My first travel adventure was to Venezuela. I booked the ticket with a travel agent over a pay phone. The agent searched a dozen flight itineraries over a few days, all so I could save $15.
Times have changed. Today, flight searches start online, often on your mobile device. Passengers book either directly with the airline or hotel or with online travel agencies. Rarely do we get on the phone. In fact, American Airlines and United Airlines charge $25 to make a domestic flight booking by phone. And pay phones hardly exist anymore.
So, what is the best way to book online? Here is our complete guide to online travel agencies, search tools, and the variety of booking options available on both mobile devices and desktops.
What is an OTA?
An online travel agency, or OTA, is a website or mobile app that allows users to search for and book travel services such as flights, hotels, car rentals, cruises, and activities. The booking is made directly with the online travel agency but confirmed by the service provider, such as an airline or a hotel. As a customer, your relationship is with the OTA.
What are the main OTAs?
Many online travel agencies nowadays are owned by two main companies: Expedia and Priceline. The Expedia Group is the largest online travel agency in the United States with 70 percent market share, according to travel data firm Phocuswright. Expedia Group operates Expedia.com, Orbitz, Hotels.com, Trivago, CheapTickets, Hotwire, Vrbo, and Travelocity.
Priceline is a major competitor to Expedia, with global revenues larger than the Expedia Group. The company owns Priceline.com, Booking.com, Cheapflights, Momondo, and Kayak—the latter two being metasearch engines (more on that below).
There are also independent newcomers such as Hopper (a mobile-only booking tool) and Kiwi.com (which allows you to book flights on air carriers that don’t normally have a commercial relationship).
Are OTA fares lower than booking directly?
Generally, no. The fares that are displayed by an OTA will be similar if not slightly more expensive when compared to an airline’s website. They’re usually only a few dollars higher or lower. The OTAs charge a booking fee to the airlines, and often that fee is passed directly to consumers. For example, Lufthansa tacks on an additional $18 to any booking made through an OTA for Lufthansa flights. The same flights are exactly $18 cheaper on the airline’s website.
Where you can score a good travel deal through an OTA is when booking a last-minute hotel and flight package. Many OTAs have cut agreements with airlines allowing last-minute travelers to access lower rates than are typically available when passengers book a flight alone.
Are all airlines available to be booked through OTAs?
No. Many OTAs do not display flights from some of the low-fare leaders. For example, Southwest and Allegiant flights are not available through OTAs; the same goes for Ryanair in Europe. And, earlier this year United Airlines threatened to pull out of Expedia altogether, only recently signing a multi-year agreement to stay in. The airlines would rather not lose any margin to online travel agencies in an already low-margin industry and would rather maintain a direct relationship with the customer.
Are smaller OTAs safe to use?
Expedia and Priceline are the two largest players in the online booking space, but there are dozens of independent OTAs, such as CheapOAir, OneTravel, JustFly, and SmartFares. Confusingly, you might actually stumble on ads for these OTAs while using Expedia or Priceline sites. That’s because the larger OTAs earn revenue through advertising, sending passengers to smaller OTAs and charging those OTAs for the favor.
Buyer beware: some of these lesser-known OTAs are masters at hidden fees. For example, a flight search on JetBlue allows for free seat selection in many instances. If you perform the same search on FlightNetwork, an independent OTA, and select a seat, you will be charged an additional $25—despite the fact that JetBlue doesn’t charge a seat selection fee if you book directly.
What if you need to change your itinerary?
Itinerary changes are often a pain. If your plans change, it won’t matter whether you’ve booked directly with an airline or with an OTA—you’re going to pay fees for the privilege, if you can even change your ticket at all.
For example, CheapTickets.com, which is part of the Expedia Group, charges $25 to change or cancel a ticket if that change is requested after 24 hours of making the booking—it is free if you do so within 24 hours of booking. However, the fees go up from there. JustFly, an independent OTA, charges a $75 fee for changes to domestic flights in addition to airline change fees, plus the difference in fare, for tickets that can be changed. For an international trip, the fee rises to $200. That means to change an international flight with Delta (which charges a $100 change fee) booked through JustFly, you’ll be assessed $300 in fees, plus the difference in fare. At that rate, you may as well book a new flight. FlightNetwork indicates in its terms of service that changes may incur a change fee but doesn’t specify what those fees are. That hardly makes the few dollars you saved by booking with the OTA in the first place worth it.
What is an OTA price match policy?
To assure travelers that they are getting the lowest fare possible, many OTAs have a price match policy. The rules vary and so do the benefits.
