Should You Book Airline Tickets Through An Online Travel Agency?

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.

Orbitz

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.

American-Seatmap

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.

Ukraine-Airlines-Website

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?

Comments

  1. I always use OTAs (Orbitz is my preference) to book with carriers who require you to present your credit card at checkin when booking directly. That inhibits your ability to use OLCI and also prevents bookings for third parties without a load of documentation. This is not a problem when booking via an OTA. Plus of course, the 24 hour cancellation option is invaluable as you outlined. And finally, multi-carrier itineraries are easily booked via OTAs whereas most airline websites are unable to handle that.

  2. One major problem booking on an airline’s website when its from Asian and Middle-Eastern countries is that you MUST have the credit card you bought the flight with you. They can and often do check the credit card and will deny boarding if you don’t have it. This is a problem if you’re into churning and don’t remember which card was used for what purchase 6 months ago when you were trying to do some minimum spend.

    With OTAs its not an issue since they collect payment from OTA.

  3. Domestic stuff? Never. Overseas? When i can’t book through the airline’s site directly. But keep in mind that for some overseas airlines, you’ll pay a hell of a vig using the OTA than you will the airline’s own site.

    But really, I swore off OTA’s a few years ago when I had to change a ticket and had to pay Orbitz an extra $30 on top of the airline’s fee. Where was the value add for that? Since then, I haven’t looked back.

  4. Some airlines like Ryan Air and Iberia charge a fee for making purchases directly on their site using a credit card. That’s the only time I’ll use an OTA, though admittedly I don’t do much travel that doesn’t touch US soil each year (probably under 10 flights).

  5. I’ve been doing a lot of research with Momondo, and found some really cheap flights with OTAs (about $600 cheaper than what I find from the airlines directly). However, they don’t say what the fare code is so I am not sure if they are eligible for things like GUCs from Delta (I definitely don’t want to be buying Basic seats! :P).

  6. Used to book all of my flights through Expedia. Its been several years since I’ve even looked at their site. I’ve booked international travel with zero issues directly with the airline and also with the hotels, even one off properties without chains. If you feel you need an extra layer of protection with the travel agency, book through them for that. A lot of the airlines now offer tickets with changes allowed for an extra fee when booking.

  7. stopped using OTAs given the time and effort to get refunds on refundable tickets. Going through airline’s own sites is just a better experience end to end (assuming they are the most known airlines like BA, Cathay etc)
    Although you’re not addressing this in the post, the only time recently I went ‘off piste’ was to book a ticket from ITA matrix, getting a JJ ticket on BA Metal Sao Paulo return in J – half the price of a BA-issued ticket.

  8. to clarify the above – booking a fare from ITA matrix, but using an over the phone agent at Trailfinders.

  9. I travel a huge amount for business by air and am the top tier loyalty qualifier. I never use the airline site nor an OTA. It is simple, I ask and answer one question. How much money would I be willing to spend when everything has gone wrong with a reservation or connection and it is 2:00 in the morning to have a caring voice on the other end of a line 24/7 who will fix it. That amount is much larger than what I pay my travel agent for the 50 reservations a year she makes for me. And it is not a question of if it will go to hell in a handbasket, it is only, when, how severe and how many times in a year.

    When someone asks me about why I spend an extra $40 on a reservation when I don’t have to? I ask them the question. They get it.

  10. Never, with one exception (the DAL sale to Singapore the other week due to pricing). Having worked for and with actual travel agencies (in the past 6 years), the biggest issue is two fold – the one you mentioned directly (issues with airline day of and getting run-around) and the other that was touched on…although these OTAs are indeed travel agencies (which people forget), they do not have travel AGENTS. So issue resolution goes back to point one – no one to help, as even if they could/would, they wouldn’t often know the intricacies.

    As always though – day of should be owned by the airline. That said, I’ve seen and heard of plenty of cases where reservations made throughout those OTAs have been lost/no record on day of travel (always keep printed copies, though that doesn’t always do the trick). Most people also aren’t aware that they often by blocks of airline seats, such as a consolidator. On the surface this can be good for pricing, though can also add in complexity to issues.

    Given the 24-hr cancellation rule, and various contract rules that change (your not as protected buying the ticket through an OTA than you are an actual agent or directly, if there is a ticketing difference, i.e. consolidator style ticket that you wouldn’t know was issued), there is rarely a good reason. Plus, often the service fee adds an unnecessary extra.

