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Online travel agencies make it easy to search a wide variety of airfare and hotel options, but what you get in convenience you lose in benefits and protections. As TPG Contributor Akash Gupta explains, it’s almost always smarter to book directly with the travel provider.
Over the past few years, airlines and hotels have been endeavoring to cut online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia and Priceline from the booking process in an effort to bolster profits. But putting aside the interests of travel brands, are there any tangible advantages to booking directly with the service provider? You bet there are! By booking direct, you enjoy some distinct advantages. Here are seven of them:
1. You’re usually guaranteed to get the lowest price available.
I’ve encountered numerous instances when prices quoted by travel integration platforms were much higher than on airlines’ or hotels’ own websites. The most recent example of this was a fare from LAX to DFW on Spirit. Whereas Spirit’s own website displayed just $68 round-trip, OTAs showed prices between $126 and $176 – a difference of at least 85% for the same flights! It’s not surprising to find similar differences in prices for hotel rooms.
Even in cases where you find lower fares or room rates elsewhere, you can simply call the airline or hotel to take advantage of the “best rate guarantee” that’s commonplace nowadays. They’ll either match the price or refund the difference, potentially even throwing in credit vouchers or discount codes for use on future bookings.
2. You have more leverage in case of changes, delays or cancellations.
When the reservation is between customers and businesses, it’s clean and fast because only two parties are involved. Add an OTA with largely horrible customer service, and things get messy in the event of discrepancies, overbookings, delays or cancellations.
If you don’t book directly in such cases, you’ll be pointed to the third party you used instead of being offered straightforward communication, or any sort of remedy and reparation that may be given to customers who booked directly with the hotel or airline. Plus, reservations made through an OTA may not be processed properly, leading to the airlines/hotels and websites passing blame back and forth, all the while leaving you out in the cold.
3. You don’t have to pay additional booking, change or cancellation fees.
Some airlines, like Southwest, don’t even list their fares on OTAs, while others like Lufthansa impose surcharges when you book through an OTA instead of through the carrier’s own booking channel. If you need to alter or cancel your flights, some third parties add a charge of their own on top of the airline’s change fee.
In the case of hotels, the same booking can be non-refundable through an OTA but flexible through the hotel website. If you want to avoid hidden fees or policies, your safest best is to book directly.
4. You can leverage elite benefits and earn loyalty currency.
Though you can almost always add your frequent flyer number to third-party flight bookings and earn miles as long as the fare class is eligible, it’s starkly different for hotels. Most chains — including Hilton, IHG, Marriott and Starwood — will neither award points nor recognize elite status for the stay if you book through any third party.
Sometimes, you can get lucky and have your elite status recognized by adding your loyalty account info afterward via phone or in person, but it’s not guaranteed and is at the discretion of the check-in desk agent. Hyatt is the major exception to this rule; your elite status will be recognized no matter how you book. However, you still won’t earn any points or credits for the nights.
5. You get better seat and room assignments.
OTAs agree to communicate any seating preferences to airlines, but you may not be able to lock in seat assignments until checking in with the airline. This can be especially inconvenient in case of group or family travel. Room assignments and special requests take a backseat for OTA hotel bookings, too. Based on availability, better rooms will always be prioritized for direct bookers. Honoring any special demands such as connecting doors, a higher floor, one or two beds, etc. will also be at the sole discretion of front-desk employees, who can definitely see the booking source on their computers when you drop that hint about an upgrade.
6. You can take advantage of special deals or amenities.
Time and again, both airlines and hotels offer loyalty bonuses and even additional perks for bookings made straight with them, subject to certain terms. These can range from additional miles or points to free Wi-Fi, food and beverage credits, special packages and more. These deals and benefits encourage you to book directly, since they’re not available through any third party.
7. You can capitalize on co-branded credit card bonuses.
Many co-branded cards like Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard and the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card offer bonuses for bookings made with the respective airline or hotel brand. But if you involve OTAs in the process, not only will you miss out on base and elite points (in case of hotels), but you also forfeit any co-branded credit card multipliers.
The foremost advantage of dealing directly with airlines and hotels is cost and convenience. OTAs are best utilized for integrating options on travel itineraries and nothing more. You can use an OTA to find the best flights and hotels, but your desired bookings should be made directly with the provider.
That said, one instance where booking through third parties might make sense economically is if you’re looking for flight combinations unavailable through a single airline website, and that are too costly to book separately. This can happen when you’re hoping to book a complex international itinerary involving more minor (off the beaten path) destinations. Even so, you need to ensure you have enough connecting time between flights, as OTAs may put together itineraries with tight connections that show up as one booking on paper, but may actually be separate bookings with each airline involved. In such scenarios, any missed connections could end up as your responsibility if you purchased without validating all details or risks involved.
Do you ever book with an OTA vs. directly with an airline or hotel?
Know before you go.
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