Beyond frustrated or why I hate Costco

Frustration.jpgOn Thursday a very nice young lady called the agency and said she had driven by and seen our sign and could someone help her with some questions she had about taking a cruise. Actually, the cruise wasn’t for her, it was for her 70+ year old Mom and Dad and two of their friends who would be visiting her this summer from Japan. They wanted to take a cruise-tour to Alaska and since she (nor they) had ever cruised, she wanted to come in and discuss it. I told her “we are here to help.

About two hours later she came in and we had a very nice talk. I found out a bunch of stuff about what her parents and their friends were looking for in the way of a cruise. I told her that I thought I had all the info I needed and that I would have some options for her before this weekend was over.

This morning she e-mailed me some additional comments and we went back and forth with questions and answers until she used that horrid word that I have learned to hate…Costco.

I have a huge love-hate relationship with Costco. I have been a member forever. We probably spend thousands of dollars there every year. We get all our gas there, we get most of our grocery staples, most of our meat, all our paper goods and a bunch of other stuff from them. Heck, my son has worked at Costco for almost 20 years. But when someone mentions them when talking about travel, it drives be nuts. Especially someone like this young woman.

Her question was typical, “I see that if I buy the cruise from Costco, they will give me a Costco gift card for $350. Can you match that with a discount?” The answer is no, we can’t. And we shouldn’t. Costco uses travel as a loss leader and another way to serve their membership. It’s the way Costco pretty much does everything. The prices are lower to us because they make much of their money selling memberships and they make a bunch more selling prime space in their stores to companies. You know that big line of products on the left when you go into a Costco? The companies that make those products pay Costco to be there. As well they should. It’s prime real estate and the fact that their product is there and not on a shelf in the back means they will sell a BUNCH of extra product.

But Costco should not be in the travel business. Not because they compete unfairly (which they do) but because the people you are dealing with when you buy travel from them don’t have a clue about what they are selling.

If you think about it, Costco people seldom have a clue about what they are selling  product-wise. My son is in the “Majors” department. That’s the one that sells TVs, computers, etc. He knows that stuff. He ought to after almost 20 years. But if you go into his department when he isn’t there, you might end up talking to a new employee that started last week about exactly which TV or computer you are going to buy. Now this if just fine if you know exactly what computer you want. If you know how much RAM, whether you want a traditional hard drive or an SSD or one of many decisions you need to make to buy a computer. If you are ready to make the purchase and have done all your research and you feel like you are an expert—buy it. But if you have no clue about computers, and if you are a smart buyer, you either wait until my son is there (LOL) or you go someplace that knows about computers.

This is even more true when it comes to cruises. If Costco wants to sell car rentals and flights and hotels, that’s fine. Those things really don’t have many variables, while cruises do. If you are going to rent a car, you rent a car. You know what a Ford or a Honda are. If you want to book a hotel and you see a Hyatt on an online website, then you pretty much know what you are getting (although a good travel agent would know about good restaurants and sights near a hotel that was just as nice.)

When you buy a cruise from Costco you are buying it either online or from someone on the phone. If online then you better know exactly what you want stateroom-wise, exactly which ports you want to go to, exactly what perks you are getting, which dining plan you want, etc. Cruises have hundred of variables. But if you don’t, you are in trouble. And this nice young lady who came in to buy her parents a cruise said exactly that, “I don’t know anything about cruises.” If she decides to buy one from Costco online, she will be in trouble.

Let’s say she decides to make a phone call and talk to someone instead of buying her travel online? Will she talk to someone who knows all about cruising? Probably not. In fact my guess is that she will probably talk to someone who has NEVER been on a cruise. Not one. Sure, they may have read some brochures or studied the websites of the cruise lines they sell but have they sailed 20+ times? No. They work in a big phone room (you can’t go to your local Costco and book a cruise—you can only do it online or on the phone), where the next person who calls gets the next employee who is free to answer.

Of course this means when you call back because you need to make a change or something is a problem, forget trying to deal with the first person you talked to (“Can’t I talk to Joe, I really liked him so much when I called last time.”), that person may not even work there any longer. If the turnover at the Costco travel phone room is anything like the turnover at your local Costco, who knows who you will be talking to and what their level of expertise is. And imagine that this nice ladies parents (who, according to what she told me, speak Japanese predominantly) have a problem in boarding or anywhere along their way and they try to call Costco for help. They will get connected to the next person who answers the phone. Then they will get to explain their problem all over again. If they book with us and there is a problem, they will call me. I will know their circumstances and I will deal with the situation. And if I am not here, Mark

I have written before about my friend Seth Wayne. Next to Rick Steves he is probably Seattle’s number one travel expert. When it comes to cruising he even knows more than Rick. Before Kathleen and I got into the travel business he pretty much did not use a travel agent. He and I had discussions about this and his feeling was that he knew more than 95% of the travel agents he had met. As his friend and someone who he discusses travel with a lot, I agree with him. But that isn’t true of all travel agents and he knows that. That’s why when he found a travel agent who knew as much as he did, he started trusting him with his travel instead of booking it all online. (That would be me.)