  11. For US airlines, always directly. But I’ve found that some foreign carriers have websites that can’t price *slightly* complicated itineraries whereas Expedia can. For example, an open jaw Premium Economy ticket on JL.

  12. “That way I can select my Main Cabin Extra seats at the time of booking, easily scope out my upgrade chances, etc.”

    Haha. No business class for you when paying out of pocket?

  13. Just about the only time I’ve used an OTA for air tickets is when I was buying a Chinese domestic flight. The airline didn’t accept US credit cards, so I used Ctrip. It worked fine, but ever since then, Ctrip has been sending me spam with no way to opt out. So I have blacklisted them, and I would use an alternative way to book (if it exists) if I ever go to China again.

    Otherwise, my itineraries have just not been complicated enough to require an OTA, and using even foreign airlines’ websites has worked fine.

  14. I used to book air and hotels completely through Egencia, the corporate travel edition of Expedia. We were required to book this way so all our travel was easier to track for payments on one card, etc. I always booked on UA for flights, domestic and international, and never had an issue working through flight changes or delay changes. Hyatt also offered a rate that gave points as well so I was moved from Hilton to Hyatt due to the ability to accumulate points. But Egencia never had the same rates that were available from UA directly. On international trips, I would find the upgrade W class on UA and then call Egencia to book the specific flights under the W class. Such a pain but the only way to get my upgrades to work on international flights. On domestic, I would find the flights I wanted, see if I could find them on Egencia and if not call and request the specific flights. If it was a higher fare class, I didn’t care since the company was putting me out to do all the extra work for their benefit. My expenses probably increased about 30% over the course of the year by being forced to use Egencia. When I booked directly online with the carrier or hotel, I spent like it was coming out of my pocket. When the company became less willing to budge off the required use, I could have cared less.

  15. Haven’t used an OTA for air in at least 12 years. Have used them for booking apartments in Europe recently.

  16. Most important no matter who you book with is knowing, and understanding the Ticket CODE it is written in. Such as I bought some ‘code-share’ tickets Miami to Copenhagen Economy Class thru AMEX web-site (and was offered same tickets by AMEX travel service for extra fee) and discovered to my dismay that they were coded as “K” class, which entitled me to absolutely NO United MILEAGE CREDIT of any kind!!!! I USED to be a United loyalist, but no more. It was a ‘code-share’ UNITED Flight flown by Lufthansa. Frankly, I could have purchased same tickets on other airline at LOWER PRICES – so much for being loyal to an airline who does not care about you.

  17. Hiow would i find out what the different codes for seats are?

    Also are these codes universal for all airlines?

    I do book via OTAs, for the cost saving. But, i have 2 Asia to US trips coming up in Korean Air biz class and would like to know if i am getting the miles. The saving per ticket compared to booking directly with KA was aprox $150.

  18. @Gordon was spot on. I always use my travel consultant to book flights and hotels. As Gordon said, when something goes wrong I have someone to call, no matter the time, to get the problem resolved quickly and competently. Having that peace of mind and personal touch is worth my travel consultant’s fee.

    Never. Never. Never would I ever consider using an OTA.

  19. The only reason to book with a OTA is if I find a really really good air+hotel bundle deal. Otherwise its not worth it if you encounter problems in particular with the airfare. I once booked a flight on UA. Except it was operated by air canada and with the awful air canada rouge. I should have paid more attention when booking but it didn’t happen. I couldn’t select a seat. UA won’t help and instead tells you to work with air canada since UA is not operating the flight. Air canada doesn’t show the reservation in their system because the reservation # is a UA confirmation. Even calling in and speaking to someone they couldn’t pull up the reservation and told me it won’t show up on their system until 24 hours before the flight. I was traveling with 2 elderly people and wanted to make sure we sat together. And then as for hotel, it never seems to be cheaper with the OTA. Even if the price is similar I always find the hotel themselves will either offer breakfast or give you a better choice of rooms that doesn’t show up with the OTA. And then there is always the cancellation policy which can range from “hell no you’re not cancelling” to you must cancel within 24 hours, 72 hours 105.237 hours (I later found out that some sites that match lowest prices will reject the match because they offered x days cancellation while the cheaper one shows x + 1 day so it wasn’t considered the same thing. sneaky bastards). And then there is always the was the tax included, how about vat, how about resort fees. So cheapest is not always cheapest.

  20. @Gordon is 100% correct. When I started at my job I couldn’t figure out why we used a travel agent, now I’m not sure why more people don’t, they are a godsend! It’s basically a $40 insurance policy on a flight that ensures someone will take amazing care of you when all hell breaks loose, and they always do!

