Online travel agencies (OTA) desperately want — and need — you to book your travel through them. It’s their bread and butter, and they’re willing to package everything from hotel rooms to rental cars to restaurant reservations on top of flights in order to lure you in. When it comes to flights, you can even count on earning those rewards miles when booking via an OTA. But, is it better to book flights directly with the airline?
Airlines, of course, would prefer you to book directly through them. For you to do just that, certain airlines have made it much harder to buy flights on OTAs, primarily by not allowing the websites permission to display the price for their fares.
Though OTAs dominated the airfare-booking business for quite a few years with promises of the cheapest fares imaginable, the trend has been moving towards booking directly with the airlines.
Are airlines blocking flyers from claiming points when they book through an online travel agency?
No. In terms of actually collecting miles, you can book through whatever OTA you want and rack up those points in the process. However, each OTA (and some are owned by the same company) operates very differently. The only instance where you can’t earn reward points when booking with an OTA is when buying pre-packaged vacations, such as all-inclusive cruises and tours.
That said, while you can, in fact, earn miles from the airline while booking through a third party site, you can only use those frequent flyer points to purchase a ticket off of the airline’s direct site or an affiliate. So, when it comes time to redeem, booking through the airline is more beneficial.
Cost and convenience
When it comes down to it, booking directly through the airline is almost always more convenient. If the price changes after you buy your ticket, many airlines will get you the difference back. Southwest, for example, refunds the difference directly to you or applies it as credit towards future airfare. Expedia and Travelocity both offer a Price Match Guarantee, but only if you find the lower fare within 24 hours of booking.
On top of ease and affordability, there are many other reasons that make it worth your while to book directly with the airline. Sometimes, you might find a lower last-minute fare on an OTA, or occasionally, you may find a glitch in the system offering an outrageously low fare, but the best deals are almost always found when you book directly through an airline’s website. That said, here a few things to keep in mind:
- Airlines sometimes offer special perks when you book directly through them, particularly if you belong to their rewards program. Loyal customers who book through the airline’s website might get extra miles, free wifi, food and drink credits, airport lounge access, or priority boarding. If you have their credit card, you might earn benefits, such as statement credits or cash back when using the card to book directly through the airline’s website.
- When booking through an OTA, you might not be able to choose your seat until check-in. Also, the best seats will be prioritized for customers who are loyalty members with the airline and book directly through the airline.
- Some airlines — such as Lufthansa — impose surcharges when booking on an OTA, in an attempt to have more flyers book directly through their site.
- When you book directly on an airline’s website you have more leverage when it comes to delays, booking changes, and cancellations. If you call the airline after having booked through an OTA, there’s a chance you’ll be directed back to the OTA when service can be subpar and confusing. In some cases, you’re directed back and forth between airline and OTA. Problem-solving when communicating directly with the airline is a lot easier.
- Many airlines have a ‘best rate guarantee’ or ‘lowest price guarantee’. This may not take the fares of other airlines into consideration, but it’s still a great perk, particularly if you’re a member of their mileage program. Some airlines will gap the difference and also provide a travel voucher.
- Airlines sometimes offer discount codes so you’ll be more inclined to book directly with them. These codes won’t be useful on OTAs.
When to book through an online travel agency
There are certain situations where booking through an OTA is beneficial. If you’re trying to book a complicated itinerary with multiple flight combinations, an OTA may be the way to go. One airline may not offer certain route combinations that are available on an OTA, particularly for multi-stop international trips. It’s also convenient when trying to book flight and hotel combinations. In specific scenarios, such as during major storms, customer service may be more accessible with OTAs.
If you have a travel rewards credit card such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Capital One Venture, booking through an OTA allows you to pay for your flight and earn points on the card, and also earn miles through the airline rewards program when you actually fly. You can, of course, pay with that same card when booking directly through the airline if you don’t have their airline-specific credit card. But OTAs today often offer comprehensive rewards programs in order to compete with the airlines. Orbitz, for example, has a program where it offers back 1% on flights, and its rewards point system is pretty easy to understand — 1 Orbuck equals $1.00 USD.
All the OTA programs vary in what they offer and how valuable and useful the rewards actually are. Some also offer great email notifications of price changes, which can be helpful when shopping around. Hopper tracks flight prices for you and notifies you when they are at their lowest-expected price, which is something you definitely aren’t going to find from airlines. If you are booking with an OTA, consider first using an aggregator such as Google Flights, Skyscanner, Kayak, or Momondo, which also compare fares from OTAs.