You see Seth could book online if he wanted to because he is an expert. He knows if he is going to book a cruise, exactly what he will get from a particular cruise line (after 65+ cruises he should) and he knows exactly what to ask for if he buys it online. I have a lot of friends like Seth because we travel and cruise so much. They know what they want, they could book their travel themselves. But they don’t anymore—I do. Because they know that besides knowing as much as they know about travel, I have the time to look at all kinds of options and catch things they might miss. Not because they don’t know those things but because they are so busy they would have missed them. Sometimes they catch things I miss and they call me and I get them what they caught.

This nice young lady who called me actually told me, “I don’t know anything about cruising.” Should she book online or with Costco? You tell me. Will her parents have a great cruise if she books online or with Costco? Maybe. Will it be as good a cruise as it would have been if I booked with my expertise and the combined expertise of my fellow agents in our office? Probably not. If they have a problem, will they have someone they have met face-to-face to stand up for them, to fix things, to make things right—NO!

When I started this rant, I thought this will help with my frustration but it hasn’t. I have e-mailed the young lady and told her we needed to talk before I did any options for her parents. I had to do this because after being burned recently by a prospective client who had me do hours of research to find just the right cruise for her husband and his father, they went off and bought it at Costco. That is crushing. And I have resolved to never do that again. So as soon as someone mentions the C word, I stop working altogether until I can have a discussion with them. That’s where I am now. I have tried to reach her to no avail and have left her messages and e-mails but have not heard back.

Too many people today know the price of everything and the value of nothing. —Ann Landers

You aren’t bothering me…really

IMG_4119Over the last few days I have been working with two different clients on two different trips. One has me looking for a Caribbean cruise, first for next Christmas and then when that proved way too expensive and hard to find, one in February of 2020. The other was looking for a short cruise to Cuba.

I did most of the planning by going back and forth with e-mails. They would ask questions, inquire about alternate cruises, ask about travel insurance, different types of staterooms and other types of questions. I would send replies with new options for them. In all, I would guess that I exchanged at least 10 long e-mails with each of these wonderful folks.

But the one thing that both of them had in common was that they started every e-mail by apologizing for asking for so many options, for so many changes. On almost every e-mail reply the first line was, “Sorry to be bothering you with this,” or “I hate to ask you about a different option.” I just want to make one thing clear…you aren’t bothering me.

I have had this happen before with close friends. One of my best traveling buddies asks me about airfare and always starts by saying, “only when you have time.” Another very close friend spends a lot of his time looking at travel arrangements to have me book them. When I ask why he did all the research he said, “I didn’t want to bother you.”

If I was bothered by people asking me to find out about different types of travel, I wouldn’t be doing this as my “funtirement” job if I didn’t love looking for travel. I am at a point in my life where I don’t really have to do this job. And I really do love it…most of the time.

Sometimes because I look so hard for different options, I find something truly important. As an example, in looking for the Cuba cruise for these clients I discovered that if they went to Cuba after March 18, the overnight cruises were much shorter than after. The March 18 cruise (and those before that one) have an overnight in Havana. They arrive at 8:00 am on day 1 and then don’t leave until 3:00 pm on day 2. After the March 18 cruise, they arrive at the same time but leave Havana at 6:00 am on day 2 so even though they get a full day and an evening on the island, they don’t get a second day.

We also looked at another cruise that did an entire day in Havana and then sailed away at 5:00 pm and then did an entire day on the south side of the island in Cienfuegos from 8:00 to 5:00. But I also read a lot of reviews by other travelers that had been there that one of the things they loved the most was the evening time in Havana and this cruise didn’t give them that. And I found other options. They ended up getting the exact cruise they wanted along with all the visas and travel insurance they need.

I loved finding that kind of stuff. Digging to find the best thing for the clients. See the smile on my face. You aren’t bothering me…really

I like bothering people and stirring things up. –Tim Daly

Dealing with schedule changes

AdobeStock_84068264.jpgOne of the things that I have always had a huge problem with is schedule changes. Today I had an appointment with four wonderful women who want to take a cruise to Mexico next fall. Was really looking forward to meeting with them. But yesterday the leader of the ladies (so to speak) called to say she couldn’t meet due to a personal appointment she had forgotten. She asked if we could move the meeting to tomorrow (Tuesday) at the same time.

Only problem is that Tuesday is my regular work day. By that I mean that on Tuesdays, I work on my real job. Of course I work on my “real job” other times during the week, but I set aside Tuesdays for big project work. This week (the last week of the month) is when I schedule creating my monthly newsletter, my biggest product. Now I know that it would seem it would be an easy thing to just do that on Monday instead of Tuesday. But as I told my wonderful bride this morning, it’s tough to just turn creativity on and off. Plus, I had information and graphics I was waiting for from other sources. But still, I had to make it work and I did. But it was a pain.