For example, if you book with Orbitz and find a less expensive flight, car rental, or activity on any U.S.-based website within 24 hours of your booking, Orbitz will refund you the difference you paid. And it works: I have personally found a flight in the same class, on the same airline, for the same origin and destination cities, and requested Orbitz to refund the difference of around $35. Within a few weeks, I received a check in the mail. A similar program applies for CheapOAir, but there’s a catch—the price difference must be found on a major OTA such as Expedia or Travelocity.
Expedia has a particularly good price match policy, but you have to pay extra for it at the time of booking. Expedia offers the price match option as an add-on that costs between $5 and $30 when you book. With the price match applied, if the airfare on Expedia drops between 120 days of the flight and up to six hours before the flight, Expedia will automatically refund you the difference in fare. Unfortunately, fares generally do not drop substantially as the travel date approaches, so while this might give you peace of mind, it’s probably not worth the expense.
How do Google Flights and other travel metasearch engines work?
Frequent fliers are likely familiar with websites such as Google Flights, Kayak, Momondo, or Skyscanner. On these websites, passengers search on the site but are redirected to the service provider to complete the booking, such as an airline, rental car company, or hotel.
Metasearch started with a product called ITA Matrix, which is a tool for searching airfares online but not for actually booking online. ITA Matrix allows for multi-city searching, such as setting two different departure or arrival airports, and for offering a calendar view of fares for easier comparison. That company was acquired by Google in 2011, and savvy travelers swear by it to help find the least expensive fares online. Most consumers are more familiar with Google Flights, which has gained traction more recently not least because it has the benefit of being displayed first in search results on Google.
Metasearch engines receive distribution fees from the airlines for sending traffic to the supplier websites. There are no additional hidden fees for using a metasearch engine because you’re booking directly with the airline or hotel.
A major benefit of the metasearch engines is their price tracking tool, which lets users know whether the displayed fares are low, average, or high for the flight, allowing travelers to make a more informed decision on whether to book a flight or not. Google Flights and Kayak, for instance, both have price tracking tools.
Why not just book directly?
The airlines would definitely much rather you book directly with them. Over the past five years, they have gotten much better at marketing and selling their product directly to consumers online and through mobile sites and apps. But in the past, they weren’t so good at it. In fact, Delta, Northwest, United, American, and Continental got together to invest $145 million to launch Orbitz in 1999 to counter the threat from Expedia. Now Orbitz is owned by Expedia.
The airlines also try to encourage customers to book directly so that they can maintain a closer relationship with them. It allows carriers to connect bookings with loyalty programs and create special offers and discounts catered to individual passengers.
There is another benefit to booking directly. The U.S. Department of Transportation requires carriers to hold a reservation at the quoted fare for 24 hours without payment or allow a reservation to be cancelled within 24 hours without penalty, so long as the booking is made at least seven days before travel. The law applies, however, only to U.S. and foreign air carriers that have websites marketed to U.S. consumers. This means that, in theory, an online travel agency does not have to offer such a policy, although most OTAs do.
What are the options for booking on your mobile device?
Airlines and the major OTAs all have apps to help you book and manage your trip on your mobile device, but their functionality is lacking compared to these websites’ desktop editions. For example, Expedia’s app doesn’t allow you to view flights on a month-view calendar. Kayak has an app with more bells and whistles and a better user interface, including a month-view calendar with color-coded pricing. It also has a handy “augmented reality” function to help you see if your carry-on bag will fit in the overhead bin (a feature originally developed by KLM). Point your phone’s camera at the luggage, and it’ll give you the dimensions.
While apps are improving and gaining in popularity, you still might find it easier to locate the best deals on flights and hotels by using your desktop, where you can have multiple tabs open and have all the available search tools at your disposal. Apps are fine for booking directly with an airline once you know which flights you want to book.
If you’re determined to use your mobile device, you may want to look into Hopper. Hopper is a mobile-first flight booking tool that has a solid price prediction tool. You can research travel options and book directly on the app. Another benefit of Hopper: Of its team of 300 employees, nearly half are dedicated to customer support and are based in Canada versus some OTAs and airlines that outsource much of their customer service further afield.
The bottom line?
Like many travelers, I enjoy a flight deal as much as the next person, but I also don’t like any added hassle. I typically start my travel searches using the ITA Matrix or Google Flights to get a general sense of the fares. It helps to know what is a good deal and what is expensive for a particular route. I do my research, typically on a desktop computer. When I’m ready to book, I’ll book directly with the airline. I’ve found that customer service is better when booking directly with the service provider. But I’ve also saved money by using OTAs and have booked with them, too. Whichever way you choose to book, you can be safe in the knowledge that finding and purchasing travel online is a lot easier today than searching for a deal with a travel agent on a pay phone.