mileage and give your frequent-flier membership number.
Always ask to make seat assignments when booking.
You can usually hold the seat for 24 hours with no charge when booking through an agent or consolidator. So if you say you are going to shop around, they may add an extra discount.
Remember to always ask for the name of the person you spoke to and his or her extension. Also ask for a reference number, and recap everything before hanging up -- flight numbers, times, date, day of week, connections, how your name is spelled, etc. This may seem a nuisance, but it can save you a lot of hassles later.
For more tips on a variety of subjects, visit www.cheapflights.com, click on Useful Tools and then Travel Tips.
Call 800-848-2314 or visit www.mitravel-melia.com.
Go to www.visitlondon.com.
When not included, hotel taxes, airport fees, and port charges can add significantly to the price of a trip. Most prices quoted are for double occupancy; solo travelers will usually pay more. Offers are subject to availability and there may be blackout dates. Richard P. Carpenter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.