Should You Book Through Online Travel Agencies You Have Never Heard Of?

Filed Under: Advice

I love a good premium fare deal, and have posted about what I believe to be some especially good deals over the past few months. A couple of days ago I came across an excellent business class deal on Gulf Air, first published by Head For Points.

This offer was for return flights from London to Bangkok for as low as £1,150.

While this price is not that unusual for Europe to Bangkok in business class on sale, this fare interested me for two reasons:

Google Flights

So, I went to Google Flights as I do every single day, set Gulf Air as a filter, and looked for availability to then use as a screenshot to write a post for you guys showing the price, timing and availability.

But I could not find that price anywhere. This was the cheapest price I could find through to the end of schedule.

Hmmm….

Skyscanner

So then I went to Skyscanner, to see if they had any different prices. I don’t really use Skyscanner since discovering Google Flights but occasionally it throws up something different.

Not only did Skyscanner have much lower prices, they were even lower than the £1,150 price Head For Points had publicised.

Now, £1,073 return from London on what looks like an incredible product to Bahrain, and then on to Bangkok is an AMAZING price.

But I have never heard of any of those three Online Travel Agencies (OTA) offering the three cheapest prices.

Much like bricks and mortar travel agents (some of which still survive), there are some large, very well known online travel agencies like Expedia or Opodo. There are then much smaller, lesser known ones like these three offering the cheapest Gulf Air fares.

So should you book through them?

Here’s the steps I would go through to make my decision.

Step One: Check the airline’s website

Where possible, I would always recommend booking directly on that airline’s website. There are endless benefits of doing this.

I went to the Gulf Air website, but the best price I could find was about 50% more than the Skyscanner prices.

This matched the Google Flights price.

50% is a LOT more to pay, so that hasn’t made the decision for me.

Had the price been only 10% or 20% higher, I would recommend paying that and booking through the airline directly, for the peace of mind.

Step Two: Research the OTA

I have never heard of Fly Sharp, so I googled ‘Fly Sharp Reviews’ and the first result was a TrustPilot page, which gives Fly Sharp an alarming 2.7/10 approval rating from 63 customers.

One review says:

I am only giving one star as zero stars is not an option.

These guys are the most useless company I have ever had to deal with, I had a problem with my booking and needed to amend. I was told 4 different options to amend, non of which was possible. Each time you call you speak to someone who does not understand you and then gives you a different answer.

In the end I cancelled my flight, waiting for the taxes to be refunded they have not paid them after the 4 weeks they advise it can take. Called and they can not tell me how much the refund will be for only that I have to check if it has been paid in the next week and if not call back again.

They may have cheap flights but really would not trust them as far as I could throw them.

Now I would not take a 2.7/10 rating to mean that only 27% of their customers are happy with them.

These review websites are notorious for only attracting people with an axe to grind who want to vent. I don’t leave reviews for anything unless it is particularly good or particularly bad. 90% of the time companies I deal with are fine, but forgettable so I don’t feel the need to review.

I suspect Fly Sharp has plenty of customer who had a fine experience, but didn’t bother reviewing it.

Nonetheless the themes of the negative reviews reveal some alarming common business practices:

  • Charging customers additional amounts for luggage already included in their premium class fare; the airline sets the baggage allowance, not the travel agent
  • Increasing advertised prices after booking (and paying)
  • Booking incorrect dates, and then charging large change fees to correct their own errors
  • Setting their own change or cancellation fees that do not match the airlines change or cancellation fees

These shady business practices are synonymous with some companies preying on inexperienced travelers, advertising prices lower than their competitors to lure in new business (sometimes at a loss), and then making up their own rules to extract profits from their new customers.

Some larger, more experienced travel agents have been accused of this.

These numerous red flags mean I would not book with Fly Sharp, regardless of the price.

Step Three: Consider the lowest ‘trusted seller’ price

There’s a huge variance between the Fly Sharp price (which seems too good to be true), and the GulfAir.com price, which seems too high. So I’m keen to understand if there are any prices in between, with OTAs I would be comfortable with.

Opodo is pricing these flights up at £1,214.

