The Pros and Many Cons of Third Party Booking Sites
When I first started Next Departure, I heavily relied on affiliate links from third-party booking sites like FlightHub and CheapOair. I would get a tiny cut if anyone chose to use our link when booking their flight. However, after hearing nightmare stories about how poorly they handled canceled flights during the pandemic, it was clear to me, I have to downscale promoting most third-party booking sites.
What is a third-party booking site?
A third-party booking site or an OTA (online travel agency) is any website where you can book your flight, hotel, cars, and packages that is NOT an airline’s official website. Some of the most common OTAs are Expedia, FlightHub, Priceline, Orbitz, SellOffVacations, iTravel2000, Booking.com, and Hotels.com. Those are the well-known ones in Canada but there’s A LOT more. When searching for the cheapest flights online, there are hundreds of choices when it comes to third-party booking sites.
What is a flight search engine?
Websites like Kayak, Google Flights, Skyscanner & Momondo are flight search engines or aggregators. They search through all the OTAs and airline’s websites and compare prices. It helps a lot to see which sources are showing the best pricing, giving you the option to book with either the airline or an OTA. I use these search engines extensively to find those cheap flights, mistake fares, and unadvertised deals.
Cancellations or Changes
A lot of the OTAs are known to have very frustrating customer service. If you book with an OTA, you will have to go back to them if you need any changes to your booking (date change, canceled flight, etc…) and not the airline.
The agents at these third-party agencies often have little power over any decisions; they might not be empowered to do more than provide basic information. And their wait times? Forget it: They’re notoriously long!
If you booked with an OTA and call the airline for any issues with your booking, the airline might redirect you to the OTA. Then when you contact the OTA, they will place blame on the airline. You may just end up going in circles.
Not to say that airlines have any better customer service, but if there’s an issue, you’ll deal with them and only them.
One of the best reasons why it’s better to book directly with the airline is that they are more likely to honor the price of a mistake/error fare. They’re able to issue your e-tickets instantly whereas an OTA can take up to 24 hours of sending you e-tickets, which will lead to cancellations. For example, Ethiad Airlines honoured a crazy mistake fare flight from New York to Johannesburg for only a $250 roundtrip back in 2015. Air Transat also honoured an error fare from Canada to Europe starting at $110 roundtrip.
Prices & Availability
At times, prices are cheaper with OTAs than they would be if booked on the airline’s website. They can offer special discounts on packaged trips which include both airfare and accommodations together.
Occasionally, you can find flight complexes/combinations using two or more separate airlines on one itinerary that cannot be found on the airline’s website. Booking on OTA gives you the ability to view pricing on all airlines. Often they will show two one-way flights from different airlines (example: Departing with Air Canada, Returning with Westjet) that would, in turn, be priced cheaper than booking a round trip with the same airline.
But does the lower price outweigh all the risks that come with booking with the OTA? I’d have to save at least $100.
Perks & Fees
Booking directly with the airline/hotel and an OTA can come with some perks. Hotels.com offers a free night every 10 nights you book with them. Expedia allows you to earn and redeem TDRewards points. Hotels can give you free upgrades and gift cards when you book direct with them.
The fees are higher when booking with a third party. For example, they might charge you their cancellation/change fee on top of the airline’s cancellation/change fee. They also might charge a booking fee (some of the lesser-known OTA’s) that might only show up on the last page of checkout.
Handling of the COVID pandemic
Poor customer service by both airlines and OTAs is nothing new, but it’s been amplified by the pandemic. Everyone was looking for a refund for their canceled flights and the finger-pointing between the airline and OTAs was now intensified.
In these uncertain times, the flight you book is not set in stone. Airlines are constantly changing flight schedules based on country reopening/closure and increased demand. Weather, crew shortage and airport capacity restrictions can also lead to more flight delays/cancellations. Just look up any Canadian airlines social media
When booking directly with the airline, you’ll still have to deal with potential flight changes and cancellations however you’ll no longer have to deal with the middle man. Also, most airlines are now offering free changes and cancellations even on their most basic fares. Although if you’re changing to a higher priced flight, you’ll have to pay the difference. If the price is lower, you’ll get a travel credit.
When booking your next flight, make sure you’ve done your research by using a flight search engine and comparing prices. Always compare those prices with what’s showing on the airline’s website. On the flight deals I post, I’ll always do that research for you and provide the best possible options.
Here are the scenarios:
- The price doesn’t show up on the airline’s website
- I will direct you to a trusted OTA
- The price shows up on both but it’s slightly cheaper on the OTA
- I will direct you to the airline & trusted OTA
- Price is the same on both
- I will direct you to the airline
I want to make sure I’m providing you with the best service possible which is why I’m moving away from promoting OTAs. I will always encourage you to book directly with the airline as they are just simply much more reliable and less likely to waste your time when any issue arises.