The travel world is filled with online travel agencies (OTAs), from the giants like Kayak and Expedia to tiny shops like TravelMerry and JustFly.
So what’s the difference between booking with an airline and one of these companies? There are a few things you need to know. And they might just sway your decision before you go to hit book.
Get the Best Fare … Sometimes
OTAs like Kayak, Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline and other similar websites may seem like they’ve got a good deal on airfare – and sometimes they do. In fact, we’ve seen savings of $200 or more when booking with smaller OTAs via Skyscanner or Momondo. But don’t assume that these websites are always saving you money.
OTAs make their money by taking a cut of the airfare, which can mean that your fare is actually higher through these third-party sites. You have to do some shopping and find the best deal.
That’s why we always tell travelers to start their search with Google Flights. Zero in on the best fare, then check it out directly with the airline. Compare the cost with some OTAs and see if you can drop the price even further.
But keep in mind there’s more to consider than just the cost of your ticket.
Better Service When Things Go Wrong
When things go south – a flight delay, cancellation, or other problem with your flight reservation – it’s easier to get resolved when you’ve booked directly with the airline. If you book with the airline, you can simply get in touch with their customer service or even send them a DM on Twitter or Facebook and they’ll be much more likely to work with you on the reservation.
Online travel agencies (especially smaller OTAs like TravelMerry, Vayama, Trip.com, and others) are not known for their stellar customer service. This can cause even more problems if you’ve got an issue with your reservation, and it’s the last thing you need when your flight gets canceled. There’s nothing worse than getting stuck between the OTA and airline’s customer service passing the blame back and forth, leaving your case unresolved.
And while customer service is no doubt better with larger OTAs like Expedia, they’re still acting as a middle man. That can slow things down when things have gone wrong and you need a solution fast.
If you want the best customer service possible in case of an issue, it’s better to book directly with the airline.
Earn More Points
While you generally will earn miles on flights booked with major OTAs, it depends on the fare class. If you want to be sure you’ll get your miles, book directly with the airline and be sure you’ve entered your frequent flyer number.
Airlines want to entice you to book directly with them and have found ways to encourage you to come straight to their site. When you book a jetBlue fare directly on their website, you earn 3 FlyingBlue points per dollar. Southwest’s fares can’t be found on any OTA: you can only book Southwest flights directly on their website. Budget airlines like Frontier and Spirit announce flash sales with promo codes to direct you right to their website booking page.
The fares you buy through an OTA are more likely to be deeply discounted fares that earn fewer miles than what you’d buy directly from the airline. And while that may save you some bucks, that’s not always the case, either.
Put That Airline Card to Use
If you’ve got an airline co-branded credit card, you could be earning more points when you book directly through the airline. Take Delta’s cards, for example.
If you’ve got the Delta SkyMiles Gold card from American Express, you earn 2x SkyMiles on purchases made directly with Delta (instead of the 1 SkyMile per dollar on all other purchases). If you hold the SkyMiles Platinum or Reserve card, starting January 30, 2020, you’ll earn 3x SkyMiles on purchases made with Delta. When you’re looking to maximize your airline card, booking with the airline is the key.
Thrifty Tip: Don’t have one of these cards yet, and fly Delta often? Take advantage of their increased welcome offers to earn up to 75,000 SkyMiles!
Count on the 24-Hour Cancellation Policy
It’s a federal rule that airlines must offer a 24-hour free cancellation policy on any flight touching U.S. soil. This is a huge benefit to folks booking directly with airlines.
However, the same doesn’t necessarily apply to OTAs. Online agencies aren’t subject to the same rules as carriers. The good news is that most major OTAs like Priceline and Expedia typically offer free 24-hour cancellation. Smaller OTAs like TravelMerry or Vayama found through Momondo and Skyscanner generally don’t, so beware.
It’s Up To You
It’s important to weigh the options when considering booking with an OTA versus directly with an airline. Sometimes, you’ll be able to find a cheaper fare on an OTA compared to directly through the airline. At other times, the price will actually be cheaper with the airline.
It’s important to consider what you may be giving up:
- How much would I be saving?
- What is dependable customer service worth to me?
- Am I maximizing my opportunities to earn points and miles?
- How much is the 24-hour free cancellation worth to me?
There’s no right answer here. Sometimes it makes more sense to book directly with the airline, and other times it’s a heck of a deal to book with an OTA.
Just don’t assume booking with an OTA is the right way to go.
Choosing between an extra $40 in savings with an OTA versus the security of booking through the airline itself can sometimes feel like a pretty close debate.
But unless the savings are substantial, we always recommend booking directly with the airline. You know you can count on better customer service if things go wrong. To us (and many), that’s worth the cost.
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews, or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.