When you’re booking a revenue ticket on an airline (as opposed to redeeming miles), are you better off booking directly with that airline, or through an online travel agency? In this post I wanted to address that topic, since the answer isn’t obvious to most.
For those not familiar with online travel agencies (often referred to as “OTAs”), these are websites like Expedia and Orbitz, which let you book flights, hotels, rental cars, and more. Let me start with a couple of things upfront that should be the same regardless of whether you book directly with an airline or through an online travel agency:
- The prices of flights should be the same regardless of whether you book directly or through a mainstream online travel agency; in some cases you may see slightly lower prices through online travel agencies you may have never heard of, though I’d recommend exercising caution when using them
- For flights you generally earn points as well as elite credit in the same way regardless of whether you’re booking directly or through an online travel agency (there are a limited number of exceptions, like JetBlue TrueBlue, which awards fewer points for third party bookings)
With that out of the way, let me share the pros and cons of booking through an online travel agency, and my general strategy (which I’ll say upfront is that I book directly with an airline, unless there’s a strong incentive not to).
Downsides of booking through an online travel agency
Let me start with the downsides of booking through an online travel agency, since the cons outweigh the pros for most.
Online travel agencies can be a bit of a curse when things go wrong, and there are issues with your ticket. If you have a schedule change, face irregular operations, need to change your ticket, etc., the airline might tell you to contact your travel agency, while the online travel agency might tell you to contact the airline. You could end up in a never-ending loop of misinformation, and I’ve certainly had it happen before, and it couldn’t be more frustrating.
It’s a total pain when you want to get something fixed but are just getting the runaround. Nowadays so many airlines offer ticket flexibility, where you can cancel a ticket and apply a credit toward a future flight. In these situations, it’s much easier to just deal with the airline directly, since it limits how much can go wrong.
Furthermore, I find that most online travel agencies have horrible phone customer service. They all seem to use outsourced call centers with very little training, 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.
Benefits of booking through an online travel agency
So, why should anyone even consider booking through an online travel agency? If you ask me, there are a couple of potential benefits. While airlines have a 24-cancelation policy for flights in the United States, there are some limitations to those regulations, including how far in advance you have to book to qualify for that.
In my experience, online travel agencies have much more flexible 24-hour cancelation policies, and many will allow you to cancel within 24 hours even if you’re ticketing your reservation the same day of travel. You’ll of course want to consult the website of the online travel agency (and even take screenshots), though I find this is sometimes flexibility that comes in handy.
The other potential benefit of online travel agencies is that the booking interface is easy to use, or at a minimum, familiar. If you’re booking a smaller airline you don’t often travel with, you might find that using an online travel agency is just easier. I also find there are fewer issues with credit card payment and general website error messages through online travel agencies, compared to the website of a small airline I’ve otherwise never flown before.
Furthermore, when flying a small airline, it’s nice to know that you can at least reach customer service at a major online travel agency 24/7, even if they’re not necessarily that well trained.
Lastly, while I wouldn’t consider these to be traditional online travel agencies, it’s worth keeping in mind that premium credit cards sometimes offer credits or bonus rewards for booking through their portals. So that could be an incentive to use something like the Capital One Travel Portal or Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel Portal.
My online travel agency booking strategy
Unless I have a compelling reason not to, I’ll always book directly with an airline. That minimizes the odds of getting frustrated if any ticket changes are required, or if there are irregular operations. It also makes it easiest if I need to cancel my ticket, and want to use a credit toward a future flight.
The only time I’ll consistently book through an online travel agency is if I think I might want to cancel within 24 hours, and booking directly with an airline wouldn’t qualify for that. Furthermore, in some situations I’ll book through an online travel agency if it’s an airline I don’t often travel with, and I’m having issues with their website.
Personally I do what I can to book directly with an airline, rather than through an online travel agency or another third party. By all means use websites like Google Flights to look up fares and schedules, but then I’d highly recommend booking directly with an airline. That’s mainly because this simplifies matters if there’s any sort of schedule change, irregular operations, the need to cancel, etc.
What’s your strategy — when do you book direct with an airline, and when do you book through an online travel agency?