  21. In 2006, bad experience with Orbitz telephone customer service (useless — just as article stated) so never used an OTA again. I got the memory of an elephant. Never.

    Do like travel consultants who can plan an entire global itinerary for several people, it’s worth the extra cost to have human expertise. However, once my family showed up at Fukuoka airport in Japan to take a Cathay flight to Hong Kong and the airline said the reservation didn’t exist even though we had the tickets in our hands. Calls back to the travel agent were fruitless. Luckily JAL honored the tickets. So, still thinking that direct booking with the airline is best after all these travel years…

  22. It is definately woth comparing both the airline website and OTA, because sometimes the booking classes on offer can differ. That can make for price differences of hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars, if you are OK with the conditions of the respective booking class.

  23. I recently went to Russia and booked separate flights, among others, on Air Moldova, Yamal and UTair. On neither of those I was able to buy tickets directly on the respective airline’s website, even though I tried multiple times. In the end I had to buy an Air Moldova operated flight as a S7 codeshare, Yamal via a OTA and UTair’s website finally worked after several days of trying.

    So for cases like this I would buy via a OTA, for normal websites and airlines I would buy through the airline.

  24. “they always allow you to get a refund within 24 hours.”

    While that may be true for the Big 3, the DOT rule does not apply to travel agents / OTAs period. Buyer beware.

  25. I was recently booked on a business trip by my company using a Expedia on a six leg itinerary that included AA DL and UA. No only was it faster and easier to call each airline directly to get confirmation numbers after Expedia refused to give them to me since I didn’t have the cell phone number of the person who booked the ticket, it would have been cheaper for me to book directly with AA and be done with it. OTAs aren’t worth the hassle!

  26. Sean and N, the requirement to show your credit card when boarding is not universal. Some people travel on tickets booked on someone else’s card, who didn’t use a card to pay at all. So exceptions can be made.

  27. @ Ben — So, using the OTA close to departure gives a backddor way of checking for immediately upgradable space?

  28. I generally book through airline directly as if there is a problem I find you are better off having bought direct as the airline will be far more helpful

  29. I’m a double, and sometimes triple checker.

    I check an aggregator first (ITA or even Kayak) then take the cheapest fares and visit the airline site directly to compare. Some airline sites guarantee the lowest fare when booking directly but its often by as little as $3, but I have saved substantially more on long haul business class. Some aggregators pull results from the major OTA’s as well as directly from the airlines so it saves some searching. I.E. you dont have to visit Orbitz, Expedia, Priceline, etc, and enter the airports/dates/times/etc you can search them all at one time.

  30. I usually book direct with the airline but recently booked a simple return trip in business class with Expedia because Thai Airways’ own website didn’t display the cheaper J fare which I found on Skyscanner, which was half the price.
    Thai then retimed the flights so that I had a whole extra day in BKK and Expedia contacted me but were no use in helping me get a different flight that arrived and departed on the day I actually intended to travel. What’s more, the English level of the staff member was shocking (usually their Indian call centre is fine. I live in HKG and from the accent I’m not sure if it was a local employee or Malaysian/Singaporean Chinese, but their communication abilities weren’t good enough to make me confident to agree to anything). Tried to call Thai to find out what the hell was going on but was told to call Expedia.
    All sorted now but I would only book with an OTA if the fare wasn’t available through the airline.

  31. I have found some OTAs very helpful and use them often. I use them to ensure my domestic and international connections are all on one ticket, as some international airlines will not do this (Ethiopian and most recently to book a star alliance trip). I have also used OTA to book international travel on a site that I know and a site that will charge me in US $. This will avoid additional fees, suspicion by my credit card, and I will get points with the site even if I’m flying an airline that I’m not a ff of.
    Some OTAs have great customer service – Expedia and Orbitz have been really good – while others have been horrible – Priceline.

  32. I am looking for a fool proof and easy cancellation guarantee from a us based Ota, for a cancellation made within 24 hours. The details would look like this

    1. From Bangkok or Cambodia, so flight would not be on a us based carrier

    2. Would be booking one way ticket from Asia to the United States, ten days from time of booking. Would be for my whole family so could be four people or seven people .

    3. Would very very likely be cancelling three hours later or possibly 15 hours later.
    Imagine ticket not even ticketed yet — is that an issue.