All of this will be moot tomorrow if these really cool women come in and put a deposit down on their cruise. I just have to get used to rolling with the punches.

I don’t think that scheduling is uncreative. I think that structure is required for creativity.—Twyla Tharp

It’s not all cruising

 

londonSince I started writing on these pages last month I have had a few people ask me if we are all about cruising. They want to know if we just help clients plan cruises. Nothing could be further from the truth. We at Expedia are a full-service travel agency. On our door is the slogan, “We plan, you pack.” We do have cruise ship in our name and Kathleen and I do take a lot of cruises but we have traveled on land in Europe and all over the USA. Plus, with most of our cruises we usually spend quite a few days either before or after the cruise exploring the city or region we are leaving from on the cruise we are taking.

florence1For instance, we are doing an 11-day cruise from Dublin, Ireland to other ports in Ireland and spending four days in Iceland. But before we get on Celebrity’s Reflection, we will spend four days in Edinburgh, almost a week in Leeds, England visiting good friends and three days in Dublin before we embark. So when a client comes in and doesn’t want a cruise but does want a land trip, we can do it all. We can book you with a tour company who will take you everywhere in the country or region you have in mind. Or I can plan an entire trip just for you.

edinburgh 1Last year I had two clients who came in during the spring asking me to help them plan a European trip for their families last summer. One wanted a four country tour with a cruise to the Greek Isles right in the middle of the land visits. The other asked for an eight city, 34-day tour by train, plane, rail and automobile. We arranged flights, rail tickets, hotels, dinner reservations, day trips and guided tours all over Europe. If you would like to see the entire tour, you can click here. It even has pictures and lots of great places you can visit if you are in any of these cities.

barcelona-spainIf this is the kind of vacation you are looking for, we’re the people to talk to. I love planning stuff like this. BTW: This is not the kind of plan you are going to get from an online or big box travel agency where you talk to a different person every time you call. And believe me, this planning took about two months and countless e-mails, phone calls and texts getting things reserved and set up. For me, it was just fun. For the clients it was a great time…at least that’s what they told me when they got back.

Traveling expands the mind rarely. —Hans Christian Andersen

 

Planning early…really early

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A tiny bit of a European Christmas market taken by my good friend Bob. Read more about his Christmas Market River cruise a few years ago by going here: https://bob221b1.wordpress.com/2014/11/29/european-christmas-markets/

Do you plan your vacations in advance? I mean way in advance? Like two years or more? We do. And for a couple of reasons we recommend that others do too. It’s especially important when you want to go someplace that there are few openings for. Or if you cruise and you want a particular cabin. Let me give you some examples.

Over the weekend we (along with my brother and his bride) booked a Christmas Market cruise on Viking River Cruises for December of 2020. Why so early? Because we really want to do a Christmas Market cruise and we can’t go in 2019 because…Viking is pretty much sold out. That’s right. Most Christmas Market cruises in Europe are sold out for 2019 or there is very little left in the way of space. And the space that is left now, is pretty expensive. By booking for 2020, we got the stateroom we want, we got the dates and the route we want as well. Not only that but because we booked within this month (following  our Viking Cruise night at the agency last week) we were awarded additional onboard credit. It was a great deal.

Another example. Last week I had a very nice woman come into the agency to ask about booking an Alaskan cruise for this July or August. It was her, her husband and her two boys in the same stateroom. But the real problem is that there are very few staterooms that will hold four people left on any of the most kid-friendly ships. Category after category are sold out. My suggestion…let’s look at summer 2020. Great deals and the best stateroom selection. Of course there are staterooms like that left, but they aren’t a bargain at this point.

Or…Tonight we had a great friend send us a referral for her brother and sister-in-law who want to sail to the Caribbean next Christmas. This is a GREAT time to book that cruise—during WAVE season (which is going on right now) when all the cruise lines have major specials. There should still be plenty staterooms in all categories available. But if they ask me in August or September, not as many.

Lastly, we got two of our best friends the exact stateroom they wanted for a February 2020 cruise that will stop in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. It was the last of this particular kind of very desirable stateroom. And the best part was that this weekend, that cruise line had a sale with a reduced deposit as well as some other great perks (because it’s WAVE season). If they waited even three more weeks, their deposit would have been 19 times higher. Seriously.

So the message here is, if you know your dates, or know that you can get certain time off, or you are retired and can go whenever you want, then book early! If the price goes down, you can always rebook for the new price. So…if you have any desire to join us on a Christmas Market cruise in December 2020, let me know and I will set it up. Or go anyplace else next year.

Plans are nothing; planning is everything. —Dwight D. Eisenhower