While this is significantly higher than the Fly Sharp price, Opodo is a large and trusted online travel agency. In comparison to Fly Sharp, their TrustPilot score is 7.3/10 with over 10,000 reviews.

Now, Opodo won’t be perfect, and a review website is not a definitive measure of a company, and I’m sure some of you may have had negative experiences with them.

So I’m not saying they are a fool-proof solution to booking this fare cheaply.

But for me, I would be comfortable booking this fare with Opodo, rather than GulfAir.com given the price variation. Opodo’s price is not a lot more than Fly Sharp but is still much less than the GulfAir.com price.

My risk tolerance is that I am willing to risk what I would consider to be a relatively low risk of having an issue with Opodo, in exchange for saving around £450 by booking with them, rather than GulfAir.com.

I’ve also booked flights with Opodo in the past without issue so would be comfortable doing so again.

Bottom line

The biggest problem you may have with Online Travel Agencies is likely to be if you need to change your flights. If you think it is likely you will need to change them, I would always recommend booking a flexible fare directly with the airline wherever possible, so there are no surprises about your rights and the associated costs. Although it is not ethical, OTAs can charge their own change and cancellation fees, over and above what the actual airline will charge.

I love a good deal, but I’m always wary of booking with companies I’ve never heard of. In this case I would not book with Fly Sharp, but be comfortable with Opodo, triple checkig all the details, and assuming that I do not need to change the booking down the track.

There are no perfect companies, OTAs or otherwise (some people have issues with companies like Apple or Google), so no definitive answer on which OTAs you should or shouldn’t book with.

However in summary as a general guide:

  1. Book with the airline where you can
  2. Do your homework on the cheapest price if you cannot
  3. Be comfortable with your risk tolerance, balancing the amount you are saving with the likelihood of issues with the OTA

Have you booked through an Online Travel Agency you hadn’t previously heard of?

Comments
  1. What about using Chase’s UR site to book whether using points or paying cash? Are points refundable or can you change flights with them easily?

  2. In answer to your concerns – Tripsta and Airtickets just announced they are effectively bankrupt. They are a Greek company but with Portals around the world for booking.

  3. On a different note… anybody that registered on IB for the offer is having trouble logging in? For some reason it keeps on giving me an error when attempting to enter, while a relative of mine (that had an account since quite a while) has no trouble logging in

  4. As with anything, the amount of risk I’m willing to accept is dictated by the opportunity costs.

    If I were booking a trip for a wedding, a once in a lifetime event, etc, I’d be damn sure the ticket seller was reputable and had the resources to handle things going tits up anywhere in the process.

    If I were booking as a lark, I’d treat this like a mistake fare. I’d make sure my other expenses were refundable and that I’d purchased the fare with a card that I was confident would handle the potential dispute of charges with aplomb. In the end, I’d be out the lost potential and planning time involved, but few, if any, actual dollars.

  5. Many years ago, back in 2003, I booked with an unknown OTA, for an amazing fare from SAN to FCO in Economy on Canadian for myself and my young niece. Additionally, I told many of my friends and family of the great deal I got and they, too, went on to book flights from the same location and LAX. Two days before the flight with my niece, I was informed by email that our tickets were cancelled but that they could rebook us (for an extremely high fare) on another airline from LAX (of course, I would have to pony up the difference and get to LAX at my own expense). Two days! I ended up with a huge hassle spending months to get a refund. I managed to book with another airline for higher last minute fares, but much lower than the ones offered by the OTA as an alternative. Eventually, my brother and other friends were to use their tickets with the OTA and the same thing happened to them even though I had tipped them off in advance of the potential risk and they had phoned the OTA to make sure that their flights were good. The whole scheme was to offer fake low fares and “tickets,” cancelling at the last minute in order to get you to book higher last minute fares. I don’t know how they managed to get away with this but thankfully, they weren’t around long. I felt naive and bad that I ended up involving my friends and family in this mess. Since then, I never do business with unknown OTAs.

    Go with the OTA you know and trust!

