Should I book a flight through an online travel agency (OTA)?

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Travel and the internet are made for each other. The World Wide Web connects billions of travelers to millions of suppliers of airline seats, hotel beds, and rental cars, making it effortless to evaluate options and make reservations.

Some online travel agents (OTAs) may offer great deals that are not available directly from the supplier, especially for long-haul flights.

Conversely, however, Internet users may be unexpectedly redirected to intermediaries who are not interested in providing a decent service. Once online travel agents have your money, they’re usually unwilling to give it back when things go wrong.

Here’s everything you need to know to help you make an informed choice for your next trip.

What is an online travel agency?

A web-based intermediary that can deliver cost savings and convenience to travellers, and provides suppliers – including airlines, hotels, cruise lines and car rental companies – with broader access to consumers.

Many travelers praise companies such as Travel Republic and Expedia for offering good value and reasonable customer service. But others appear to be nothing more than get-rich-quick schemes that rely on travelers’ gullibility – and are responsible for more complaints to the travel bureau of The Independent than any other part of the industry.

They usually acquire customers through paid online leads. When I typed ‘easyJet flights’ into a search engine, the first two hits were both paid advertisements from online travel agents. The first came from Kiwi.com, based in the Czech Republic; the second from Bravofly.com, a Swiss company.

“Cheap Ryanair flights”? This will lead to a paid ad from Esky.co.uk, whose web address might lead you fondly to imagine that it is a British company. In fact, the company is based in Katowice, in southern Poland.

“We are the travel planning experts,” says Esky.co.uk. “Let us plan the perfect trip for you!”

No thanks. What each of these companies have in common is that they are offshore online travel agents who consider spending money on internet advertisements well spent as it diverts travelers from the official websites of Airlines companies.

I can access all of these products myself online. What do OTAs have to offer that I can’t find directly?

Because they can offer suppliers large volumes of business, online travel agents can often negotiate lower rates and pass some of these savings on to travelers. Additionally, many airlines like to use an intermediary to provide another sales channel.

Carriers want to be relevant in the extremely fare-sensitive part of the market. A good way to achieve this, without “cannibalizing” direct bookings, is to offer extremely low rates through an OTA. Especially for long-haul flights, the cheapest tickets are often found through these agents.

An example?

On my trip to North America last month, I flew on Aer Lingus – but bought the ticket through Trip.com (based in Shanghai). By the time I booked the Dublin to Chicago flight, the difference between what the airline was charging direct (nearly £700) and the fare quoted by the online agent (£450) was so great that I took the agent’s route. Saving 35% on what is an expensive and boring eight hour flight was a reasonable decision.

On my way home, however, I wanted to fly from Winnipeg via Toronto to London Heathrow. Air Canada’s direct fare for the return journey from Winnipeg was £626 – and the best deal offered by an OTA at just £25 less. I booked direct as I think a saving of only 4% did not justify the potential inconveniences of booking a flight through an online agent.

What could go wrong booking through an OTA?

Where to start? While the base airfare may be lower than airline offers, “ancillary” products, from checked bags to seat assignments, may be priced at an absurd markup.

Europe’s biggest low-cost airline, Ryanair, says some online travel agents are increasing baggage fees by 60% and seats by 130%.

Chief Executive Michael O’Leary gave the example of a €10 seat allocation fee at Ryanair.com which became €22 via Kiwi.com and €24 on eDreams (based in Barcelona). He said: “We are again appealing to the CMA [Competition and Markets Authority] to act and put an end to these anti-consumer practices.

After booking, if something goes wrong, from a canceled flight to a misspelled name, resolving the issue can become difficult and/or costly to resolve if an agent is involved.

In 2016, an elderly couple who bought budget flights online via CheapOair.co.uk for £143 each were charged an additional £2,000 – seven times the original fares – for changing their dates twice. flight.

I’ve lost count of how many upset travelers are still waiting for a refund for early Covid pandemic cancellations because they booked through OTAs. This includes me, still owed hundreds of pounds by Lastminute.com (based in Switzerland).

The airline says (correctly) that the passenger’s contract is with the agent and they cannot deal directly. The OTA usually says, “We’re still waiting for a response from the airline.” And the traveler remains in a stressful financial vacuum, until he finally gives up.

Are OTAs allowed to behave like this?

Obviously, they believe they can behave as they see fit with impunity. Of course, most of the time they write in fine print which is overwhelmingly against the consumer.

For example, between London and Singapore on Qantas, departing October 1 and returning two weeks later, Qantas is offering a fare of £1,125. On the same flights, TravelUp will sell you a ticket for £957, a saving of £168, or 15% off the price when you book direct. Many people will consider it worth grabbing.

But suppose there is a misspelling of your name. TravelUp insists: “It is not possible to change the name on a plane ticket. The ticket will have to be canceled and a new ticket will have to be issued.

It does not make sense. Qantas, for example, will allow reasonable changes (maiden name to married name or vice versa, up to three misspelled characters, etc.) and even if the ticket has been issued, only a modest fee will be charged.

What’s the alternative – just pay a fortune?

No. Contact a good human travel agent. They also have access to discounted offers and can often offer them for almost no premium compared to OTAs. So it’s always worth calling Trailfinders and DialAFlight, or asking a local travel professional, to see what they can offer. It’s always best to deal with a human travel agent: they’ll be on your side if things go wrong.


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