I don’t just redeem a lot of miles, but also book a lot of paid tickets. Lately I’ve been trying to review some unique airlines, and I’ve found myself asking whether to book through the airline’s website directly, or through an online travel agency. It’s a question I also often get asked by readers, so I figured I’d address it here.
First of all, OTAs (online travel agency) refer to sites like Orbitz, Expedia, etc. It’s worth noting that you earn miles just as you usually would for booking airline tickets through OTAs. This is in stark contrast to hotels, as you don’t typically earn hotel points when booking through an online travel agency.
Why is that? Because OTAs take big commissions on hotel stays, while nowadays their margins on airline tickets are minimal, which is why you’ll notice that they’re typically also trying to upsell you on a vacation package, hotel, car rental etc. However, many OTAs now have their own loyalty programs for hotel stays, which some consumers may even prefer to those offered by hotel chains.
What are the benefits of booking through an OTA?
The one benefit of booking through an OTA that I really appreciate is that they always allow you to get a refund within 24 hours.
Technically when booking flights to/from the US, airlines are required to give you the option of either holding a ticket for 24 hours or getting a refund within 24 hours, though with OTAs they’ll give you a refund within 24 hours even if you’re booking within a week of the flight, and even if the ticket doesn’t touch US soil.
To me that’s a big advantage, since you don’t need to spend time worried about whether the airline will honor the typical “risk free booking” guarantee. This applies globally and without exception, so that’s great.
Furthermore, the booking interface of most online travel agencies is easy to use, or at a minimum, familiar. I also know I’ll be able to reach a customer service agent at Expedia any hour of the day, even if they’re incompetent.
What are the downsides of booking through an OTA?
Online travel agencies can be a bit of a curse when things go wrong. If you have ticketing irregularities or irregular operations, the airline might tell you to contact your travel agency, while your online travel agency might tell you to contact your airline. You could end up in a never-ending loop of misinformation, and I’ve certainly had it happen before.
It’s a total pain when you want to get something fixed but are just getting the runaround.
Furthermore, I find that most OTAs have horrible phone customer service. They all seem to use low quality outsourced call centers, so don’t expect much of a resolution if things go wrong. Of course there are also plenty of airlines with horrible customer service, though that’s more variable.
Furthermore, sometimes it’s easier to book through an airline’s website in terms of selecting seats, entering your frequent flyer information, etc. With most airlines it doesn’t make a huge difference since technology has greatly improved, but there are some airlines that let you select seats at booking, but otherwise require you to call to select them.
Here’s what I do… usually
As a general rule of thumb I’ll book flights on airlines I’m familiar with directly with those airlines. So I book virtually all of my American tickets through American’s website, for example, just out of familiarity. That way I can select my Main Cabin Extra seats at the time of booking, easily scope out my upgrade chances, etc.
The only time I’ll consistently book through an OTA is if I think I might want to cancel within 24 hours, and am either within seven days of departure, or otherwise am not familiar with how the airline directly processes such refunds.
But then there are bookings that I’m conflicted about. For example, the other day I was booking flights on AZAL Azerbaijan and Ukraine International. The airlines’ websites are horrible, and feel straight out of the 90s (in particular Ukraine’s website). I was almost wondering whether my booking was going through correctly.
On one hand I felt it was easier to just book through an OTA and figured it would give me a second layer of protection, but at the same time I figured it would only complicate things if there was a schedule change or irregular operations, as I certainly don’t want to play phone tag between the call centers of Orbitz and Ukraine.
How about you — when do you book flights directly with an airline, and when do you book through an OTA?