  6. Sometimes you can be lucky with shitty OTA’s, like with AirFastTickets in 2014.
    A lot of people flew a few months almost for free through Europe thanks to that OTA.
    It got them a debt of more than 45 million euro to IATA BSP (and thus the airlines) before they got suspended and had to declare bankruptcy. Tickets remained valid through.

  7. I mean, yes, you have to pay attention when booking (“no, thanks, I do not want to purchase tsunami insurance and no, I do not want to pay to get a better seat in J now”) and you probably will not be able to change the res – but If booking goes through and you have the ticket number (for the correct date) – what can go wrong?

  8. I wouldn’t trust them. Thinking back about 5 years the many of those never heard of sites don’t exist anymore and it’s not because they got bought out. Same will happen to the current crop. Also beware of bait and switch. I went through one such site to see what would happen and at some point in the booking process the price changed. Sneaky.

  9. “These shady business practices are synonymous with some companies preying on inexperienced travelers”

    If they’re true. I don’t really trust anything on that site – it’s full of idiots who screw things up themselves then alter the story to make it seem like someone else’s fault.

    Not that I’d be remotely shocked to discover those unknown OTA brands were bad (though Fly Sharp does appear to be part of a large “traditional” travel agency in the UK – is there a non-dodgy reason for them to make a new website!?).

  10. “Although it is not ethical, OTAs can charge their own change and cancellation fees, over and above what the actual airline will charge.”

    What’s unethical about charging a fee for a service which the customer wants done?

  11. I booked a LHR to BKK business class flight with TravelPack (mentioned in the list) on FinnAir approx. 2 years ago. It was significantly cheaper than direct with the airline or any other OTA – around £1200.

    I had no problems at all. I’d previously registered with the FinnAir mileage programme and checked that the flight appeared in my account – it did within about an hour of booking.

    I had the same scepticism as James but figured that the because I booked with a credit card the worst that could happen would be the time spent arranging a charge back if something went wrong.

    Nothing went wrong and I saved at least £400 against the next best price.

  12. I did this recently and found a super cheap return business fare between Australia and London. I had not heard of the agents for the price on Skyscanner. So I took it to Flight Centre. They quoted a price $800 more expensive. I showed them the fare I found and got them to beat it by $1. Win win.

  13. Once upon a time I thought I wouldn’t be so unlucky for an OTA to declare insolvency just after I paid them the money and before they issued the ticket.

    And then one day it did indeed happen. Thankfully I had already grown into the habit of paying by credit card so it was a clear case for chargeback.

    If you are in the UK, having ATOL protection for your OTA-booked flights would be an additional layer of protection (insurance is also a good idea, ofc), and they cover repatriation in the case of airline failure too.

  14. ATOL is also a reason to book with an OTA from the UK if you are actually based in the UK. OTAs in the EU can sell to many member state but they are only beholden to their own domestic regulator, who will have different levels of protection and likely won’t be as easy to deal with if you want to claim money back when something goes wrong.

  15. @James, other than Trustpilot, how does one figure what is a reliable OTA? Can you guys do a roundup of the least troublesome (lower fees, fewer disputes) OTAs?

  16. Traveloka is a reliable OTA in South East Asia in caee you ever meet one during your research

  17. As @CB stated above, Flight Centre in Australia have an excellant price beat guarantee, which I have used many times before. You do the research and take the quotes from an Australian travel agent, business or any airline and if its legitimate they will beat it by a $1. Much more comfortable booking with Flight Centre than some online outfit I’ve never heard of.

  18. I have booked through flysharp several times on Gulf Air LHR-BAH-BKK business class for 1040 GBP in May last year, just booked again for 1050 GBP to fly in September my itinerary is fully ticketed when i check my booking on the gulf air website. I would avoid getaflight though

  19. @ DSG — unfortunately its extremely subjective and my opinion on those I trust will differ from the next persons. This article is a guide on how I would decide whether to trust certain OTAs (i.e. Fly Sharp and Opodo in this case).
    I would be hesitant to recommend or not recommend all OTA’s as each persons risk tolerance is different.
    If you do see a good fare through an unknown OTA by all means email me and I can do an analysis but again that would be my risk tolerance which may be different to yours.

