Expedia. Kayak. Priceline. Orbitz.
You know them, and maybe you even swear by them to book your flights or hotels. These names and many more are online travel agencies, or OTAs. From the big names to the small, these are some of the most popular flight search engines to hunt for a bargain.
And while we tell readers that there's no search engine out there better than Google Flights for finding deals, OTAs have their place. But what are they, really? And what do you need to be aware of?
What Are OTAs?
Whether it's the giants like Expedia, smaller but popular sites like CheapOair, or tiny sites like TravelMerry, every OTA works pretty much the same way.
These companies plug into a global booking network of airlines, hotels, and more, taking a small commission from the sale in the process. And then there are aggregators or “metasearch engines” like Skyscanner and Momondo, which are essentially an OTA of OTAs. Rather than selling fares directly, it passes on the best deals it can find from other OTAs like Expedia, Vayama, and other small sites.
Whatever their size or role, these companies may offer plane tickets for cheaper than the airline itself is selling them. That's why you care, right?
More often than not, that's because airlines are pushing deeply discounted fares specifically to these OTAs. Often, these companies will tack on a bit more to get their profit. Other times, these search engines may just decide to offer the fare at a lower cost and eat the lost profit or commission, banking on travelers buying add-ons like trip insurance or car rentals.
Don't assume that you're getting the best deal by booking through one of these OTAs. While you can sometimes save, other times it will actually cost you more. Airlines would much rather sell directly to consumers than give a cut to these OTAs.
That's why you should always check directly with the airline before you book. It can pay off in more ways than just the price…
How Do OTAs Work?
Your online travel agency becomes your travel agent. Go figure, right?
Whether you book through a big name like Expedia or a smaller company like travelgenio, the company you book with becomes the middle man. Any issues, questions, changes or cancellations generally have to be handled through your OTA. Keep that in mind.
You can generally still earn airline miles on flights booked through an OTA, but the same isn't always true for hotels. And in most cases, you'll give up any hotel status benefits when booking accommodations through an OTA, too.
Big vs. Small OTAs
OTAs are not created equally.
Larger, well-known OTAs like Priceline and Expedia are much different than their smaller counterparts. For starters, these bigger agencies typically have dedicated customer service teams to help you out. Many of them also honor the 24-hour rule, which allows you to cancel flights that touch U.S. soil within 24 hours of booking.
Still, they're middle-men. These agencies have to coordinate and make changes with the airline that you're flying. And that can add time and, more often than not, frustration.
But as you dive deeper into smaller OTAs like Hop2 or Travelmerry, it can get much worse. Customer service is often nonexistent. Few, if any, honor the 24-hour rule for cancellation. Wait times can be enormous with some of these third-party agencies – if you even get a response at all.
So you'll need to do some mental math. Are the savings big enough by booking through an OTA to offset the potential heartburn if things go wrong? Might you need to change plans down the line?
For us, the answer is almost always to skip the OTA and book straight with the airline via Google Flights. For all but the most substantial savings, the peace of mind of being able to work directly with your airline is worth it.
If you're paying the same by booking through an OTA as you would buying it directly from the airline, it's a no-brainer: Book with the airline. But if you're saving $200 or more through an OTA, then it's easily worth considering the pros and cons.
OTAs & Coronavirus
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, these benefits of booking direct were amplified more than ever.
Travelers that booked directly with an airline have generally had a much smoother process. Travelers reported nightmares trying to get ahold of OTAs like CheapOair. Several smaller OTAs even collapsed, leaving travelers on their own to sort out their travel plans.
Meanwhile, many major airlines made the process of changing or canceling flights amid coronavirus much easier. You can change or cancel fee-free to get an airline voucher for future use. For airlines like Delta and American, if you missed or skipped your flight due to coronavirus, you would automatically be issued an airline voucher, no questions asked.
With all this uncertainty, saving a few bucks usually isn't worth the hassle when plans change.
If you booked with an OTA for upcoming travel and need to cancel due to coronavirus, here's a look at how to change or cancel your booking.
Maybe you're accustomed to starting your travel planning with agencies like Priceline, Expedia, and others. These online travel agencies have their place – and there's no denying they can save you money.
But that's not always the case. And even when it is, the frustration and issues that can arise when booking travel through an OTA may not be worth it.