    4. Would like some instant form of confirmation of the cancellation — perhaps a cancellation code or an instant email — too much experience with the Expedia group that what agent x tells you — they do not actually do so, or make notes of promises etc.

    5. Better yet, an airline which allows cancellation within 24 hours — will any us based carriers still be flying to Bangkok In a few months? If one books say Japan airlines on aa.com does one get 24 hour cancellation?

    Thank you

  33. I have three experiences with OTAs.

    1. I needed to get to Tampa for work a couple of years back. Nothing was working for me fare wise. I found a Delta flight on Hotwire that credited miles 100% for $75 cheaper than what I could find anywhere else. Good experience.

    2. I needed to go to Egypt. I booked through American Express as they had a good hotel and airfare rate. But Air France booked me on an Air France fare class between Paris and Cairo that didn’t earn any miles with Delta. Not a good experience.

    3. I found a good 4-star hotel in Saipan through Expedia. It was a three-week stay–so a lot of money. A hurricane hit the Northern Marianas before my visit. The hotel canceled my Expedia reservation, although the hotel and others remained open. Expedia was totally useless. They sent me emails saying to call them but they never called me back. It was horrible. In the end, it took weeks to get my money back from Expedia. No apologizes whatsoever from them. They didn’t even offer a discount to re-book me a hotel in a new destination.

    What I don’t understand is the fixation some have with physical travel agents. What can an actual travel agent do for me that I or Lucky can’t do for ourselves? I just don’t see what a 55-year-old lady in Skokie, Illinois, can do for me that the agent working Delta’s diamond desk can’t do?

  34. Had to use OTA as i have booked flight from SJC and ATL with American, if i use aa.com the price goes through the roof when it checks for my nationality, SJC – ATL at aa.com first class 1000$ and ATL – PHL 500$, with justfly 500$ and 200$ but they also ask if you want to pay to reserve a seat, they should be more honest as its free on aa.com

    I guess aa has REALY differentiated prices for foreigners.

  35. I’ll use OTA to give me a good idea of what airline is cheapest/has the best times and routing and then I go the airline’s direct website.

  36. I certainly use OTAs to shop around, but generally only use them to actually book if I am looking for some sort of package.

  37. OTAs are worth double checking just to see if you can get a flight substantially cheaper (ITA is actually the best for that, though you cannot book from them), but nowadays most airline websites will show the same flights and prices. I stopped using Orbitz after booking a codeshare that I could not seem to get on the airline’s website. I needed to make a change consistent with the contract of carriage and restrictions on changes and was willing to pay the change fee (a couple of hundred dollars), but neither Orbitz nor the airline would make the change, each blaming it on the other. I spent hours on the phone. Finally, I filed complaints with the BBB, the credit card and the DOT and just laid out the facts and what I was trying to do. That began numerous email exchanges, and interestingly, the DOT did get involved – I think it may have been because the airline representative said something in an email to me that was simply untrue and that may have peaked their interest. Anyway, out of the blue the airline just refunded me the whole amount, no change fee. I am sure it was to out of DOT scrutiny. I then turned around and re-booked the flight on the same airline, one day change, on their website for about the same amount.

    As noted above there may be some obscure situations where there may be some advantage in booking OTA (some may have different cancellation rules, for example), but for the average flyer on major airlines, I don’t think they should ever use them unless they really, really have to. And if you have to make a change to your ticket, you will find out why.

  38. When do I use an OTA? Never.

    Overwhelmingly, my air travel (30+ flight segments so far) is domestic, and I book directly with the carrier. This year, I’ve flown one trans-Atlantic round-trip and one round-trip within the EU. These, too, were booked directly.

    Were I traveling farther afield, however, and on more “minor” carriers, I’d opt for a travel agent.

  39. it’s definitely worth checking both. When I flew to Japan last year some special sale fares were only available on Orbitz (and apparently some other travel agents). It was several hundred cheaper to book on Orbitz than even booking directly through Air Canada.

  40. @Lucky, do you earn Elite/Premier/Medallion Qualifying Dollars when booking through an OTA? Correct me if I am wrong, but I was under the impression that, with the exception of American, you needed to book directly with the airline to earn the %QDs.

    Thanks,
    Intrepid

  41. @Intrepid second section:

    “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. ”

    When i booked with justfly i could chose United and use the Star Alliance or AA with Oneworld

  42. @MAKP,

    I think Lucky was referring only to redeemable miles. My question relates to EQDs/PQDs/MQDs and, I suppose, EQMs/PQMs/MQMs too.

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