  20. Sometimes the T&Cs are enough of a giveaway.

    For “made by agency” connections, some say that in the event of a missed connection they will pay for a last minute replacement ticket on the second leg – one wants to see some reviews of this happening successfully, but it is an interesting insurance-like business model.
    But on one I looked at recently they promised no help at all in the event of a missed connection – so that was a straight No from me.

  21. @putout – that’s a good point on ATOL protection for UK-based OTAs, but remember it has to be a package for that to kick in, so you would need to add a car or hotel (one night should be enough, if the website let’s you do that) – flight only bookings aren’t covered by ATOL

    (For non-UK readers, ATOL is a scheme that protects customers booking holiday packages from the provider going bust – it’s a bit antiquated these days but offers some useful protections when things go wrong!)

  22. As a (UK) travel agent I often have clients screen shooting prices they have seen online and often a lot cheaper than anyone else. A lot of these agents are based oversea’s therefore you don’t get the full protection. A lot of times as well, and esp via skyscanner the fares you see don’t actually exist so once you get to the payment page the fares could almost double. The 3rd point that I have heard some many stories, and actually happened to a few of my clients when the online fare is so cheap they booked online and after a few days they get an email saying there was an ‘issue’ and you have to pay more as the fare has change or a full refund. If I was a travel agent then booking direct or via a well know company like Expedia would be the safest option. As the old saying goes, is it sounds too good to be true, then often it is.

  23. @Daftboy: Not so! I have received a flight-only ATOL certificate from an OTA in the past. You can see it’s listed at the bottom with a sample: https://www.caa.co.uk/ATOL-protection/Consumers/ATOL-certificate/

    However it’s true that not all OTAs offer this for every itinerary, so you have to check before buying. I believe it’s down to a technical difference where if the OTA is only acting as a booking agent for the airline then your travel contract is with the airline directly and so no ATOL protection.

  24. @Daftboy: Not so! I have received an ATOL flight-only certificate myself. It’s listed here at the bottom with a sample: http://www.caa.co.uk/atol-protection/consumers/atol-certificate/

    However it is true that not all OTAs and itineraries are eligible. I believe it is down to a technical difference where if the OTA just acts as the booking agent for the airline then your only contract is with the airline, so no ATOL protection at least on the part of the OTA.

  25. Tripsta and Travelgenio present you a reservation, take your money and cancel/refund on the day of departure if they have not been bale to actually procure your seat. I have herd about it, experienced it first and second hand multiple times. Since a refund can take 4 days and a same. day ticket can cost moren then in your budget this is a really harmfull type of advance fee fraud.
    You can detect this practice if they offer seats on otherwise sold out flights NO they are not consolidators very few of those still around.

  26. “Now I would not take a 2.7/10 rating to mean that only 27% of their customers are happy with them.”

    That doesn’t make sense. 2.7 is the average of all the reviews they had received, not a percentage of happy customers.

    Your reasoning would mean that an average of 1 would mean that 10% is still happy with this company, while 1 is the lowest possible score.

  27. I wouldn’t!

    I tend to use Skyscanner in order to get a general overview then either book with the airline direct or Opodo.

    I’ve used Opodo many times, and they’ve been great! The last time I used them was to fly Berlin – Madrid – Porto – Berlin. We flew out with Air Berlin (at the time) and were to return with Brussels Airlines exactly 2 days after the terrorist attack in Brussels.

    The airport was a mess, but our booking was solid and the staff were great. I contacted Brussels Airlines via Twitter and even though they weren’t able to get out from Portugal, they re-booked us with Lufthansa instead, who then flew us to Frankfurt and then to Berlin instead. I couldn’t have been more grateful to have booked with a trusted reliable online travel agent!

  28. FlySharp charged me £30 extra for name changes only. They claimed that they will have to pay to airline. Although airline told me that tick is not been booked yet and we will not charge anything for now. When i told them they spoke like that they don’t bother at all what ever is my experience is. They pretend that i am wanting something free although i paid £1200 for the ticket.

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