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Everything You Need to Know About Online Travel Agencies (OTAs)

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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?

Read on.


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.

online travel agencies 

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.

online travel agencies 

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.


Bottom Line

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.


Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

2 Responses

  • please be careful when booking online unless you go directly to an OTA website. We have guests that search our motel name thinking the first listing that pops up has to be ours, but it’s not. Companies will pay more to be listed higher than our own franchise website. They then are offered lower rates but are unaware or don’t know to look closely at the info and are then charged a lot of extra fees. Or any request they make, i.e. bringing a pet, ground floor, etc are not sent to the motel so they don’t get the accommodation they really want or need. If you have special requests please verify with the motel that they received the request. What you need might not be available when you walk in the door unless you verify in advance with the motel.

  • It’s so wrong the way you are supporting a giant company like Google to the traditional OTAs out of business. Am It’s NOT true what you are saying either, thd airline is still on command of their content and Google flights is just another meta search comparison like Skyscanner but who not only search for flights for you, they will keep you data and sell to advertisers!
    Airlines give OTAs better fares because the volume of tickets they are able to sell, like any other business! They more you sell the cheaper the base price will be.
    OTAs have huge technology costs as well as the ability to give travellers inspiration to destinations they may have not thought about going, they spend a huge amount of money in advertising as well to help support Its prefer partners

    So before you cut then out of your review, please do a better home work about the business, as each market is different and Europe (each account for 50% of the total worldwide travel destinations) support OTAs and the great work they do and support their customers.

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